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Gangs on Back Burner at the Homegirl Cafe

Boss, chef and 'mom,' Patty Zarate helps young women find work and a fresh outlook on life.

September 05, 2005|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

A note on the text

Quotations in this story are designated in two ways: Those heard by the writer are enclosed in quotation marks. Those recalled by others in interviews are designated by slashes.

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[Unpublished Note: The italics may not display depending upon the archiving system you are using.]

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On the street, they could be enemies.

One has a tattoo, "Chicana Pride," stitched across her neck. The other holds a knife. They are from different gangs.

The two young women glare at each other. Others notice. No one says a word.

The one with the knife draws it up and brings it down -- into a big, red onion.

All at once, they laugh.

"It's so hot," the tattooed woman says. "My eyes sting."

"Keep going," says the one with the knife. "Gotta keep going. You can do it."

"Can't slow down," a third says. "Lotta people out there."

They might be from different neighborhoods and different gangs, but in this cramped kitchen at the back of a small restaurant just east of downtown Los Angeles, they put fights and guns and jail cells behind them. They make sandwiches, bake cookies, wait tables and run the cash register.

This, they will tell you, is almost a miracle.

"Hard to believe," says Joanna Flores, 18, who has been in and out of jail since she was 12. "If some of the girls here were walking in my neighborhood -- before I knew them, before we came here -- there would be problems. It wouldn't have been good. But it's cool now. Now we're homegirls."

Welcome to the Homegirl Cafe, a 10-table breakfast and lunch spot on a hilltop boulevard in Boyle Heights. In a city teeming with small, quirky, homespun restaurants serving inexpensive food with flavors from different lands, this one stands apart.

There is the food, Mexican with a twist. But it's the help that makes the difference. Where else can your frothy bowl of fideo soup -- noodles, peas and cilantro -- be prepared by a girl from the Lynwood gang, served by a woman from the Maravilla gang and cleared from your table by a smiling mother from the 18th Street gang?

Finally, there is Patty Zarate. She watches over the homegirls, always. She is 47, shy but strong, with short silver hair and keen, roving eyes that hardly miss a thing.

She is from Mexico. Not long ago she was trying to find solid ground in this country and figure out whether her talent for cooking could be turned into something profitable. Now she is the boss, chef, and, in a symbolic way, the mother here. Her new trainees -- girls and young women who have listened to few people in their lives -- listen to her.

She calls almost all of them mija, "my daughter." She prods them with sweetness. "Can we maybe go a little faster with the chopping, mija?" "That's good, mija, that's beautiful." "We're so busy now, mija. Please." "Thank you, mija, much better; you are learning."

Zarate doesn't own the restaurant any longer; that is part of her story. But make no mistake, this is her place. The homegirls would not be here, the yellow-walled cafe that smells of red pepper and roasted garlic would not exist, if not for her dream.

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It began to take hold in the 1980s. Back then, she was fresh from Guadalajara. She had been a stocker at a hardware store, and then she worked as a secretary at Dolores Mission, a Jesuit parish and touchstone in Boyle Heights.

"At first, we only knew one side of Patty," said Father Gregory Boyle, her boss. In a community of what he calls "abrasive personalities," he noticed that she was a confidant to two groups: the new arrivals from Mexico and Central America, and the wayward gang toughs who made the parish streets some of the city's most dangerous.

"She was extraordinary," Boyle said. Maybe she should become a social worker, he thought at the time. "Patty's way with people was absolutely peaceful and respectful.

"Then we found out about the other side of her."

In her spare time, Zarate had started tinkering in her small kitchen at home, at first for her husband and young children. She says she was trying to find herself by discovering something she truly loved to do. Expanding on recipes and techniques she had learned from her mother, she began turning up at the parish with treats.

Her food was far from the fattening tortas, tacos and burritos sold at many of the neighborhood eateries. Her food was algo diferente, something different.

Most of it was Mexican, but much of it was vegetarian. All of it was light and healthy. She used basil, lentils and filo dough. "Japanese mushrooms and tofu," said Romie Armenta, one of the scores of parishioners who grew enchanted with her cooking. "Tofu with mole sauce? We'd never heard of that."

Often, the food became dinner for Boyle and a household of other Jesuit priests. They tasted her cooking and encouraged her to see herself as more than a secretary.

"The question became this," said Father Michael Kennedy. "What would Patty do with this great talent we were learning about?"

For a while, nothing.

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