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Dolores Mission's mission among the poor.

LOS ANGELES -- Father Tom Smolich's face was creased with an anxiety brushed with resignation. He needed $1,100 in a hurry. "Pay it anyway," he said on the phone. After hanging up, he sat quietly for 30 seconds or so to regain his composure, fingers pressed into one side of his face as he half-leaned on his hand.

Dolores Mission Parish in Boyle Heights is the first parish for most Hispanics who hit Los Angeles. It is also the poorest. Smolich and the other Jesuits who staff it have no ever-present friends with money hovering in the wings to help when the crunch bits. The $ 1, 100 was not a onetime need.

Dolores Mission places gang members in jobs, and if the employer can't pay, then the parish somehow finds the money. For most of the gang members who live within the parish borders, said Smolich, work equals self-respect, clean money versus dirty, such as drug money. The $1,100 was part of that month's job subsidy. On the brighter side that same week, some gang members had opened up Homeboy Tortillas in the Central Market --they were entrepreneurs making tortillas seven days a week for the retail and wholesale trade. Landlord Ira Gallin provided space and some leftover machinery a previous tenant had left behind.

On day one, the tortilla machinery broke down. But it was soon fixed and running.

"We sell out what we make everyday," said one delighted gang member across a counter stacked with fresh tortillas in clear-wrapped plastic bags. The young men behind the counter all wore Homeboy Tortilla T-shirts, probably the first time that homeboy (homeboy and homey are the gang members' words for each other -- "closer than friend, not quite family") has been used as a trademark.

The retail customers were curious, but they were buying and being chatted up cheerfully by the two men at the counter. Each customer received a flier urging participation in Dolores "Jobs for a Future (motto: "Work is a Human Right). The Homeboy T-shirts were selling as fast as the tortillas.

"I ironed that myself to make it look good," said one young man as he took the final shirt from a wire hanger dangling from the refrigerator and exchanged it for cash.

"Hey, do you know who this is?" he then asked, fishing a photograph of himself and Jesuit Father Greg Boyle from his wallet. The customer nodded.

Boyle, in his six years at Dolores, put "gangs" on the front pages of newspapers in a manner different from the usual slaying stories. Boyle thought gang members were just like everyone else -- redeemable -- and his Dolores office became the major port of call for journalists, whether from "60 Minutes" or the L.A. Times Magazine, doing "gang" stories.

Not a self-seeking publicist, Boyle nonetheless made his name working with gang members, defending them, occasionally swearing at them, frequently praying over them and, all too often, burying them.

Critics petitioned unsuccessfully in 1989 to have him removed; the Los Angeles Police Department was inclined to think him too soft on gang crimes, and too close for a detached view. But Boyle never broke gang confidences, and his constant message to gang members -- particularly at funerals -- was: "Stop killing each other." And his message to Los Angeles was: Get these people jobs.

The highly public Boyle, his six-year stint done, is now on sabbatical before final vows.

Dolores and sorrows

Two sorrowful Virgins of Guadalupe, one at the entrance to the modest parish church on South Gless, the other to the right of its altar, have witnessed more than 18 coffins in five years carried along the worn, red carpet of the center aisle as sorrowing families and equally sorrowing gang members placed their dead before the altar.

The work, at a different tempo perhaps, continues.

Smolich was always busy in the Dolores Mission background as executive director of Proyecto Pastoral, what he describes as the "nonchurch" activities -- a considerable undertaking by parishioners.

The parish formed a women's cooperative that initially provided cheap day care for mothers, usually undocumented immigrants, who were trying to get jobs and qualify for amnesty by not being on welfare. About 20 mothers have already received training and certification as child-minders and now have something better than black-market jobs.

The brightly colored building on the far side of the church parking lot will accommodate 170 children and the mothers who take turns supervising them. The building resulted in part from Smolich's $39,000 win on the television show "Jeopardy."

The parish feeds 600 people six nights a week, and runs a nightly homeless shelter in the church -- the men sleep in the pews, in the aisle and in the choir loft. It is also the site of the archdiocese's "alternative school" for high-school dropouts and pushed-outs, chartered by the Los Angeles authorities.

