Since 1977, Virginia Lopez has recounted many times in public how two of her sons were killed during drug-related shootings in their East Los Angeles neighborhood.
"It's not something I feel proud to talk about," the 66-year-old member of Concerned Parents of East Los Angeles said Sunday evening as she and a half-dozen relatives of victims of gang-related violence filed into a pew at a prayer service in St. Vibiana's Cathedral downtown.
"I don't get to say my sons are lawyers or doctors," said Lopez, who later told the audience of 300 that two of her surviving children are now in prison for drug-related convictions. "The point I try to make is that I am a parent and I want to be responsible for my children as much as possible."
Lopez said she hopes her experiences will encourage parents to seek help when they feel they have lost control of their children.
Modesto Leon, founder of Concerned Parents, said the organization began in 1974 when a group of mothers sought to end gang violence in their East Los Angeles neighborhood. The mothers began patrolling the area. Eventually more families joined the patrols. The organization now has offices in South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and Pomona.
With 300 members, Leon said, the group conducts counseling sessions and weekly discussions. It also provides referrals for substance abuse counseling and jobs.
Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger M. Mahony presided over Sunday's anti-gang service at which doctrinal sermons by Jewish and Christian clergy were interspersed with speeches by members of Concerned Parents.
Amada Gallardo, a member of the group's Pomona chapter, told the audience that, despite regularly searching the bedroom of her 16-year-old son who she knew was involved in a gang, she didn't find "a pistol he had been keeping."
"A month ago, the gun went off accidentally . . . ," she said in Spanish. "Ironically, the bullet meant for a rival gang member is what killed his sister-in-law."
A former gang member, Alphonso Cyprian, 19, of South Los Angeles, said he attended his first Concerned Parents session a few months after leaving prison.
"My mother got me to come with her, even when I was still running with a gang," Cyprian said. At one meeting, he saw a gang violence video.
"There was this mother crying in the street because her son had just been killed," he recalled. "The woman, she seemed real familiar to me. . . . I started thinking that I didn't want my mother going through all this. Wasn't too long before I decided that I had had enough."