Let No Child Be Left Behind : The Pico Gardens and Aliso Village Housing Projects Make Up the Most Violent Neighborhood in L.A. There, a Community of Mothers Fights for Peace, Facing Their Sorrow and Offering Friendship--and Grace

Celeste Fremon is a free-lance writer whose book, "Father Greg & the Homeboys," was published in July by Hyperion. The book resulted from an article for this magazine

At 8:15 on a summer evening, 64 mothers, most of them Latinas, walk in a procession into the parking lot of a tiny stucco church in the poorest part of East Los Angeles. The women carry white candles that they shield from the evening wind. They sing hymns in Spanish as they walk: "I have faith that the men will sing. I have faith that this song will be a song of universal love." In the rectory, five more mothers are completing a meeting with members of the street gang known as The Mob Crew--TMC for short. A few days ago, the mothers met with Cuatro Flats, a rival gang that claims territory two blocks east. The gangs' enmity is particularly tragic because the members grew up together; they even share a set of brothers.

A week before, two young boys were killed in the course of this war: a 12-year-old Cuatro kid named Johnny and a 13-year-old named Joseph, who was mistaken for his 16-year-old TMC brother. The deaths spurred the mothers to organize these marches and meetings with the hope of hammering out a lasting truce between the two gangs, complete with a kind of multi-gang United Nations peacekeeping commission that will mediate future disputes.

The peace gathering in the rectory is just breaking up as the mothers form a huge circle in the parking lot. The women motion for the gang members to join the circle. At first, the homeboys look unsure in the face of this formidable bloc of feminine energy.

"C'mon now!" One of the mothers, a smallish woman named Pamela McDuffie, bustles out of the rectory, her long, magenta fingernails fluttering behind the reluctant young men whom she herds toward the circle.

"In their hearts they want this peace," Pam whispers to me, nodding toward the gang members, who have by now each taken a mother's hand. "You can see it in their faces."

*

Pam and the other mothers live in the twin housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, which combine to form the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi. Pico/Aliso is the poorest parish within the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. According to statistics compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department, Pico/Aliso is also one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. Last year, the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles occurred in the Hollenbeck division--and the highest concentration of gang activity in Hollenbeck was in the mile-square-plus Pico/Aliso housing projects. If life in Los Angeles is harsh and scary, it's scariest in Pico/Aliso.

I began driving to Pico/Aliso in the fall of 1990 to research a book on Latino gang members and the celebrated priest who works with them, Father Greg Boyle. In the beginning, I spent most of my time observing the homeboys who grabbed the headlines. It took a while for me to notice the community's women--and Pam.

I first observed her and the Pico/Aliso women in action in January of 1991 when they decided to have a showdown with the police department. For years, certain officers had been beating up the kids of the community and no amount of protests or complaints filed seemed to stop the abuse. The mothers had set up a telephone tree and called one another whenever the police had a kid "hemmed up," street parlance for spread-eagled, hands against the wall. The idea was that if there were witnesses, the police would behave appropriately. But the technique seemed only to inflame the officers, who shouted the women back inside with threats of arrest and beat on the boys anyway.

The mothers decided enough was enough. They invited Capt. Bob Medina, then-head of the Hollenbeck division, to attend a packed-to-the-rafters meeting at Dolores Mission, the local Catholic church. Mother after mother came up to the microphone, told anecdotes and made demands for respect. Most of the women in the room hadn't finished high school. Many couldn't read. Nonetheless, the women looked the officers in the eyes and said, "If you cannot treat us and our kids as human beings, we'll do whatever it takes to get you fired."

The police got the point, and for a while, the violence diminished.

I live in Topanga, which prides itself on its activism, yet I doubted that my neighbors and I could have confronted the police so effectively. A week later, I became curious about the crowd of adult males I always saw gathering in the church parking lot each evening around 6. I was told that every night, in rotating shifts, Pam and the other women of the projects make dinner for 125 or so homeless men who sleep in the church. Moreover, every weekend, the same women walk the streets of the community in what had come to be called Love Walks, telling the gang members by their words and presence, "You are all our sons. We love you. We don't want you to kill each other." I began to think that the real story in East L.A. wasn't the gang members at all. It was the women.