"I don't like the politics behind these chartered schools," said Smolich, who doesn't quarrel with the results as young men and women return to the classroom and plug back into their education. "Basically," he said, "the charter program allows nonpublic schools to get public funding --it's aimed at trying to weaken the UTLA (the Los Angeles teachers' union)".

Parish workers such as Lupe Lorea and Leonardo Vilcis and the base community movement in 1989 produced the Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio (the Committee for Peace in the Barrio).

"We were just a small group when we started," said Lilia Romero, a member of the Unidad y Esperanza (Unity and Hope) base community -- one of the parish's 12 base communities throughout the projects. One of the peace committee's starting points was the night gang members attended the packed meeting Boyle had called to face his critics.

The people in that room were the mothers and neighbors of gang members or future gang members.

When the gang members told the parishioners and neighbors that Boyle treated them humanely, that they needed his and the community's help, the community responded. Mother of eight, Lupe Lorea, understood. she has made and sold Mexican food to buy the caskets. Peace marches through the neighborhood urged mothers who find weapons in their sons' rooms to turn the weapons in and appealed to local employers to find jobs for the gang members.

And three years later, is there a major change? In the basic situation, probably not; in the community atmosphere and attitudes, possibly yes.

Summarized Smolich, "I think everyone's getting tired of the killings. The gang members, too. There's a weariness about it all. Right now, there's some skirmishing between two gangs, but it's almost as if their heart isn't in it."

A temporary or permanent weariness? Smolich could not say. He can only absorb and comment on the needs one day at a time.

This day's burdens, having to grub somewhere for 11 hundred bucks, were sufficient. Anthropologist explains dynamics of ethnic gangs

LOS ANGELES -- "Here's my projection: If we allow large-scale immigration from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe we're going to have white ethnic gangs again -- I guarantee you -- because they're not going to come and move into suburban upscale. They'll live where all immigrants can afford: the blighted areas."

James Diego Vigil, University of Southern California professor of anthropology, wasn't judging such immigration; he was explaining gangs.

Gangs, he said, usually emerge when social control breaks down because immigrant youths become detached from their parents, schools and other units of authority.

Vigil explained why today's gangs are primarily Latino instead of white, as they once were.

As early as the 1850s, San Francisco, for example, had the San Francisco Hounds and Irish street toughs, and by 1870 the phrase "pavement children" was in use. The early James Cagney movies portrayed the breaking away of urban and poor ethnic whites -- Irish, Italians, Jews -- from their immigrant parents. After 1924, however, immigration slowed. Quota laws reduced white immigration to a trickle, and immigrant whites moved up the social scale.

At the same time, said Vigil, the Southwest needed labor, and the Mexicans were welcome under various programs, such as the bracero (arms) laborers.

"The fact there continue to be Chicano gangs," said Vigil, "is that immigration from Mexico never dried up and each decade of ignoring the problem has made it more lethal."

Vigil, also a research fellow at USC's new Center for Multi-Ethnic and Transnational Studies, said that "what distinguishes the Chicano gang from others is that it has been around so long [since the 1920s] that the gang becomes the carrier of a culture, a culture rooted in the street reality."

Today, weapons have changed the gang environment, Vigil said. "In the 1960s," he said, "gang members prided themselves that they would get a rival gang member and settle it one-on-one with fists.

"Now the wimp factor takes over. A lot of gang members couldn't handle themselves with fists. Stick an Uzi in their hands and they're still wimps -- the wackos who shoot randomly."

But there is more to it than that, Vigil said. When the gangs go out to shoot, they know they, too, might be killed. He sees it as "a group, collective suicide pact. Unfortunately, when the shooting starts, people get caught up in it who haven't bought into it."

And that's when the media and the police move in.

"In total," he said, "this is not a large number of kids, but it gets a hell of a lot of media and police attention."
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Title Annotation:Gangs - Los Angeles, California
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 8, 1993
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