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Youth Teeters on the Brink of Gang Life : Adolescence: Like many, Rafael Perez, 15, feels pressure to fit in.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rafael Perez has a noisy gait. As he walks, the legs of his pants rub against each other and the seat of his trousers sags precariously toward his heels, where his pants bunch up and scrape against the sidewalk.

His oversize Ben Davis trousers, his black Ben Davis shirt and his buzz-cut hairstyle are indistinguishable from those favored by many of his fashion-conscious classmates at San Fernando Junior High School.

But to his mother, they are cause for concern, because while such styles have become a uniform for many school-age kids, they have also become the de facto uniform of many gang members.

And 15-year-old Rafael, according to those close to him, appears to be on the brink of going from imitation gangster to the real thing--joining thousands of other teen-agers in the San Fernando Valley, who at adolescence, the most awkward time of their lives, hook up with gangs and sometimes don’t make it to adulthood.

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Rafael lives in a dangerous age, according to a recent national study. For boys age 15 to 19, the homicide rate soared 154% between 1985 and 1991, the Centers for Disease Control reported recently. The proliferation of gangs, the study’s authors say, is the primary reason for that explosion.

“There are a lot of pressures,” said Arturo del Rio, Rafael’s principal at San Fernando Junior High School. “The kids want to be conformist. They don’t want to be seen as nerds. Gang members have this aura of being feared and admired. They apparently have no worries about consequences, so they are put on a pedestal by many youngsters.”

In the Valley, a yearlong truce among Latino gang members helped gang homicides drop to nine during the first eight months of 1994, compared to 35 during the same period the year before, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics.

But other violent crimes committed by gangsters have increased, police say.

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“Maybe they’re not killing people as often, but they are as violent as they ever were,” said LAPD Lt. Fred Tuller, coordinator of the Valley’s CRASH anti-gang detail.

Rafael, who drifts easily from a determined silence to a joyous boisterousness, is a study in tension over gang temptation.

In his case, the gang is called Paxton Street, one of about 15 Latino gangs in Pacoima. On the other side, trying to pull him to safety, are his mother and several counselors at Hope in Youth, an anti-gang organization that works with at-risk kids and their families.

Sometimes the dual forces tugging at Rafael lead to almost comical results:

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* A few weeks ago, while on a graffiti paint-out with Hope in Youth, he recognized his own scrawl. He painted over it, somewhat reluctantly.

* During the summer, he worked at a straight job. He gave some of the money to his parents, and spent much of the rest to buy his Ben Davis gang-style clothes.

* While showing off some of the schoolwork in his binder and denying any gang involvement or interest, he accidentally flipped to the wrong page. In painstaking detail, he had printed his own name and, next to it, the initials of the Paxton Street gang.

Embarrassed for a moment, he turned the page without saying anything, then offered: “I wasn’t paying attention to what I was writing. I don’t know, I was writing anything. Class is boring.”

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In other ways, Rafael couldn’t be a more typical teen-ager--a throwback to the days before widespread gangs battled parents for the hearts and minds of their children.

His boyish face lights up when he talks about baseball and his favorite players: Daryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr., Jose Canseco. He plays first base and outfield with neighborhood pickup teams, and plans to try out for the San Fernando High team next year as a sophomore.

He also plays video games at an arcade and basketball at nearby Richie Valens Park, sometimes until 7 or 8 p.m.

At home, he likes talking on the telephone with girls, listening to rappers Ice Cube and Too Short and watching “Married . . . With Children” on television.

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And while he does not excel in school and doesn’t spend much time studying, he said he is working hard to graduate. He was held back once, in first grade, and is enrolled in classes for students with limited English-language skills, even though he was born in Granada Hills.

“I don’t do good in school,” he confessed after class one day, sitting on his bed in a room he shares with his two older brothers, Raul, 18, and Daniel, 17. “Some teachers hate me.” He wishes, he said, that every class was like P. E. and wood and metal shop.

Algebra is a particular menace. “I just don’t understand it,” he said, scrunching up his face. “But I don’t want to repeat it in the 10th grade.”

In a pinch though, his sister Minerva, 14, who is in the same class, supplies him with the answers.

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Perhaps a larger problem--but one Rafael avoids discussing--is the gang troubles at his school, where the SanFers dominate. Rafael’s friends, collectively called Pacos, because they are from Pacoima, are in the minority.

The Pacos blur distinctions about what, technically, constitutes a gang. Most of the Pacos are from Pacoima’s assorted gangs. But because they are outsiders at the school, they often hang out as a group and sometimes band together to fight for the honor of their community.

