THE SUNDAY PEOFILE : Words of Hopr From a Homeboy : An ex-gangbanger reaches out, in person and in print, to teens in barrios from Santa Ana to la Habra
Fernando Leon can tell stories that make the homeboys cringe.
He starts in a voice so soft you are forced to inch closer. Then his dark brown eyes lock in like a surface-to-air missile. As he whips his arms to stress a point, you get a glimpse of a gang tattoo--a WC intertwined, for Watts Caballeros--etched on his wrist.
The stories spill out.
Like the one about the time he was 16 and his best friend, Mike, who worked with him on the assembly line in a fiberglass company, decided to experiment with heroin.
It happened during a lunch break. Leon went to the corner liquor store for his daily quart of beer and a burrito. Mike went to the restroom to shoot up for the first time, after trying to persuade Leon to join him. After lunch, Leon found his buddy, no longer breathing, in the bathroom, crouched over the toilet with the needle still stuck in his arm.
“I thought that was what I had to look forward to and decided to get out of the gang lifestyle,” Leon tells teen-agers in a slow-paced, hushed monotone in the neighborhoods he visits. “I thought it was just a matter of time before I ended up like my friends.”
This 51-year-old former gang member and high school dropout wants today’s gangs to hear his words and their underlying message: There is hope and a way out. He knows firsthand what a waste gangbanging is and doesn’t want others to experience the hell.
Leon, who lives in Garden Grove, has been active in gang- and crime-prevention projects all over the county. Four years ago, he shut down his printing business, and with his wife’s financial support, he now works full time as a kind of free-lance social worker.
He spends most of his days in the barrios, counseling gang members from Santa Ana to La Habra. He also follows up on their job applications and helps them through the legal system when they get arrested. He meets with community groups and police departments, trying to improve communications and offer insights about life on the street.
He helped found Standing Together Now, a Stanton group of neighborhood leaders who try to keep kids out of gangs and involved in other activities, such as sports. STN helped gang members get the city to fund the construction of a handball court in a small city park.
Last year, he produced La Calle (Spanish for “The Street”), a 54-page magazine mostly written and illustrated by gang members. It provided a forum for young people to voice their rage while promoting ethnic pride and highlighting grief from gang involvement in an effort to turn youths away from the gang lifestyle. A second issue will be published next month.
But it’s Leon’s force of personality that is his most potent weapon. It’s hard to pinpoint, but men and women alike seem captivated by Leon’s charm.
His money problems, broken marriages and experiences as a gang member, ex-con, weed smoker, pill popper and alcoholic may not make Leon an expert in gang mentality, but, he says, “I can relate and warn the youngsters about the responsibilities they will face for everything they do.”
Many community leaders and activists believe Leon has eked out some success where community anti-gang programs, residents’ complaints and politicians’ promises have failed.
“Fernando has basically been on the front lines for a number of years, facing very serious conditions in our society,” says Steve Delgadillo, the city of Anaheim’s gang and drug program assistant coordinator.
“He’s completely lived and walked in (gang members’) shoes, and he’s accepted because he’s proved he is a genuine friend,” Orange City Councilman Fred L. Barrera says. “He can go into dangerous neighborhoods that a lot of people, including myself, would not even think about stepping into.”
Leon grew up in Watts with his parents and three sisters, who all tried to push him away from gangs.
He remembers the beatings he got when he was a scared little boy, and how he was forced to take it and fight back “like a man.” Faint scars still mark his forehead where he was hit with metal pipes back in the early 1950s. He wears an inch-long scar on his left wrist from a knife headed for his face that was thrown by a childhood enemy.
When he was 15, an 18-year-old friend, whom Leon admired, was shot and killed in a late-night gang fight after being cornered and outnumbered while walking home from a party.
Leon was shot at several times and, at 16, almost killed when a rival gang member pinned a can opener to his neck, and blood started dribbling down. The youth stopped only after realizing he had the wrong guy.
Joining the Marines when he was 17 took Leon away from that lifestyle for two years, but when he returned, the streets called him back.
In 1966, Leon was convicted on assault charges stemming from a fight with police. Leon had been driving home from a party, where, he says, he had guzzled so much alcohol he could hear it swishing in his belly.
The police pulled him over for making an illegal right turn. An officer told Leon to stand on the curb while the first officer filled out a citation. Leon mouthed off to the second officer and swung at him.
The story has gone into his arsenal to illustrate how stupid shows of toughness are.
Leon, whose rib-length, graying black hair wraps his shoulders as he speaks, acknowledges that his personal life has also been chaotic.
He and his wife, Geraldine, have been married 15 years. But he is twice divorced and has seven children. Many times, he says, he misses making the monthly $173 child support payment for his youngest daughter, 16-year-old Nicole.
Friends helped him foot his overdue payments last year, after he served a month in jail for failing to pay.
Geraldine, 32, has stood by Leon because she believes his is a worthy cause. She works as a travel agent and supports herself and her husband, who has no paying job.
“Without her, I would be on the streets and probably not able to do what I’m doing now,” Leon says.
He says his decision to quit his paying job and devote himself full time was “a calling from God.” But it also involved a long family meeting with his children and Geraldine, who would become the sole breadwinner. They eventually relented and now support him.