The roots of the women's activism can be traced to Father Boyle, a Jesuit schooled in liberation theology. In Latin America, liberation theology--a philosophy that marries spirituality with social justice--had sprung out of the comunidades de base , base communities, which were, in essence, gospel study groups.

*

The roots of the women's activism can be traced to Father Boyle, a Jesuit schooled in liberation theology. In Latin America, liberation theology--a philosophy that marries spirituality with social justice--had sprung out of the comunidades de base, base communities, which were, in essence, gospel study groups.

When Boyle was assigned to be pastor of Dolores Mission in 1986, he decided to emphasize the base communities. The previous pastor had started several, but they had foundered. Under Boyle's influence, the base communities grew from three anemic gatherings to 10 energetic groups of mostly women who met weekly to discuss ways to reshape themselves and their surroundings.

Traditionally, the structure of the base communities is designed around three simple tenets: 1. Ver : See your reality. Look at what's going on around you. Are the neighborhood kids shooting at each other every night? Are the local cops behaving badly? Is one of the neighbors beating his wife and children? 2. Analizar: Analyze the situation in terms of the Gospel. What does the Gospel say about such problems? Would the Bible suggest hating the gang members or regarding them as kids in need of help? 3. Actuar : Act. What action should we take? Que haria Jesus? What would Jesus do in this situation?

The comforting abstractions of organized religion have always made me nervous. But when the women of Pico/Aliso asked themselves, "Que haria Jesus?" they were not looking for easy answers. When you live in the barrio, Que haria Jesus? is not a question for the faint of heart. It requires a level of commitment and action that goes well beyond what is considered sensible elsewhere. By asking "Que haria Jesus?" the women of Pico/Aliso not only taught themselves how to face the community's problems, they also found the confidence to see the solutions that lay within reach of their own hearts and hands.

While the rest of America was talking about the importance of personal responsibility, these women were walking the talk. In Pico/Aliso, drug use and drug dealing are rampant. Small craters pock the walls of stores and apartment buildings, reminders of the time this boy was shot, that one killed. Yet for each of the community's tragic aspects, the women seem to have started a program, usually with Father Boyle's help. There is a community-owned and -operated day-care center (built by a construction crew of local gang members), a women's leadership training program, a mentor program for Pico/Aliso's junior high and high school-age women and the Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio, the women's organization struggling to keep peace in their barrio.

Certainly, there are other such programs elsewhere in the country, but this profusion in a single, tiny impoverished neighborhood struck me as remarkable. In the economic and political climate of the '90s, generosity is at a premium. Itake care of mine; charity begins at home. Yet the mothers of Pico/Aliso seemed to approach life from a different perspective, more as one would in a village, where it's understood that the fates of all the residents are intricately intertwined.

For reasons as much personal as professional, I wanted to know these women.

*

For a long time, I attended community social events, even bringing my son on many occasions, but I did so as an outsider. Most Pico/Aliso community events are mother-organized potlucks. Yet in the beginning, I never brought any food. It was clear that no one expected me to bring anything and I didn't offer. As time passed, I felt uncomfortable with this arrangement and asked what I could contribute. Correctly assessing that my skills as a chicken mole chef were somewhat lacking, the women assigned me safe items to bring, like soft drinks and paper plates. Then I was invited to yet another event, and I asked Pam McDuffie what she was bringing. "I always bring my barbecued chicken," she said."That seems to go over good."

"Do you think it'd be OK if I brought a salad?" I asked.

"I think that'd be just fine, honey," she said. "They'll be honored you made the effort."

I was going to make a nice, boring green salad. But I decided instead to use those fancy, pre-washed baby greens you can get at upscale supermarkets. Plus, I added feta cheese to the usual fare of tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados and carrots. I didn't go overboard. There was no raspberry vinegar or goat cheese. But it was a step more Westside than any salad I'd seen during my year in the projects. That salad was a turning point. For the first hour after I set the salad on the food table, people just walked by the thing and stared at it. Some even gave it an experimental poke with a fork. Nobody tried it. I know this because I kept going back and checking the salad. It remained inviolate. I felt stupid.

