ON THE SIDE of a market in East Los Angeles is a roughly done mural, painted by gang members from the Lil' Valley Barrio. The untrained artists did the wall to honor homeboys who met violent deaths on the streets. Two blocks away, the same gang painted another mural, this one depicting the mothers of the slain gang members. But, when earthquake repairs were made on the small store that held the mural, the painting was covered over. The mothers are forgotten.
To many mothers of gang members, all across Southern California, the obliterated mural could be taken as an appropriate symbol of their lives. They are, they feel, almost invisible, ignored by many of the law-enforcement agencies and institutions set up to deal with their sons. These women feel isolated, frustrated and angry. "I am tired of people assuming I must be a bad person because my son is a Crip," says a mother who lives in South- Central L.A. "I love my son and have cared for him just like any other mother. Maybe I wasn't perfect, but what mother is?"
Lately, however, some of the officials most involved in dealing with local street gangs have come to realize that to blame a gang member's family and upbringing is to grossly oversimplify the problem. "There is no typical profile of a gang parent," says Jim Galipeau, a Los Angeles County probation officer who works exclusively with gang kids and their families in South-Central Los Angeles. "I have one mother who owns a 12-unit complex, and on the other end of the spectrum is a mom who's a cocaine addict and a prostitute. Mostly it's a one-parent family with the mom making the money, but there are working families with nice homes and gardeners. These parents just happen to live where the gangs are a way of life and their kids become involved."
In many parts of Southern California where street gangs flourish, dropout rates from neighborhood high schools are as high as 35%. A significant proportion of the families in South-Central and East L.A. are living below the poverty level. Drug use and violent crime are rampant. And opportunities for jobs, education and recreation are limited. It's a setting, authorities say, that causes youths to turn to gangs regardless of their upbringing. "For a lot of these kids," says one LAPD officer, "the gang is about the only happening thing in the neighborhood."
Gangs and gang violence have become subjects of great interest and concern for all of Southern California. Law-enforcement agencies are expending enormous resources in their fight against gang-related crime. But, for the mothers of the targets of this law-enforcement effort, the problem is far more immediate than newspaper headlines and stories on TV news. The problem is family.
And now, some police departments are beginning to realize that mothers, instead of being viewed as part of the problem, should be enlisted to help search for solutions.
Capt. Jack Blair of the Pomona Police Department leads weekly gang-truce meetings attended by parents, gang members and local clergy. In the course of his yearlong involvement with the Pomona program, he has become convinced that "parents are the key to (solving) the whole problem." At his meetings, and at other meetings of parents around the county, Blair believes that parents have begun to make a difference. "Once the parents unite and form groups, talking to each other and sharing information, that is threatening to the gang members. They want anonymity. They don't want their tactics or activities talked about with parents of rival gangs. When the moms are saying, 'I know that you went over to that neighborhood,' there is a certain amount of sport removed.
"Ours is not a program to turn your kid in. We don't ask parents to be informants on their child. But the moms realize what an effect they can have on the kids," Blair says. "The kids may go out gang-banging at night, but eventually they have to go back home and eat the dinner their mom's prepared. Even though they might exhibit some of the machismo characteristics, there is still concern on how they are impacting their family."
"Just because you shoot someone," Galipeau adds, "it doesn't mean that you don't love your mother."
Still, even as outsiders begin to recognize the contributions they can make, mothers of gang members face constant fear and worry. They feel overwhelming guilt, asking themselves again and again where they've failed as parents. And they have to deal with the scorn of a society that holds them in some measure responsible for the actions of their sons.
Although these mothers of gang members live in divergent parts of the city and come from a variety of cultures, they share similar pains. These are some of their stories.
TERESA RODRIGUEZ Fear: Her Son Lived and the Family Became the Target
TERESA RODRIGUEZ spends her Friday nights cowering in a back bedroom of the tiny stucco house she shares with her husband and eight children in a Pomona barrio. The living room, she knows from experience, is simply not safe.
During the past two years, most often on Fridays, Rodriguez's home has been shot up half a dozen times, and one night recently when her husband came home late from work, someone shot at him. The family's car and house still bear bullet holes from the episodes.
