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Hope and Reality Collide

Despite slayings, group struggles to help gang members change lives

August 08, 2004|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

It was a day after a graffiti-removal worker employed by Homeboy Industries was shot to death while stopped at a traffic light at a Boyle Heights intersection, and six weeks after another graffiti worker was slain by suspected gang members.

But at the 1st Street headquarters of the organization that provides jobs to gang members trying to turn their lives around, there was little sign of mourning Wednesday. A crowd of mostly Latino men and teenagers with shaved heads, several with gang tattoos, went about their work, their efforts punctuated by jokes and laughter.

The workers say that violent death is something they are accustomed to from their years in the gang life and that it could have easily been them shot.

"It is something we deal with every day, even before we came to Homeboy, with our own families, our friends, people we worked with and played ball with," said Richard Moya, 30, a heavily tattooed employee who spent 10 years in prison for crimes he committed while in a Boyle Heights street gang.

For many people, Homeboy Industries, opened 12 years ago by Father Gregory Boyle in this working-class district just east of downtown, represents both a great hope and a sad glimpse into the reality of gangs in Boyle Heights.

Supporters say it marks the neighborhood's best chance of breaking the cycle of gangs and violence.

But the shootings have brought a reappraisal from the community and Father Boyle, who announced Friday he was shutting down the organization's graffiti-removal program because it puts his employees in too much danger.

In an area that the Los Angeles Police Department says has the highest concentration of gangs in the city -- 60 in the 16 square miles covered by the Hollenbeck division -- many believe it's impossible for many workers at Homeboy Industries to get away from their pasts.

"What a lot of the community sees is ... employees still active in gangs," said LAPD Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza. "A lot of them, the only reason they're there, is for community service. But once they're done, nothing's changed. I know that they can change. I've seen it done .... Their attitude is, 'Give me what everyone else has, and then we can talk about it.' "

Police at first said they believed that Miguel Gomez, 34, was killed June 24 because he was painting over the graffiti of gang members. But LAPD Det. Rick Peterson said Friday he believes Gomez was killed by people he knew in his past, perhaps from his gang days.

Detectives said Tuesday's killing of Arturo Casas, who was driving back to a graffiti cleanup when he was shot, was connected to a gang feud in East Los Angeles.

No arrests have been made in either case.

Despite the recent violence, Boyle said he still believes Homeboy Industries is making a difference both in improving the neighborhood and changing the lives of his employees.

"People say, 'They're taking advantage of you,' " Boyle said of the gang members he employs. "I say, 'Not once.' I give my advantage, no one has taken it away from me. I trust my gut on these things."

The killings, if anything, point to the urgent need to help reduce the power of gangs, he said. Casas will be the 129th gang member or former gang member Boyle will have buried.

*

Boyle Heights is one of Los Angeles' oldest neighborhoods, set amid rolling hills east of the Los Angeles River. Before World War II, it was the heart of the city's Jewish community and also included districts populated by Italians and Japanese. Latinos came to dominate the area after the war and now make up 87% of its population.

While gang activity has long been a problem, residents and police say it tells only part of the story. Boyle Heights remains a tight-knit community, with mom-and-pop markets, bakeries, taco stands and hair salons lining the 1st Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue business districts. Tidy Craftsman bungalows lining side streets and several historic cemeteries with their aging headstones stand on the neighborhood's east end.

"It's a little like a Mexican Mayberry RFD," said Pedroza, who has worked in the Hollenbeck station on 1st Street for 20 years. "The hospitality of the people when you walk into a restaurant or their home, or for the most part when you go into a neighborhood, it's a comforting feeling."

Despite a persistent gang problem and periods of explosive violence, many residents speak of growing up and raising their children -- and sending them to college -- in Boyle Heights without ever feeling threatened.

"There's no place I feel safer," Boyle said. "There's a culture, a sense of place and pride here. It's home."

In 1988, Boyle founded Jobs For a Future in the parish community of Dolores Mission as a job referral service. At the time, eight enemy gangs claimed the territory in and around the Pico-Aliso projects, which have since been torn down and rebuilt as mixed-income housing.

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