Pam broke the spell. She had gotten to the party late, bringing her chicken as promised. "Is this your salad?" she asked, heaping herself a plate of the rejected greens. "Delicious, girl!" she pronounced it. "I like that salty white stuff, what d' you call it?" After Pam's foray, the other women gathered around the salad for the rest of the afternoon, chatting and taking helpings until the whole bowl was gone.

At the next party, Pam asked me to bring the salad. By the third party she said,"I told them you'd bring your famous salad." Now all the women say it. "You're bringing your famous salad, aren't you?" It became my calling card. It made me an equal. Because of the salad, I was no longer an outsider. I was a girlfriend.

*

Pam McDuffie and I aren't the likeliest of girlfriends. Pam wears high-heeled Spring-O-Lators with everything, including shorts. She's a white woman, like me. In her 40s, like me. But I'm an ex-USC cheerleader, ex-New York fashion editor, current D.A.R. daughter. Pam is an ex-welfare mother who was born in, raised in and never left the housing projects of East L.A. I wear low-key clothes in blacks and neutrals, and little more than lipstick. In addition to her manicure,Pam paints on a full face of makeup, including perfect Clara Bow lips every day of her life, wears neon tones cut down to there and up to there, and struts all of the above with panache.

I feel stressed raising one child on my own. Pam is raising a boy my son's age, as well as a drug-addicted girl whose blood mother died locked up in Sybil Brand Institute, plus her own four grandbabies. These children of her eldest daughter descend on her almost nightly, like little birds for a feeding. Joseph, her godchild, was the 13-year-old just killed in the gang war. It was Pam, with the support of the community women, who raised the money to bury him.

Pam calls everybody "honey," including Vice President Al Gore when he came on a fact-finding swing through her barrio. "C'mon, honey, give me a hug!" purred Pam, sweeping past the horrified Secret Service agents with arms outstretched. Gore obediently gave her the hug. Pam used to be the local VISTA volunteer. Now, as the official gang consultant for the city's Housing Authority, she is finally salaried for the work she has always done for free. She is the first mother on the street when anything happens: a gang fight, a shooting, a mini riot. She keeps a cleaner house than I do and, on her fixed income, is the queen of budgeting, unfailingly paying every bill on time. We discuss where to find the latest bargains. She's a Sears woman, while I'm partial to Target. But we've come to see each other's points of view.

*

When the mothers accepted me, so did the younger female members of the community--the girls. Since I have no daughters, I warmed quickly to these new relationships. However, unlike a real mother or a real aunt, my responsibilities were temporary. At least that's what I thought until a girl named Grace taught me otherwise.

Grace Campos has the soft, pliable beauty of a Modigliani Madonna. She tests in the highly gifted range and has wanted to be a doctor since she was in third grade. When I met her, she was still attending Bravo, a medical magnet high school in Los Angeles. But she had just become pregnant by a gang member named Stranger. Grace had the baby on Halloween eve of 1991, a month and a half before she turned 16. I drove her to the hospital.

"We were used to reporters coming down here," Grace said once when I asked her if the girls minded my presence. "But they always left. You kept coming back. We'd say, 'Look, there she is again. Why does she want to be here?' But we could tell you liked us. And after a while, we got used to you."

Four months after Grace's daughter was born, the reality of the dead end that had become her life slammed Grace in the face. She was a teen-age dropout with a baby, stuck in a dingy apartment with Stranger, who was spending most of his time on the street. Her own father, a gentle but drug-addicted man, stole her mother's watch and her older brother's class ring to buy more crack cocaine from the local homeboys. A year later, Stranger was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for a murder it was well known he didn't commit. Grace talked about killing herself.

