From the gold crucifixes worn with cool zoot suits in the 1940s to the intricate tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe on some gang members today, religious icons have long formed an integral part of Latino youth culture.
Holy images can be found throughout Southern California, especially where the Latino population is concentrated. Rosaries dangle around a teenage girl's neck. The face of Christ ringed with a crown of thorns is etched on a young man's arm. Mesmerizing murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe blaze throughout the housing projects of East Los Angeles offering spiritual comfort to those within her gaze.
What can those images tell about a gang member's religious upbringing and beliefs? Are religious symbols being distorted to serve as accessories to a life of crime? Or are the images of Jesus and Mary on tattoos and in graffiti being redefined in a contemporary spiritual light?
Father Gregory Boyle of Dolores Mission Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, who runs a neighborhood business employing former gang members, says that he does not believe a lot of thought goes into the religious icons that gang members sport.
He senses that youths simply seek a spiritual comfort not being provided by people around them.
"They have a more complex take on religion that doesn't translate into church attendance," he said. "There's a deep, dark hole inside them. It's not difficult to see they hope protection will come from those images. They are asking, 'Please God, protect me. Somebody, protect me.' "
But Jose M. Lopez, professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach, believes the tattoos and religious rituals of gang members have a more complex level of meaning.
At a recent academic conference on religion and politics, Lopez connected gang members' religious images with the history of religious development in Latin America. Young people reinterpret the icons to suit their time and space, he said.
"The manifestations of religious icons and artifacts found in gang life tell more about youth culture than almost any other single factor," Lopez said.
"These kids are defining their religious inheritance with these images. . . . We're missing the whole picture if we think gang life is just about drugs and violence. Religion is an important aspect of it."
Lopez traces the roots of religious conquest in Latin America back to the indigenous gods of the Aztec and Olmec civilizations. The establishment of Catholicism by Spanish colonialists created a clash of religious beliefs that native people attempted to resolve by incorporating Catholicism and their own beliefs into a single religion, he said. Although the indigenous gods were multiple deities, powerful and vindictive, the European God was gentle and forgiving, conceptualized as either a baby in the arms of the Madonna or a man nailed to a cross. Lopez believes the contradiction between those two images of God caused confusion that runs through Latino culture and still influences the minds of young Latinos today.
"It's our religious heritage, and we're trying to make sense out of it," said Lopez, who has served as an expert witness in several trials because of his knowledge of gangs. "That's how it gets distorted and reinterpreted."
Former gang member Robert Martinez sports a tattoo of Christ on his left arm, a symbol that he says many teenagers use as a form of protection. Most gang members are religious but have only a limited understanding of Catholicism, says Martinez, who is now a member of the Boyle Heights Christian Center. Basic elements are, indeed, embedded in their heritage, but rarely nurtured.
"It's a form of respect. If somebody has Jesus Christ on their arm, nobody is going to mess with him," he said. "We all believe in God, but we never talked about it. Everybody's afraid they're going to die and wants to be ready."
Javier Stauring, the Catholic chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall, sees the conflict in the minds of many of the younger Latinos convicted of crimes. They do not have a complete picture of who God is, he said.
"Most of these kids don't have parents. Their image of God is a punishing God. He's a God who is keeping tabs on them for what they have done," he said. "My feeling is that they need to be angry with him before they form a complete picture of him as loving and forgiving."
Tattoos are seen by some gang members as gestures of faith for which they expect something in return, says Lopez. "It's an offering," said Lopez. "They are telling God, 'Look, I did this for you. Now, you owe me one.' "
Lopez also believes religious rituals are redefined by gang members who might, for example, light a candle so a drive-by shooting will be successful. Some religious leaders may denounce such practices as sacrilegious, but Lopez urges a closer look.
"Is it really distorted?" he asked. "How different is that from a businessman lighting a candle for a successful deal? Or from a soldier saying a prayer before going to war?"
Lopez said he believes churches and religious leaders are missing a great opportunity to use these icons as a vehicle to talk to youths about faith.
Stauring, of Juvenile Hall, has similar concerns. He said young people are caught between a mother who orders them to go to church on Sunday and an institution to which they often can't relate.
"Something has to change. The Catholic Church needs to start opening their doors and designing new activities for these kids," Stauring said. "They need to realize that these are our sons and daughters. They are the church."