Jesus’ Homeboy : Slaying aftermath: Father Juan Santillan walks a fine line as peacemaker and spiritual leader in tense Ramona Gardens. He is respected by gang members, politicians and the police.
After the morning’s Mass, after the burial, after the news crews had taken their last shots of teary-eyed mourners, Father Juan Santillan drove his white Oldsmobile Cutlass past the spot in Ramona Gardens where Arturo Jimenez was killed.
“Hey, Father!” someone called out. “Can you do one more prayer for homeboy?”
Santillan, a rotund man whose sun glasses had turned dark in the late afternoon sun, pulled to the curb by the small wooden cross that has stood on the lawn since Jimenez was slain by a sheriff’s deputy last Saturday.
What had been a beery, boisterous party among Jimenez’s homeboys in the East Los Angeles housing project turned instantly sober. The music was lowered, and a hushed crowd of several dozen young toughs, many shirtless and marked with tattoos, fell to their knees around the 52-year-old priest.
“Smokey,” said Santillan, using Jimenez’s nickname, “we want you to know that we’re going to bring out all the truth. Many changes are going to take place because of this. Your death is not in vain.”
Then, the homeboys handed Santillan a 16-ounce can of beer, which he drank; they gave him a cigarette, which he lit up, and they offered him hugs and kisses, which he returned.
These are trying times for the man they call Father John. In the week of tension and grief that has gripped the tightknit Latino community within the oldest city-run housing project, Santillan has taken on the sometimes contradictory roles of defender, peacemaker, advocate and spokesman.
As pastor of nearby St. Lucy’s Catholic Church, he is the spiritual guide to the Jimenez family and many of their anguished neighbors. As a reserve officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, he is committed to seeing that the residents’ frustration does not breed more violence.
As an astute political player, whose phone directory reads like a Who’s Who of Eastside activists, he is trying to use the shooting to unite Latino leaders. As a former gang member who was once told by a high school administrator that his only future was in San Quentin, he is a beer-drinking, chain-smoking confidant of the Ramona Gardens homeboys.
“He got it wrong--it wasn’t San Quentin, it was St. Peter’s,” Santillan said after Thursday’s funeral, using his elbow to playfully jab an interviewer in the ribs. “Maybe that’s why, when I see these young people, I see myself. If I didn’t identify with their needs, their glories and their anguish, then the priesthood to which I’ve dedicated my life would be useless.”
Since the shooting, Santillan--who pronounces his name san-tee-YAN-- has been at Ramona Gardens every day. He has consoled residents of the 497-unit complex, called for an independent investigation, urged calm among the gang members and confronted what he says are the “outside groups” trying to exploit the tragedy to further their own political agendas.
Residents who see his 1990 Olds--it is a gift from the church--often flag him down. One moment he is doing a knuckle-rapping handshake with a young cholo, then he is discussing strategy with a senior field deputy for Supervisor Gloria Molina, then he is lunching on a burrito with two Housing Authority police officers.
“Juan is caught in a situation where he has to walk a very fine line,” said Raul Ruiz, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge who is active in the community. “He has to convince the homeboys that he’s with them, but he can’t be with them to the extent that he would support anything that would bring about more tragedy for our community.”
So far, the “Jesus homeboy"--as he sometimes calls himself--has managed to preside over an uneasy calm.
The Ramona Gardens gang members, who call themselves “Big Hazard,” say Santillan is one of them--a “cool vato, " “an original gangster,” “a real veterano .”
“He relates to us 100%,” said Eddie Zazueta, 19, as he poured a beer on Jimenez’s cross in memory of his slain friend. “If I would die, Father John would give the prayer, and if he goes before me, I’ll be there for Father John.”
Church officials, while acknowledging that some of Santillan’s techniques may be unorthodox, consider him a valued resource in dealing with the neighborhood’s disadvantaged youths, particularly at such a touchy time.
“Of course, I would not like to see him drunk somewhere . . . but as long as he does these things to get closer to the youngsters, I have no problem with that,” said Father Joaquin Hereu, director of an East Los Angeles seminary for the Calasanzian Fathers, the religious order to which Santillan belongs. “It’s natural for him. If I were to do what he does, I would be making a farce.”
Latino leaders, some of whom were disappointed when Santillan supported former Councilman Arthur K. Snyder instead of a Mexican-American candidate, say they depend on the priest to keep them in touch with the community.
“As soon as Gloria heard about the shooting, she said: ‘Get a hold of Father John,’ ” said Rose Marie Lopez, senior field deputy in East Los Angeles for Molina. “I think he’s ruffled a lot of feathers, but everyone respects him in the political world.”
The police, though they might grimace at the sight of Santillan in his black priest’s suit and white collar embracing a young man they arrested the day before, never underestimate his peacemaking powers.
“He is the peacemaker,” said Housing Authority Police Officer Ramon Montijo, who patrols Ramona Gardens. “The gangbangers may disrespect us, but when Father John intervenes, they always listen.”
Santillan, who has been ministering to the neighborhood since 1975, was thrust into the spotlight Aug. 3, when a sheriff’s deputy shot Jimenez three times in the chest during an early morning confrontation at Ramona Gardens.
The priest was on the San Bernardino Freeway at the time, driving from a party in La Puente to his living quarters in City Terrace, when he heard the emergency report crackle across the portable police scanner he keeps on his car’s visor.
“My reaction was: ‘Oh, ----,’ ” Santillan said. “Not, ‘Oh, God,’ but ‘Oh, ----'--here we go.”
Although he was unable to cross the police lines that night, he learned that officers accused Jimenez of attacking them with a deputy’s flashlight. The next day, while he was at the side of Jimenez’s mother, residents told him that the 19-year-old gang member was merely protesting a deputy’s rough treatment of a friend when he was shot.
“These guys,” said Santillan, talking of Jimenez’s homeboys, “they understand they need law enforcement, and they’ll even work with law enforcement. But not with someone who comes in and says, ‘I’m gonna get your ass.’ ”
Santillan knows because he remembers officers treating him the same as a youngster growing up around the Palo Verde gang in the community of Chavez Ravine. The seventh of 10 children reared on his immigrant father’s construction-worker wages, Santillan was 12 when their house was bulldozed to make room for Dodger Stadium.
“There’s no such thing as ‘True Dodger Blue,’ ” said Santillan, who spent the rest of his childhood in Lincoln Heights.
He enrolled in a religious university at the urging of a neighborhood nun, whom he occasionally helped with heavy chores on his way home from school. He took a vow of celibacy in 1960, studied philosophy in Spain, was appointed by Pope Paul VI as a student representative to the Vatican’s Commission on Justice and Peace and was ordained in 1969.
But it is back in the barrio where he feels the most comfortable, feet firmly planted in the gritty reality where he believes he can do more good than praying in a church.
In a single day, Santillan gives his cloth hankie away to a sniffling homeboy, taps his toe to a tape of religious tunes set to ranchera music, dashes out his office door upon hearing a police helicopter overhead and tells a reporter for a Spanish-language radio station that the stereotypical Mexican dozing under a sombrero has finally woken up.
“My challenge is to keep in the middle of the confrontation--maintain the sanity without dismissing the truth of what has taken place,” Santillan said. “I don’t see it as a burden. It’s never a burden to be who you’re supposed to be.”