In the midst of this, Grace asked me to be her comadre --godmother to her daughter, Beatriz. When she first asked me to help baptize her baby, I was flattered, viewing my role as akin to being the maid of honor at a wedding. I understood that certain things were expected. I would buy the baby her baptism outfit and arrange for the cake at the party. That was about it. Grace and I went to Penney's department store, where she'd determined we would find the best selection of baptism dresses. As Grace leafed through a rack of lacy white garments, she chatted absently about why she had chosen me as godmother. "I think you'll be a good person for Beatriz to lean her head to when she's growing up," she said. I suddenly got the picture: Grace was asking me to make a commitment to this baby--for the rest of my life.

My first reaction was to frantically calculate how I could weasel out of my obligation. Then I took a long, hard look at the situation. I can't exactly say that I asked, "Que haria Jesus?" But here was Grace, trying to make a decent future for her daughter in the face of odds that would have had me curled into a permanent fetal position. And she was offering me the privilege of being a part of that future. How could I possibly turn her down?

So I became godmother to a beautiful little girl, and got a ringside seat to watch as Grace turned her life around. (She is now married and working as a kindergarten teacher.) In doing so, my commitment to the community underwent a change. These women, even the young women, take their friendships seriously. And if I wanted to be a girlfriend or an auntie or a comadre , it was clear I'd better get serious, too.

*

"People are embarrassed to say they grew up poor," Grace says to me now. "To me, growing up poor can help you. I see that I know things about life that other people who didn't grow up in the projects don't know." She pauses. "Like with you: you taught us stuff, but maybe we taught you stuff, too."

Pam teaches me constantly. Although her monthly cash flow is around one third that of mine, she finds the wherewithal to provide for others. "I could buy a pair of shoes at Robinsons or go to PayLess and be able to help some girl buy her prom dress," Pam says, with a shrug. "I don't look at myself as underprivileged, just 'cause I'm poor. God supplies my needs and I'm comfortable with that."

Unlike me, Pam is not in the least intimidated by confrontations. As a girl, she used to get in fistfights, as do many of the community's girls even now, and no one here thinks it overly unseemly. Pam's son-in-law is a gang member, but he is afraid of this 5' 2" woman. " 'Cause he knows I'd kick his ass!" she says. I have seen Pam walk up to large, angry-looking adolescents and tell them that if they don't do such and such, she's going to kick their blankety-blank ass. Except that she doesn't say blankety-blank.

There is no hint of meanness in Pam's threat, no shadow of abuse. It is a don't-sass-or-mess-with-me style of defining the boundaries between right and wrong for the multitude of community kids--and adults--whom she regards with proprietary interest.

"Not to be mean. . ." Pam will say right before she launches into the most stupendous piece of gossip. "Not to be mean, but that woman is always complaining about drug dealing and yet she's having no trouble accepting money from her son slanging." (To slang is the street verb meaning to sell crack.) "I asked her yesterday," Pam's rap continues with the force of a stand-up monologue, "where'd she think that money's coming from? I said that to her, yes I did, and honey, it got so quiet, you could'a heard a rat piss on cotton! Mmmmm, hmmm!"

In watching Pam work with gang members, I always think of a fragment of a poem by Bertolt Brecht:

When a child is about to be run down by a car

one pulls it on to the pavement.

Not the kindly man does that,

to whom they put up monuments.

Anyone pulls the child away from the car.

But here many have been run down,

and many pass by and do nothing. . . .

Pam never passes by and does nothing. She treats every kid on the street as if he were her own son. Over time, I have come to believe hers is the only sane attitude to have toward one's community, one's city, one's life: Let no child beleft behind.

*

In the summer of 1992, Father Boyle left Pico/Aliso for a year's sabbatical and it looked as if the Jesuit hierarchy wasn't going to allow him return (it eventually did). In Boyle's absence, a war broke out between two of the project's main gangs. By then I, like Pam, could no longer just walk by. I knew the kids too well and understood too vividly the high cost of doing nothing.

To plug the hole in the dike created by Boyle's departure, Pam and I formed our own informal mother posse of two. I would drive to the projects every weekend, pick Pam up, then we would walk the neighborhoods, stopping to talk to kids in the various gangs. If nothing bad happened, I would go home around midnight. If there was trouble, we would stay on the street, perhaps going to the hospital or rushing to intervene when we felt our presence could do some good.