The problems all started two years ago, when Rodriguez's youngest son was 13. Unbeknown to his mother, he had become a member of a small Pomona gang, Sur 13. One day when he and several other Sur 13 members were out walking, a car full of rival gang members passed by. "Which barrio are you from?" the other gang demanded to know. Most of the Sur 13 boys didn't answer; Rodriguez's son did. Upon hearing the hated neighborhood name spoken aloud, one of the boys in the car leaned out the window with a gun and pulled the trigger.
Rodriguez didn't know for several hours that her son had been shot. "His friends took him to the hospital and left him there. They couldn't find the courage to tell me," she said recently through an interpreter. Finally, one of the neighborhood kids came to the door and told Rodriguez what had happened. She was stunned. Having come to the United States from Mexico in 1973, she was still timid and uncertain about the culture here. "I had no idea any of my sons was in a gang until that day," she said.
The bullet had lodged near the 13-year-old's heart but hadn't damaged any internal organs. "The doctor told me we were very, very lucky," Rodriguez recalls. Her son recovered, but Rodriguez's life was irreversibly changed.
Because the boy claimed his neighborhood with so much bravado on the day he was shot, he has become a target for the rival gang, which now sees the boy as Sur 13's most visible member. "Whenever there is a problem, they come after him," his mother says. "The problem is no longer just on him; it is on the house."
Immediately after the shooting, Rodriguez was too grateful that her son was alive to reprimand him. But events soon prompted her to take action. Shortly after the boy returned to school, Rodriguez was summoned by the principal. Four members of the rival gang had been circling the campus all day waiting for her son. The school couldn't take that sort of disruption, so officials were asking the boy to leave and attend continuation school. "My older son told me that if I didn't get (his brother) away from here, he'd be killed," Rodriguez says. He is looked on as a particular enemy now."
Rodriguez says she knew she would have to talk to the boy, as her husband had always left rearing the children to her. But getting her son to listen proved difficult. "I said to him, 'You're going to get killed,' but he just said, 'I don't care.' He is very rebellious."
This year he is enrolled in a Pomona program for gang members who are at risk in other schools. He continues to dress like and act the part of a Sur 13, although he no longer hangs out on the street. "I finally told him that if he went out, I would send him to live in Mexico," Rodriguez says. "He doesn't want that, so he stays inside."
The shooting, says Rodriguez, has had some positive effects. For one thing, she acknowledged that all three of her older sons were in the gang. "Looking back now, I remember that when they were 9 years old they started wearing khakis and white T-shirts. They started coming home later and later," Rodriguez says. One son had a size 32 waist, but he had his mother buy him size 42 pants. "I didn't know these were gang clothes. Now I do.
"My 16-year-old threw away his cholo clothes right when he heard about his brother," she says. "He hasn't been with the gang since then. The two older boys are very repentant, but it is hard to step away from their pasts."
Rodriguez has begun attending meetings of the Pomona chapter of Concerned Parents, a group working to stop gang violence, and is hopeful for the first time that something can be done to prevent recurrences of the kind of gang activity that nearly killed her son. "Communication between parents, police and the church is very important. Together we can solve the problem. We can't do it alone."
Still, Rodriguez dreads Friday nights. On her front door, where a thick board has replaced a window shot out by a gang, she has posted a small picture of Jesus on the cross. "The only thing I can do about the shooting is put it in his hands," she says, gesturing toward the picture. "He's the only one who can take care of me."
MAGGIE GARCIA Acceptance: Mean Streeets, But the Neighborhood Is Still Everything
A FEW BLOCKS from the Rodriguez house, in another Pomona barrio, Maggie Garcia doesn't really see her youngest son as a gang member. He is just, she says, very loyal to his friends and his neighborhood.
Loyalty to the Cherryville barrio in Pomona where she lives is something Garcia understands completely: "I was raised in the house next door to the one in which I raised my kids. Two of my sisters and one of my brothers live in the neighborhood, too." Maggie Garcia's whole life, she says, is wrapped up in the few blocks radiating from her house. "Here in the neighborhood, it is family."
Garcia realizes that her youngest son has taken his feelings for his barrio a little far on occasion. Last September, when the boy had just turned 14, he got into a fight at school. "He claimed his neighborhood, and the other boy claimed his neighborhood, and all of a sudden they are fighting for two gangs."