The decision came in mid-1990 when 16-year-old Johnny Casillas Jr. was gunned down as he walked along a dark street to his grandmother’s house in Stanton. The boy’s aunt pleaded with Leon to help ward off retaliatory gunfire.
Leon persuaded the dead youth’s gang not to retaliate by calling a truce between the gangs soon after Casillas was killed.
Leon’s children have watched their father and have begun to believe in his cause.
His daughter Vivian Gomez, 22, says at first her siblings and step-siblings were disappointed with their father’s devotion. They tried to change his priorities so he would focus on them, but they finally gave up and now lend him support.
“We hated what he was doing, but he’s always been able to make everything OK. He’s so patient and sincere that you just can’t hate Dad,” Gomez says.
Leon “is just doing what everyone thinks about doing,” says his youngest daughter, Nicole. “He doesn’t make you do what you don’t want to do. He just brings out goodness in you, and when you get a taste of that, it’s a part of you.”
But Nicole wasn’t always so fond of her father’s work. For years, she couldn’t understand why Leon had to spend so much time with gang members instead of with her. But last year, when she was 15, Nicole inadvertently read a letter addressed to her father and realized what he was doing was not a waste of time.
The letter, handwritten by a mother whose son was killed in a gang fight, thanked Leon for his efforts at keeping kids from joining gangs and urged him to continue his crusade.
“That mother talked about how precious her son was and was asking my dad to try to unite all gangs to stop all this crazy violence,” says Nicole, who lives with her mother in Downey. “I finally realized that people are listening to my dad and that he’s an incredible man. People want to unite but don’t know how, and that’s where my dad fits in.”
When Leon’s La Calle made its debut last year, he personally delivered the 3,100 copies to high school campuses and in neighborhoods where gang members congregate. He targeted teen-age Latinos, hoping they would read the journal and get its message.
“I’m stressing unity,” he says. “We’re all brothers and sisters, so why are we hurting each other? The bottom line is, it makes no difference where you are right now. Even if you’re hard-core, you can still do something positive, and here we are to help you and show you how to do it.”
His advertising-free journal, written in English and some Spanish, is sprinkled with success stories of teen-agers and community leaders who were raised in gang-infested barrios but overcame temptations. Also included are job listings, recreational activities and gang-prevention programs. But the stories that exemplify the grief from senseless gang tragedies make the strongest impressions.
A poem, “Is It Worth It?,” depicts a boy, stomach full of alcohol, shot, beaten and stabbed to death in a gang clash, speaking from the grave.
This morning I didn’t know I’d die today
I wasn’t supposed to end up this way
Being a homie was supposed to be fun
Another poem, written by a woman whose son was stabbed to death in a gang fight, pleads: “Stop this insane violence with brother killing brother before we lose everything dear to us.”
And an editorial concludes with this warning: “You were given one body, and when that one is gone, there is no second chance.”
Leon, says he does not accept stories that put down rival gangs and could incite vicious retaliations.
“Nothing negative,” he says. “We want to show that it takes (courage) to walk away from a life of retaliation and drive-by shootings.”
It’s been a year since La Calle was distributed, and gangs are wondering what happened. “Right now the attitude is, ‘Where the . . . is the vato Fernando’s magazine?’ ” Leon says.
Leon said the second issue will be on the streets in June, with the help of printing companies that have pledged to donate paper and ink. After that, he says, it will be produced monthly.
People who work with gangs say an impact was felt in the community.
“Lots of gang members like La Calle because it’s (promoting) unity,” says Herbert Alamo, a Fullerton College student who grew up around gangs in La Habra. “They’re seeing their work published, and it gives them feelings of self-worth and pride.”
Felipe Medina, 19, of Santa Ana, once known among police as a notorious graffiti tagger, credits Leon with getting him to kick his scribbling habit last year. Then, Leon helped Medina get a job as a youth counselor for the city of Santa Ana and persuaded him to channel his artistic abilities into drawings and cartoons for La Calle. Some of those artworks will appear in the second issue.
Leon’s work with gangs doesn’t stop with La Calle and his community activism. He dreams of a building where he can store printing presses and convert it into a nonprofit school, where gang members could be taught the printing trade.
He also has asked community organizations and individuals to help him get a large mobile unit, which he plans to haul to neighborhood streets and parks to spin oldies records and provide outreach services for youths every weekend. Leon says organizations and agencies would be invited to provide literature and counseling services on issues ranging from parenting and social responsibilities to health education.
The only problem is, the estimated cost of the dream is nearly $500,000.
“Fernando says everything can be done,” Medina says. “Sometimes what he says sounds so impossible. But, he’s a very patient man who can do it. I’m with him, and I know this is going to kick.”
Leon also has the morale to go with some financial support of Latino organizations, including Los Amigos of Orange County.
“I wish we could give Fernando the wherewithal so he can accomplish what he wants to do, because he’s allowing youngsters to let off steam in a beautiful manner through La Calle,” says Amin David, chairman of Los Amigos. “Fernando . . . would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. We certainly applaud him.”
Leon believes he is lucky to be alive and just wants gang violence to stop.
“I think people are listening because I’m telling the truth and I’ll keep my word,” Leon says. “If it kills me, I’ll keep my word.”