During that year, Pam and I were drawn into increasingly extreme circumstances. One night, we saw one group of gang members walking armed toward the territory where we knew another gang was waiting. We got between the two opposing forces, shouting them apart like mother cats hissing at bad kittens. On other nights, we cajoled armed boys off the street and into my car to take them home when we knew the situation was about to turn catastrophic.

When I told my Westside friends the stories of our mishaps, they would lecture me sternly. "You have a child to raise," they would begin. I tried to explain that my own child did always, would always, come first. But I am committed to these other kids, too. Surely one shouldn't have to sacrifice the one for the other.

*

I don't mean to give the wrong impression. The Pico/Aliso women can be gossipy and petty. And members of my home community of Topanga are capable of great courage and generosity when the situation demands it--most notably during the fires, floods and other natural disasters that descend on our canyon on a cyclical basis. Perhaps the main difference is that the situation makes demands on the women of Pico/Aliso with a staggering frequency, and the demands are so often unbearable. Such was the case of a woman named Marta Sosa, who got slammed by the most unendurable of demands.

Marta lives in a third-story apartment with two bedrooms and no phone. Her husband is serving time in prison, convicted of a drug-related theft. Marta had three children. Her eldest, Brenda, has grown up and moved away. Osmin, the youngest, recently turned 15. The middle child, Edgar, was 18 when he was killed in a gang-related shooting two years ago, shot by boys he had known all his life.

Edgar was known on the street as Triste--Sad Boy. He had a face dusted with freckles, a slow, cherubic smile and sad-clown eyes that always appeared to be on the verge of tears. He had just bought a soda and was standing at the corner of 3rd and Clarence streets when a flatbed truck drove by. Kids lying down in the back, Cuatro Flats gang members, opened fire. It took the paramedics 20 minutes to arrive. Edgar died at USC County General.

Edgar was killed on May 15, the birthday of Stranger, the father of Grace's baby, my godbaby. Pam's sister was inside the market when Edgar was shot. It was she who screamed for someone to call the ambulance. Pam and the other mothers organized the food sales to raise money for the funeral.

In years past, Marta had been blandita --passive--but Edgar's death transformed her. Instead of rejecting Edgar's homeboys, she befriended them. She began walking the streets with the Comite Pro Paz mothers, even walking into Pico Gardens, where the members of Cuatro Flats hang out. The Cuatro boys would watch her, unsure how to react. Their expressions would swing from angry defensiveness to awe and back again as they stared at the ferociously luminous face of this woman who came to pray with them.

In a matter of months, Marta went from speaking only Spanish to commanding enough English to give talks in public. The other mothers, recognizing an emerging talent, handed her the microphone when there was a need for a spokesperson. By the summer of 1994, she was elected president of the Comite Pro Paz. This past spring, she left the presidency to help other L.A. communities ignite their own mother-based activism.

I got to know Marta only after Edgar's death. I had been following Edgar for my book. His death stunned me, a peripheral adult in his life. I could hardly stand to imagine how Marta must feel. A psychologist might have suggested that she was submerging her grief beneath all this intense activity and that there would be hell to pay later. Yet any fool could see that her pain never went away, and her activism was the thing that kept her standing upright.

Last spring, I was blindsided by pain of my own. My father was hospitalized for two weeks and, in my heart, I knew he was dying. During those weeks, the only times I left the hospital were to be with my son or to go to the projects. I needed to be around my Pico/Aliso girlfriends even more than with other friends of much longer standing. One night, I slipped away from the hospital to attend a party for a photo/video portrait of Pico/Aliso that had been created by Grace and some other teen-agers from the projects. At some point during the video presentation, an image of Edgar's face flickered briefly across the screen. Marta and I clutched each other's hands and cried--her about Edgar, me about my father. I never explained to anyone why I was crying. It wasn't necessary. The girls and women of Pico/Aliso know grief well and can go to its center without self-consciousness.