After the fight, he was expelled and sent to a local continuation school. "The principal at his old school was upset because my son said 'I'd die for my neighborhood.' If he'd said 'I'd die for my country,' the principal probably would have given him a medal."
Garcia worried about her son at the continuation school. Because it drew students from the whole Pomona school district, her son was in constant contact with boys from rival gangs. "One day, two boys from Twelfth Street (another Pomona gang) laid in wait for my son. He came home all bloody and with bruises," Garcia recalls. "I told him you're not going back to school. You could be killed."
Garcia knew that inter-neighborhood conflicts could be deadly in the Pomona barrios: Three nephews and three of her nieces' boyfriends had been killed by rival gang members. She told her son that if he was out late with his cousins, he wasn't to walk home on the streets but should instead cut through neighbors' back yards. When he goes out the door, Garcia blesses him in hopes that God will protect him out on the streets. But there is only so much, she feels, that she can do. "I've tried to talk to him," she says. "Some people think I should forbid him from being with his friends, but that would be like his telling me, 'Mom, I don't want you hanging out with your best friends in this neighborhood.' It's such a small neighborhood, there are only a few boys my son has here. If he didn't hang out with them, he wouldn't have any friends.
"I see it this way," she says. "Nowadays you have to protect yourself as much as possible, and the friends help protect. The Bible says when you are slapped you turn the other cheek, but you don't do that around here because they will shoot you if you're not looking. Children in any neighborhood have to be aware and have eyes in the back of their heads or they will be dead. They are streetwise. I've taught them to be that way. I feel that when a child is running with three or four of his friends it's better than being alone."
So instead of forbidding her son to associate with the gang, Garcia says, she has taken a more moderate line. "I tell him you can live in the fire, but you don't have to let yourself get burned. You've got to learn to live outside, but when you see something about to go down, you have to get out of there."
In early August, it became apparent that Garcia's youngest son hadn't absorbed the lessons his mother was trying to teach him. After coming home late one night, the boy went back out into the neighborhood. What happened next is in dispute, but in the end he was arrested and charged with an armed robbery that took place a few blocks from his house. His mother insists her son was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. After being held at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, he was released into his mother's custody and is attending school through a Pomona program for gang members who are at risk in other schools. His case will reviewed by a judge in December.
"My older son has gotten very angry at my younger son," Garcia says. "He tells (his brother), 'You know, if they kill you, your friends will go to your rosary and they'll go to your funeral. Then they'll have a party and forget you.' But my younger son doesn't see it that way. He sort of says 'Here today, gone tomorrow--so what?' "
JOYCE PATRICK Uncertainty: Her Son Left Home for the Gang
JOYCE PATRICK has not heard from her 15-year-old son Tyrone since the end of July when he ran away from the comfortable, two- bedroom Inglewood apartment he had shared with his mother. She does not know where he is living. A dedicated Shotgun Crip, Tyrone grew tired of restrictions he felt his mother was placing on him unreasonably, so he took to the streets, leaving his mother behind to ask herself why.
"I'm a parent who goes to work and comes home. I don't bar hop. I don't do drugs. I don't stand on the street corner. I've always loved my son and paid a lot of attention to him. I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that my baby who I love so much would be living in the same city without even speaking to me," Patrick says, the hurt and confusion clear in her voice.
Since her son left, Patrick has sought help from every agency she can think of to call. But the answer is always the same: If Tyrone commits a crime, then he can be picked up. Otherwise, there is little the authorities can do because runaways are a low priority. So Patrick drives the streets after work looking for her son, or calls his friends, or just worries.
The Inglewood mother has been worrying almost constantly about Tyrone since the day in July of 1985 that she realized he was heading for trouble.
Raised by middle-class parents who loved and supported him, Tyrone did well in school and always got along with others. He had never caused problems. But after his parents went through messy and often bitter divorce proceedings, he seemed to change.
Patrick had always worked full time, and after the divorce, she had no alternative but to continue if she wanted to support herself and her son. But she didn't ignore her responsibilities. During the summer of 1985, when Tyrone was 12 going on 13, she called home frequently from her job at a bank to check on her son.
One afternoon that July, when Patrick hadn't spoken to her son for most of the day, she dialed home. A man answered the phone. "Who's this?" she demanded.
