They call themselves Padrinos--godfathers.
Many are carrying too much weight. Some are balding or gray-haired. And most, whether former gang members with prison experience or not, appear about as intimidating as church deacons.
Yet all of these men, with their roots in East Los Angeles, have been shaken enough by the devastating bloodshed caused by Latino gang warfare throughout the county to try to face the problem head-on.
"We are Chicano," said Miguel (Mike) Duran, 67, a soft-spoken yet influential Padrino who views gang affiliation as part of growing up in the barrios. "There's nothing wrong with being a gang member, but there is something wrong with being violent or taking drugs or terrorizing."
So as the struggle continues to turn youths away from gangs throughout the nation, the Padrinos take a grass-roots approach--Latino volunteers whose main qualifications are street savvy and devotion.
The group takes no government money. It has no office. And its members work discreetly, turning mainly to one another for help.
This is their pay-back to the community.
For the most part, the older men seek out and guide young Latino gang members toward jobs and education. They informally counsel their charges, sometimes sternly and other times lightheartedly, almost anywhere: a community center, a church or even a street corner.
Their days as street toughs long gone, the Padrinos focus on the future. They often use Spanish slang or raw language to get through to their younger homies; the carnales who make up today's gang brotherhood.
And they are also careful to avoid going overboard in bad-mouthing gangs or the younger men's possibly illicit activities. The legendary Mexican Mafia, for example, is a topic best left alone.
The old-timers say their group, which has about 20 active members and about 20 associate members, was created during the past few years to do what they believed most other gang programs were failing to do: reach primarily Mexican American youths growing up in East Los Angeles.
Their ultimate mission is to enhance the younger residents' self-esteem by showing them respeto (respect), helping them find work and building leadership in the community. The wisdom of former cholos from the barrios is supposed to help discourage the violence.
Although there are signs that some youths have been helped by the Padrinos, the bloodshed caused by Latino gangs in Los Angeles remains devastating.
Law enforcement authorities said there were 779 gang-related killings in Los Angeles County in 1994, and as many as three-quarters of the victims may have been Latinos. (An exact ethnic breakdown is expected within several weeks.)
In 1993, there were 720 gang-related homicides in the county; 314 of the victims were Latinos allegedly killed by other Latinos. And in 1992, when gang-related deaths peaked at 803, more than half, 441, involved Latino assailants and victims.
"I don't bad-mouth the groups. I think they're trying," said Sgt. Wes McBride of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department gang unit. "But there are too few workers versus the thousands of gang members. I applaud their efforts and they've got to keep plugging, but it's just tough."
For the men who formed Padrinos, the killings meant they had to unite.
The group's members had proven their concern for the community over the years as probation officers, educators and religious and social service representatives.
They knew the neighborhoods, they knew the Chicano culture and they understood the gang dependency of many youths. Several also knew what it is like to serve prison time.
Many already worked for agencies that in one way or another were trying to stem gang influences on youths. They knew they could strengthen their efforts by working together, so they began meeting to discuss promoting role models and addressing community needs.
The chairman of the Padrinos is Alfredo V. Ortiz, 55, a bull of a man, thick and barrel-chested with heavily muscled arms that look like they can still cause serious damage.
"Right now what we need to do is get our young people back on track," said Ortiz, who works full time as director of the youth gang diversion program at the Hollywood Wilshire YMCA. "Many of our young people think they have to be a gang member first in order to be a Chicano."
Ortiz, who grew up in Lincoln Heights with a reputation as a kid who was quick to get into a fight, believes only Chicanos will truly help Chicanos.
"Nobody is creating opportunities. We're the only ones who care enough to do something," said Ortiz, who now lives in Gardena. "In a way, we're a little racist and separatist but we can't leave it up to somebody else."
One project the Padrinos are most proud of is recruiting young men to work for the U.S. Forest Service as members of an on-call firefighting crew. The Aztecs, which has about 20 members, was formed last year to help fight wildfires throughout California and elsewhere.
Juan Valle, 21, of Boyle Heights, a member of the Aztecs who joined a gang when he was 13 or 14, said the older men have shown him opportunities and are helping him prepare to earn his high school equivalency diploma.
"If it wasn't for the crew, I probably wouldn't be working at all," he said, adding that he bought a car with the money he earned fighting fires. "Now I don't want to do anything stupid and get busted."