When my father died a week later, Pam and several carloads of the women from the projects came to his funeral. I knew Pam was coming, but I was surprised by the presence of the other women, some of whom I barely knew. Very few of my Westside friends had come. When some asked if I wanted them there, I told them no, I was OK. The women of Pico/Aliso never asked. They just came. I had shared their grief; now they came to share mine.

*

A few months ago, I gathered with the women of Pico/Aliso to bury yet another of their young men. The night of the funeral, Pam sang in the choir. Other mothers circulated through the crowd, collecting money for the family. Marta was among the mourners. When the casket was opened, Marta and I went to say a prayer over the boy, a 19-year-old named Erick Rivera with blue eyes who, unable to imagine a future for himself, had shot himself in the head four nights before.

After we passed the casket, Marta began crying. "Who's next? Who's next?!" she sobbed. I had been asking myself the same question. Each death here calls up all the others.

Suddenly Marta's sobs became more extreme, as if the wound from Edgar's death had broken open anew. "I don't want to live anymore," she sobbed. "I don't want to live anymore. I don't care about nothing. I just want to see Edgar again. I don't care about nothing."

Osmin, her younger son, came up and stood beside her, panic-stricken. Immediately, Pam and a few other mothers gathered, whispering instructions to one another. One walked outside with Osmin. The rest of us tried to comfort Marta. As the night wore on, Marta needed more help than we could provide, and by midnight, four of us were sitting in the emergency room of White Memorial hospital--Marta, Pam, Maria Teixeira (another woman who works in the neighborhood) and me. Father Boyle and Leonardo Vilchis, the on-staff adviser tothe Comite Pro Paz, had helped us persuade Marta to go to the hospital. But the men were outside by then. It was only the women waiting with Marta as the hospital personnel processed the paperwork to allow her to be admitted for rest and observation.

After three hours of bureaucratic tangles, the wait had become excruciating. To ease the tension, Pam told dark and funny stories about her impending separation from her husband. "Did I tell you about the insurance policy he took out on me? Girl! You're not going to believe this one. I get this call from Sears. This woman calls and says they're having a special and that we can double our life insurance for a tiny little fee more per month. And I tell her we don't have any life insurance. And she tells me that we do, that my husband's taken out a policy on me. That man planning to kill me! I tell you after that, girl, I'm sleeping with one eye open like this!" And she demonstrates. "I tell every one 'a my friends. If something happens to me, he did it. Don't give him any'a my money. Burn it before you give it to him!"

Soon, we were all laughing--even Marta--as Pam offered her own pain to take the edge off of Marta's terror.

Next I told a story about my divorce. Then Maria told a story. It was as if we were pooling our sadness and making a poultice to draw the sorrow out of Marta--if only temporarily, if only for that moment. This is what girlfriends do, I kept thinking.

As terrible as the night had been, I drove home feeling peaceful. Nothing had been solved exactly. We couldn't bring Edgar back. What we could do is tell Marta by our presence, "Look: We're all in this together. This time it's your grief. Next time it could be ours."

*

The grief continues and continues. A week after the June meeting of mothers and gangs, there was another shooting death, and the peace process derailed again. When I found Pam late in the afternoon after the shooting, she had been on the street all day, talking with homeboys of both sides, calming things down.

"Doesn't it sometimes seem hopeless?" I blurted when I finally reached her.

"Well," she said, "on the day I spent 4 1/2 hours in the mall, shopping for a suit to bury Joseph, I did feel hopeless," referring to her 13-year-old godson. "I had planned on buying him the suit for his eighth-grade graduation. But instead, there I am trying to find a suit for his funeral." Her voice cracked for a moment. "That day, I felt real hopeless. I was so filled with anger and rage that I couldn't even hug my own kids 'cause I didn't want them to feel what I was feeling, it was so terrible. And the other mothers are the same as me. They're hurting and they're angry. As a community, these deaths are like a earthquake that has shattered us down to ground level."

Pam paused to steady herself. "But we can't stay that way, you know what I'm saying? Because if we do, it means we are hopeless and our children are hopeless. No. We are going to make this peace work."

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