"Who's this?" he countered.
"Damn it," Patrick said, "I'm calling to check on my child. What is going on?"
The man, it turned out, was an Inglewood police officer. There had been a shooting in Patrick's apartment. Her son, who had apparently pulled the trigger, had been taken to the police station. His best friend, the victim, was at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood. .
Patrick still doesn't know what really happened that afternoon. Her son told her many different stories. None of them made sense. But the boys had somehow found a loaded gun she kept hidden in the house for protection. Things had escalated from there.
Tyrone was released later that day, and no charges were pressed. He was ordered to see a therapist for six weeks, which Patrick hoped would help.
The following school year, Tyrone was suspended twice for minor infractions. Then he was picked up at school with a gun and a bullet. He and some friends had decided to get back at the assistant principal who suspended them.
When Patrick arrived at the school after being summoned by the police, she had another shock. Tyrone was wearing khakis,a white T-shirt and black slipper shoes--gang clothes. She had never purchased anything like them for him.
Later that evening, Patrick was told she could take her son home from the police station. Although he had been arrested, no charges were being pressed. Patrick was distraught. Her son had had two serious brushes with the law. Both times, he had walked away unpunished. She felt he needed to know that his actions produced consequences, so when she got him home that evening, she spanked him. Tyrone laughed. From that day on, Patrick believes, her son's attitude was set. "He had learned that the school couldn't touch him and the police couldn't touch him. He was saying to himself, 'Even when my mama spanks me I just laugh.' He was really convinced from then on that nothing could happen to him."
A year later, when Tyrone was 14, he became close to a cousin who was selling drugs. The boy's parents found the drugs and took them away. The drug supplier, angry about the lost drugs and money, retalliated by killing Tyrone's cousin. Then Patrick began hearing rumors that her son was in danger, too.
"I was so scared," Patrick recalls. "I just wanted my son somewhere safe, so I called my ex-husband and asked him to see if his mother in Alabama would take Tyrone." The grandmother agreed, and Tyrone was shipped off, but last May he began getting into serious trouble in Alabama, too. After he pulled a gun on a boy there, his grandmother said she could no longer handle the troubled adolescent, and sent him home.
When Patrick went to meet her son's plane, she noticed that "people on the plane were all looking around nervously as they got off. Then I realized it was my son they were reacting to. He was dressed all in his gang clothes, wearing an earring and all, and he looked really frightening."
After Tyrone returned, Patrick tried reasoning with him. "I asked him why he wanted to be into all this. Here was a boy who'd always had plenty of love. Why was he doing this? He told me, 'It's what's happening, mama.' When I told him he was likely to get killed out on the streets, he just looked at me and said 'We all got to go one day.' "
On the night before Tyrone ran away, he and his mother had a fight. Afraid for her son, Patrick had insisted that he be home by dark. He was furious and wouldn't eat his dinner. The next night when she got home, he was gone.
Now Patrick lives in fear. "When my phone rings at night, I never know whether it's going to be the police or someone asking me to come identify a body."
Although Patrick received some support from Los Angeles County Youth Gang Services, who helped Tyrone get a summer job and provided counseling for the boy, she nevertheless feels helpless. "I feel like I'm out there all alone. I'm begging for help, but no one answers.
"I have the little house with a picket fence," Patrick says. "I didn't come from the projects, my mom and dad were married. I came from a good family and I have a good education. I didn't want him to be a dropout or a gang member. It strikes all phases of life, if you're rich or poor. Maybe my problem was giving him too much. He had all the name-brand things in the world I went without. Then he tells me 'I'm not afraid of dying or killing anyone,' and I just wonder where he learned it. You get to the point where your boy is bigger than you are, and it's then that you realize your job is done."
In her worst moments, Patrick says, she feels desperate. "There have been times, and I know this sounds terrible, that I have prayed to God saying 'Father, take my son's life'. At least then I'd know he was safe."
GAYLE THOMAS KARY Death : Just When She Thought She'd Beaten the Odds
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Jamee Kary hadn't been active in the Five Deuce Broadway Crips in recent months. But that didn't matter to car full of the rival Blood gang members who spotted the boy crossing West 27th Street on the night of Sept. 10. The Bloods called the boy to their car. Words were exchanged. The Bloods began to drive off, but then stopped and got out of their car. Jamee tried to run, but he was shot in the face before he could reach cover. He died within minutes.
