Cesar Chavez is a candle of hope for many youth in the United States and El Salvador. Cesar taught us to use our heads instead of our fists and our hearts not to hate but to change our world.
I came to El Salvador to work on a book, but instead found myself working with Salvadoran youth who had been deported from Los Angeles, spoke English and knew the streets as home. Youth who went to the U.S. as the infants and children of refugees fleeing a violent civil war. Their families were looking for peace and a better life but instead found the discrimination and violence that is part of the daily diet for low-income residents of our cities.
In order to survive, many of these young people joined gangs, like 18th Street, Lennox or Crazy Riders or formed their own like La Mara Salvatrucha. They became part of la vida loca, the crazy life. Soon they knew the gang signs, wore the loose clothing, sported the haircuts and the tattoos. Their parents, working at two or three jobs to survive, were rarely home. Meanwhile, these youth found respect and their replacement family in the gangs.
With the signing of the El Salvador peace treaty in 1992 and with the fury around California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187, the deportation of youth back to El Salvador accelerated. These youth took with them all that they had learned. Now we have the same gangs in El Salvador.
These gang youth keep in touch across borders via telephone, fax and some even by e-mail. They travel back and forth with or without legal documents.
Deported gang youth are not welcomed in El Salvador nor are they accepted in Los Angeles. They are a transnational population without a homeland. Many view the City of Angels as their neighborhood and often seek to return to the streets of L.A.
It is difficult to switch from violence to nonviolence but Cesar Chavez taught us that it can be done. When things become difficult and almost impossible, the members of Homies Unidos recite the powerful slogan made popular in the U.S. by the farm workers' movement: Si se puede. (Yes, it can be done.)
We must take the life and teachings of Cesar Chavez and use them to instruct children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
There are many ways to teach nonviolence. Tougher laws and deportations do not address the roots of the problem. We must become more creative. We must practice reconciliation and not revenge. We need to involve ourselves in our communities by helping others to help themselves. Cesar asked us to dream the impossible, and we all should.