One night recently, some Aztec crew members and a few future prospects crowded into a conference room at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church to be sure their Forest Service paperwork was properly filled out.
Mike Jaramillo, 58, moving from one part of the conference room to another, supervised the church session along with Forest Service Capt. Mark Glos.
At times, Jaramillo watched closely over the young men's shoulders as they filled out forms. In hallways, he buttonholed some to make sure everything was all right, both on the street and at home.
Jaramillo, who is employment director at the Downtown-based Chicana Service Action Center, was serious about helping the young men find jobs.
He habitually ran together the Spanish words for "my son," mi hijo, when talking to the young men, making it come out m'ijo.
"The reason I get excited is because they're excited," he said, smiling.
The younger men respectfully refer to Padrinos like Jaramillo as veteranos.
"I know a lot of guys who aren't doing anything but selling drugs trying to make money. The veteranos try to help us find jobs or other programs," said Alan Velasco, 22, of La Puente, who was at the church with his 18-month-old son, "Little Ed." "They talk straight to us, if anything."
The Padrinos' devotion toward their cause is never flaunted. They guard vigorously against the exploitation of their community. Outsiders are likely to find members distrustful of their intentions.
It is part of the loyalty many of them say they feel toward their people, la raza --something they wish more of the younger generation understood.
Mike Duran, of Alhambra, a longtime county worker who retired from the Probation Department last year, presses the theme of creating role models for the Chicano community during his part-time work for Mujeres Y Hombres Nobles, an alternative education program in Monterey Park.
"In just about every field of endeavor there's a Chicano or Chicana that's doing good," he said. "We've got to exhort one another to be the best."
Duran's technique, as many can attest, often translates as a kick in the pants.
Robert Hijar, 22, a singer and rapper known as M.C. BLVD, credits Duran with introducing him to a producer who helped launch Hijar in the music industry. Hijar, who met Duran a few years ago while on probation because of illegal gang activity, said the older man's influence was immense.
"I made a huge jump when I started getting involved with Mike Duran and my music," said Hijar, whose first album, "I Remember You, Homie," is on sale in music stores. "If Padrinos could change 500 to 1,000 lives, that's huge."
Duran and others have also been encouraged by the involvement of relatively young Padrinos who may keep the effort alive for years.
Robert Sainz, 28, of Monterey Park, is a Padrino who works full time as community relations director for the Probation Department.
Born in Lincoln Heights, Sainz pursued an education that included a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University. Like most Padrinos, Sainz takes advantage of the contacts he makes at work and as a volunteer to try to create job or recreational opportunities for others.
"If you look at the numbers of who's at risk you'll find it's kids from the poorer neighborhoods," Sainz said. "There is a huge problem there. No one thing works in isolation."
On the same wavelength as Sainz is Jimmy Valenzuela, another Padrino.
Valenzuela, 30, a youth program coordinator at Dolores Mission, said gang activity is not always bad. However, he admitted going through a period in his early 20s when he was in and out of jail on various charges, including assault and possession of a handgun, that grew out of his gang activity.
"I've gotten to the point where I know the good side and the bad side. To me the gang is the family. We help each other," he said, adding that danger within gangs comes from lack of hope. "I see there's no respect among the youths. What we're trying to do is put back some respect. It's just a step."
Still, the chances of Padrinos or any other similar group making even a minor dent in the city's gang problems seem remote to most observers.
McBride of the Sheriff's Department said there are an estimated 85,000 Latino gang members in Los Angeles. Of the more than 1,130 street gangs in the county, nearly 590 are Latino, he said.
Most Padrinos have reached out to young men who have fallen back into the street life, or refused to step away. And even some of those they reached continue to straddle the line between legal and illegal activities.
With those facts in mind, the Padrinos are recruiting potential new members to help the effort.
Among the group's associate members is Raul Ortiz, 40, of Montebello.
Ortiz, a heavily tattooed member of the Aztecs who admits having a long history of substance abuse and incarcerations, acknowledges that he must fight his addiction each day. At the same time, he is eager to do well and continue to make the Padrinos proud of him.
"They helped us get these jobs," Ortiz said. "While I'm working, I push the other guys too. I've been doing OK. I feel a lot better."
Several Padrinos said that facing their huge challenge is both worthwhile and long overdue.
"I feel confidence," Jaramillo said. "They're hungry and we're feeding them."