Raul Ramirez and dozens of other children on Saturday claimed Loma Verde Park as their own.
“It’s ours now--the kids’,” declared Raul, 7, who joined about 70 other volunteers who spent the day raking leaves and painting over graffiti on Loma Verde’s basketball court.
The children were at the park courtesy of El Campo, one of the city’s largest street gangs. Its members finally decided it was time to clean up the place and return their territory to the neighborhood so kids could safely play there.
One of El Campo’s leaders, Bernardo Gamez, 24, led the effort, which began more than two months ago when gang members painted a block wall alongside the park, covering up their own graffiti.
Friday evening, Gamez and a community activist, Reynaldo Moreno, scrubbed the basketball court with soap and water, preparing it for Saturday’s work. But later that night, Gamez was arrested for allegedly violating his parole from an assault conviction, police said.
Because Gamez was unexpectedly jailed, Moreno said, no other gang members, except one, showed up Saturday.
Police suspect Gamez of buying a firearm, said Rosalva Gamez, his sister. Her eyes filled with tears as she watched the volunteers clean Loma Verde Park the way her brother envisioned.
“My brother was just beginning to turn his life around,” she said. “He really wanted this park to be safe for the children to play in. But even though he got arrested, I hope other gang members realize that they can get more out of helping the community than hurting themselves.”
Police praised the effort to clean up the park and they were glad to see that a gang had taken the initiative to do something for the city. Said Sgt. Kevin Raisch: “It’s great to see any kid involved in a gang do something to better the community.”
Moreno has worked with gangs for nine years, helping them clean up their neighborhoods and encouraging them to get jobs or stay in school. He said Saturday that Loma Verde has always been dominated by gang members. This makes it difficult for the public to use it.
“People have always been scared to come here because of all the graffiti,” Moreno said. “It looked like trash. . . . Gangs cleaning up their own mess is a step toward living in harmony and peace.”
Jaime Naranjo, 16, the lone self-proclaimed gang member who showed up Saturday, said he did so because the graffiti he has plastered all over the park did not look good.
“It looks real bad actually,” Naranjo said, a paint roller in his hand. “Now that it’s getting covered up, we’re going to try not to mark this park any more.”
Parents and youths also praised El Campo for wanting to help the community.
“It’s a good idea to give the park to the kids,” said Maria Concho, who lives behind the park but never lets her children play there because of its reputation. Her 12-year-old daughter, Norma, added: “It’s good to know the gangbangers want to clean this place because they’re the ones who messed it up.”
Moreno, his wife, Ida, and community activist Rose Espinoza helped El Campo organize the event. They provided hot dogs and chips for lunch after the volunteers spent about four hours completing their chores.
“This is what it’s all about,” Moreno said. “This park is meant for kids to have a good time. Maybe what happened today is a sign that . . . the kids are taking over.”