During nutrition break and at lunch, the two groups keep their distance, one standing near the cafeteria, the other near a planter. “They are very territorial,” said Del Rio, the school principal.

In an attempt to keep the gang tension below the boiling point, the school’s dress code prohibits baggy pants, hats and clothing with initials that may be gang shorthand. The school also has presentations about the dangers of gang membership. There is a metal detector, but only one knife has ever turned up.

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Still, San Fernando Junior High sees dozens of clashes between the SanFers and Pacos each school year, although Del Rio said no one has been seriously injured in recent history.

Rafael said he has been involved in at least two of those skirmishes. Last year, he said a gang member challenged him, although Rafael doesn’t remember how it began.

“This guy from the SanFers wanted to fight,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s fight.’ He said no, but that I should fight his (older) brother. I didn’t want to fight his brother.”

Despite Rafael’s gang associations, there is some debate about whether he remains a wanna-be or has actually succumbed to the lure of the Paxton Street gang.

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The distinction is important.

A study by Los Angeles emergency room physicians published earlier this year found that gang members are 60% more likely to be victims of homicide than everyone else.

Rafael insists that he is not in the gang. But he does concede that his best friend is a member; that he goes to the gang’s parties, and that occasionally, he gets into fights when he is mistaken for a gang member.

“I just kick it with them,” he explained, obviously uncomfortable with the subject. “I just hang around with them.”

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Rafael said his brother Daniel told him, “You can kick it with them, but don’t get jumped in.”

His mother, Ana Perez, is more hopeful than she is sure.

“Sometimes, I worry when I see him in baggy clothes,” she said. “I want him to be busy doing something instead of being with his friends. But I don’t think he is” in a gang.

But Richard Guerrero, Hope in Youth’s parent organizer for the area, believes Rafael has indeed fallen under Paxton Street’s spell, though he believes Rafael is not in too deep for it to be too late.

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“He’s probably been ‘jumped in,’ so I think he is a member, but not a hard-core member,” Guerrero said. “He just got to the point where he is in, but he doesn’t participate in it that strongly because of the control his mother still has.”

Rafael’s father, Manuel, works the night shift as a janitor at a supermarket and is often gone when the family’s five children come home from work or school.

Ana Perez and her son have been attending various Hope in Youth functions at Mary Immaculate Church in Pacoima since last spring, after Daniel was sent to a youth offender’s camp for stealing a car.

Fearing Rafael was already following in his brother’s footsteps, Ana Perez began taking parenting classes and got Rafael involved in youth classes, including a support group. In his employment readiness class he is being taught how to present himself to prospective employers--and that baggy pants are not proper attire for job interviews or work.

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Hope in Youth’s youth organizer, Maria Molina, said Rafael has gotten particularly caught up in an effort to bring expanded recreation facilities to Richie Valens Park.

“The key is providing alternatives for them,” Molina said. “Sometimes (Rafael) brings friends (to Hope in Youth meetings). It is important for them to have a place to go. An opinion that matters. They know that someone is here to listen.”

Molina, who has been working with at-risk children for about two years, said she makes a point of not asking Rafael whether he is in a gang. “I don’t want to categorize him,” she explained. “It might not be the best tactic, but I would rather think of him as a positive force in the community.”

Recently, Rafael was arrested in a parking lot while trying to steal a car stereo, he said. A 16-year-old friend was doing the actual stealing, Rafael claims, while he was merely the lookout. But fate was unkind to Rafael: He got caught, his friend got away.

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Rafael said he was trying to help get the stereo because he wanted to sell it and buy a lowrider-style bicycle. “I probably could have gotten $80,” he said.

While he awaits his court date, he continues straddling the fence between good son and gangster, taking precautions in his own way. At parties, for instance, he stays away from tequila, the alcoholic beverage of choice among his friends.

“I don’t drink El Presidente,” he said. “I just drink one or two beers.”

Some of those around him say that Rafael’s ability to think for himself has kept him out of more serious trouble. They say that ability should give the 15-year-old a chance to live to some ripe old age--or at least past adolescence.

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“I can see him escaping,” Guerrero said. “The more positive people are around you, the more positive you are.”

But Rafael is not out of danger yet. When his sister Minerva is asked if she worries about her older brother, she looked both ways to make sure he wasn’t within hearing distance, and then replied softly: “Yes.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Age of Danger

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Part One: The story of Rafael, a 15-year-old straddling the worlds of good son and gangster.

Part Two: The story of Michael, who, though in fear for his life, refuses to leave his gang behind.

Part Three: The story of Mark, a longtime veteran of gangs and violence, who at 38 says he is trying to go straight.


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