Gayle Thomas Kary had worried frantically about Jamee, her middle son, for more than two years before his death. His problems started, she feels, four years ago when finances forced her to move from Long Beach to a family-owned house in South Central Los Angeles half a block from the Harbor Freeway. In the old neighborhood, there had been so much for an adolescent boy to do. There were youth centers and year-round organized sports. In the new neighborhood there was only the gang.
Because Jamee had a slight learning disability, school had always been difficult for him, but he had always had friends. A charming boy with a quick smile and easy affability, Jamee fit right into the new neighborhood. By the time he was 13, he had fit right into the gang.
Kary could tell from her son's style of dress and friends that he had become a gang member. And she was very worried. A data-entry operator with a full-time job and a steady lifestyle, Kary had always believed that if she set a good example and enforced limits, her sons would turn out well. Her oldest son, now 20, had always met his mother's expectations. But Jamee seemed torn. At home he was respectful and loving, but out on the streets, he seemed like a different boy. "He knew that he was loved at home," Kary says, sitting in the immaculate California bungalow she shares with her sons. "But he somehow felt the need to be out there with those boys and not be considered a wimp."
One day during the summer of 1986, when Jamee was 13, his mother found him cutting up soap to look like cocaine. Kary was horrified that the boy found the drug culture so appealing. Within weeks, she sent Jamee off to stay with his father, a Louisiana minister, hoping that a change of environment would divert Jamee from trouble. Three weeks later, his father sent him back, saying he couldn't control the boy.
Later that summer, Jamee stole his mother's car one evening. He was stopped by police for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. But the police just gave the boy a traffic citation and told him to lock up the car and go home. When Kary heard about the incident, she was outraged. She bundled Jamee into the car, drove to the police station, and asked the police there to arrest her son. "I needed help in dealing with my son, but they just said, 'There's nothing we can do,' " Kary says, a bitter sorrow apparent in her voice.
In the months that followed, Jamee was increasingly out of control. Kary had always expected her sons to abide by certain household rules if they wanted to live under her roof. Jamee was required to attend school and do his homework, to keep his room clean, to wash his clothes, to wash dishes on alternate days, and to feed the dogs. It was not too much to ask, Kary felt.
Jamee, by the fall of his 14th year, felt differently. "Jamee started seeing these guys out there who were wearing expensive clothes and they didn't have to go to school or do chores or ask their parents for money," Kary recalls. Unwilling to meet his mother's demands, Jamee began running away from home for short periods of time to live with members of the Five Deuce Broadway Crips. By this time, his mother knew from other kids in the neighborhood, her son was also selling drugs.
During his times away from home, Kary tried to keep tabs on him. "I always knew where he was and that he was safe," Kary says. "He'd sneak over and try to get his brothers to get him a clean set of clothes." Eventually, Jamee would tire of life on the streets and return home. "He'd always promise to toe the line," Kary says. "He'd say he had changed. He knew my rules were the same.
When her son was at home, Kary tried to reason with him. "I told him that kind of life could lead to no good," Kary says with tears in her eyes. "I told him that a fast life goes fast." She warned him, she says, that he could be arrested or killed. "He would just tell me he wouldn't get busted because he could run faster than the police. He told me nobody would kill him because he didn't do any bad drug deals."
In the spring of 1987, Jamee was arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. The arrest was a relief for his mother, who hoped that at last her son would be in the hands of people who could help him. But when the time came for Jamee's sentencing, Kary was once again disappointed. "They wanted to give him probation. The conditions were things like he had to be in by 10 and stop associating with gang members. I told them I'd been trying to get him to do those things and he wouldn't. There was no way he was going to do them now, either. I said I wouldn't take him," Kary recalled.
Instead, the court sentenced Jamee to juvenile hall and later to a youth camp. After five months, Jamee returned home. At first he seemed to be less involved with the gang, but he soon returned to his old ways. There was just one difference now: Jamee had been assigned to probation officer Jim Galipeau, who seemed to really care about the boy. Galipeau also listened to Kary's concerns.
