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'Homies' are where his art is

The barrio figurines left their creator rich but unfulfilled. Then he cast his brother as a model of mutual redemption.

December 18, 2007|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

HERCULES, CALIF. — Ten years ago, David Gonzales created a hit with "The Homies," 2-inch plastic figurines depicting characters from the barrio, complete with bandannas and baggy pants. Inspired by the homeboys he grew up with, they were sold, quarter by quarter, in gum ball machines in mostly Latino neighborhoods.

Gonzales was lambasted by police and prosecutors, who said the impish images exploited gang life for profit. Naturally, they then sold better than ever: more than 120 million to date.

The 47-year-old Gonzales, now a father of three children in college, lives in an elegant two-story Spanish-style house overlooking San Francisco Bay, just down the road from the flinty central Richmond neighborhood where he grew up.

"I call this house 'the house that the Homies built,' " he said.

Gonzales has been featured in national magazines, including Rolling Stone, and rubbed shoulders with celebrities. His characters have adorned back-to-school folders, lunchboxes, breath mints and beach towels. The Pasadena Museum of California Art is hosting an exhibit on his Homies, and Nintendo will soon release a Homies video game.

Yet there has been a gnawing feeling of unfulfilled goals and unmet expectations. He wanted to hit the big time with an animated TV show -- something that would really leave his imprint. Oil paintings by Gonzales, often with religious themes, hang on the walls of his home -- a reminder that the artist created the toy maker, not the other way around.

He felt harried by a sense that time was slipping away, sounding curiously like someone stuck in his own plastic bubble. Sometimes, he bared his soul to a priest.

But not just any priest.

Gonzales, one of five boys in a family scraping by in a tough neighborhood, grew up intense, artistic and studious. He asked his parents to take him out of a Roman Catholic school and enroll him in a public school because the latter had an art program.

"I knew David was going to be an artist," said his mother, Agnes.

His brother Robert, younger by a year, hung out with a rougher crowd. He got into fights, burglarized homes with his friends and landed in jail. He dropped out of high school.

The brothers were close, but their paths kept diverging. David enrolled at California College of the Arts in Oakland. He drew a comic strip for Lowrider magazine with characters familiar -- for better or worse -- to just about anyone growing up in Mexican American barrios. Robert moved to Nevada to work in the Job Corps.

One day in 1980, David got an urgent call from a hospital in Reno.

Robert and some friends had scuffled with a group of young men on the side of a desert road. Someone had hopped into a car and gunned it in Robert's direction, pinning him between two cars. His right leg had to be amputated below the knee.

When David and their mother reached the hospital, a priest told her that Robert must have been pulled from the grave by a guardian angel. The priest also remarked that Robert was highly spiritual, a comment that surprised his family.

David went back to college and Robert returned to his parents in Richmond. But even in a wheelchair he was rebellious, blowing insurance money on a lowrider and partying harder than ever. He moved out but soon felt lonely, isolated and miserable. He drank a lot.

One day, Robert returned to Richmond and found David in their parents' garage. If anyone could understand him, Robert figured, it would be David.

Robert wept. He told his brother he wanted to come back home. But he felt ashamed. What Robert really seemed to crave, David thought, was forgiveness -- penance.

"The prodigal son spends his riches and comes home. He rejects his parents' love and direction," David said, recalling what he learned in church and Catholic school. "A lot of people screw up in their lives and leave, and their parents slam the door in their face when they come back."

But David knew that would not happen to Robert, even if his brother had doubts. "Just speak to Mom and Dad," he told him. "They'll understand."

So Robert spoke to them. And they welcomed him back.

In the ensuing years, David made money designing T-shirts and selling them at flea markets and liquor stores. One of his first bestsellers featured Barturo, a barrio version of Bart Simpson who asked: "¿Que pasa, dude?" Another successful shirt featured the Virgin of Guadalupe.

He took a job as an artist with the Postal Service in Oakland to support his wife and children. He painted a huge mural titled "Journey of a Letter" in a post office lobby in Fremont but eventually quit so he could pursue the T-shirt business full time, refining his barrio creations.

Then a manufacturer called him about making plastic figurines of his comic strip characters.

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