"I called Mr. Galipeau and said Jamee was in trouble again. He told me to keep a record of what he was doing and when," Kary recalls. Thankful for something to do, Kary kept detailed notes on her son's transgressions, hoping to build a case for revoking Jamee's probation. But before she could do that, Galipeau had a heart-to-heart talk with her son. "Jamee told Mr. Galipeau he was tired of life on the streets," Kary says. "He got tired of the police swooping up the street and having to run and not knowing where he was going to sleep." At his probation officer's suggestion, Jamee agreed to request placement in a county-run youth facility in order to get away from his life in Los Angeles.
By last summer, Jamee was doing beautifully. "I knew I still had to take it one day at a time," his mother says, "but he really seemed to have changed. It was like he was the child I used to know. He wouldn't even go up to Broadway (where the gang liked to hang out). The friends he associated with were not gang members."
Jamee arrived home for his last weekend furlough on Friday, Sept. 9. On Saturday evening, he asked his mother if he could go with a friend out to pick up another fellow and get something to eat. She readily agreed. An hour and a half later, a neighbor came to the door with the news that Jamee had been shot on 27th Street.
Kary raced to the scene, where she saw police had cordoned off a large area. "I saw that yellow police rope, and I knew right then my son was dead," Kary recalls. But police at the scene refused to let her see whether the victim was her son, and after pleading to no avail for information, Kary was finally persuaded to go home and wait. Several hours later, the police called and asked Kary's oldest son to go and identify photographs. Kary finally knew for sure. Her 15-year-old son was dead.
After Jamee's killing, Kary continued to learn what it was like to have a gang member for a son. She wanted to have the funeral service at her own church, but neighbors dissuaded her. "They told me there was a rival gang over there. They said, 'You can't have it there or there'll be troubles,' " Kary says. She also realized with shock that colors, particularly Crip blue, had taken on a new meaning in her life. "All those years that blue stood for boys, and I couldn't let my boy wear blue at his funeral or have the programs printed in blue," Kary says. She had originally planned to wear her nicest dress to the services, but then she realized that it, too, was blue. "A friend told me, 'You can't wear that or you'll be sitting there looking the queen Crip mother,' " Kary says.
Kary worried about how the Five Deuce Broadways would behave at her son's funeral. But that, she says, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Several days after Jamee's death, some 20 of the gang's members came to Kary's house. While Jamee was alive, she had never allowed gang members in her house, but this once she decided to make an exception.
The young men who gathered in her living room were, she says, very respectful. "They said that even though Jamee wasn't actively involved with them at the time, he was still a member of their family, and they wanted to offer financial support," Kary recalls. The boys contributed some $400 toward funeral costs.
"After they spoke," Kary says, "I said to them 'I don't like what you do out there on the streets, but I want to tell you something from my heart. You say Jamee was a member of your family. That makes you a member of my family, too, because Jamee was my son. I'm asking you a favor as family members. I don't want any colors at the funeral. I don't want rags, and I don't want trouble." To a person, Kary says, the young men honored her requests, and since the funeral they have been eager to help in any way they can.
In the aftermath of Jamee's death, Kary feels lost. Her youngest son, 11-year-old Lewis, had decided just before his brother's death to go live with his father in Louisiana. "He did not want to be involved on the streets with the gangs and the colors and the drugs. He was scared. He didn't want to go to junior high school here," Kary recalls. While Kary supports Lewis' decision, she is lonely. "I feel so empty inside," she says. "I can't remember when I last felt my heart beat inside my chest. The only thing I can feel in my whole body is my head because it hurts all the time."
In her lowest moments, Kary takes some solace in a poem Jamee wrote for her while he was incarcerated after his cocaine arrest. She included the poem in the program which Jamee had entitled "If You Only Knew," in the program for Jamee's funeral.
I sit here on my bunk
And don't know what to do
My life just caught up in a mess
Because I was a fool
I sometimes wonder to myself
With my heart just full of pain
Boy when I get out of this place
My life won't be the same
I'm sorry for all the pain I caused
For you as well as them
I promise you, and I'll try my best
To not do wrong again
Every night and every day
I always think of you
I just sit here thinking but
If you only knew
Dedicated to my Mom
I love you