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‘Homies’ Toys Anger Anti-Gang Forces

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Visit a market in many Latino neighborhoods across the country and you might come across Homies--tiny Chicano figurines wearing baggy clothes, white T-shirts, bandannas and knit caps.

The creator of the 1 3/4-inch-tall cartoonish toys, which are sold in gum ball machines, said Homies are caricatures of real people from Mexican American barrios, like the one near San Jose where he grew up. More than 1 million have been sold since they hit the market four months ago, a distributor says.

“That’s a big part of our culture: young, lowrider Chicano kids wearing baggy clothes,” said David Gonzales, 39, who draws the characters out of his Northern California home. “Most of them are based on people I met. A lot of them are my friends.”

But Los Angeles Police Department officers and prosecutors said the figurines are clearly designed to be gang members, and that they glamorize that violent culture. As the nation again struggles with the issue of limiting children’s exposure to violence in movies, music, video games and television, local authorities say Homies should be removed from stores.

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“It’s scary that kids are playing with this,” said LAPD Det. P.J. Morris, a member of the gang detail in the northwest San Fernando Valley, who is trying to persuade vendors to remove the toys. “We’re trying to fight and teach kids to stay away from gangs, and we have to contend with this as well?”

Gonzales said people who criticize his Homies are simply ignorant of the Chicano culture. The toys don’t represent violent gangsters, just authentic barrio life from the 1970s and 1980s, a time he considers more peaceful than the present.

“Usually the people throwing rocks are on the outside looking in. They don’t understand our culture,” said Gonzales, a San Jose State University alumnus who is studying computer animation in San Francisco. “I know where my heart is.

“I keep my Homie characters violence-free and drug-free,” he said. “I don’t push gangs.”

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The Homies draw mixed reactions from Los Angeles area Latino community leaders, raising issues of dignity, stereotyping and the right to artistic expression.

Some in the community agree that many of the images are nothing more than silly, harmless or nostalgic portrayals of characters that have existed for decades.

“It’s a form of art and I respect it as such,” said Xavier Flores, head of the area Mexican American Political Assn. and the San Fernando-based social service agency Pueblo y Salud.

He said he has seen similar caricatures over the years and considers them a legitimate portrayal of disaffected Mexican American youth who feel neglected and rejected by the dominant culture. “It’s art imitating life.”

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But other activists said they found the toys to be offensive.

“They are negative images. They perpetuate stereotypes,” said Helen Hernandez, president and founder of the Imagen Foundation, which honors groups that portray Latinos in a positive light in film, television and advertising. “Who is he kidding?”

“I believe in creative freedom, but I also believe in social responsibility,” Hernandez said in disgust as she examined the toys.

“They’re cool! They’re gangsters,” said 9-year-old Gino Johnson, a sweet-faced third-grader at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, who was interviewed at the Pacoima Boys and Girls Club on Thursday. “Can I have this one?”

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Sitting across from him, and offering a different perspective, was Eliana Cortes, 11, of Sylmar.

“It’s not really a positive influence on little kids,” said Eliana, a student at Vintage Magnet School in North Hills, who wants to be a pediatrician. “If little kids get them, they’ll want to play with them and then they’ll want to be like that.”

A&A; Company/Parkway Machine Corp., which manufactures Homies in Taiwan factories in a deal with Gonzales, said the toys are a big hit in Latino neighborhoods.

“Kids love them. They think they’re great,” said Brian Kovens, owner of the Maryland-based company, which he said is a leader in the gum ball machine industry. “It’s their culture in a little figurine.”

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He said orders continue to pour in, not only from heavily Latino-populated states of Texas, New Mexico, Florida and New York, but also from Utah, North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa.

Sold as key chains or stand-up dolls, Homies come in six characters--Droopy, Smiley, Sapo, Mr. Raza, Big Loco, Eight Ball.

The toys fill two gum ball machines outside the Vallarta Supermarket in Canoga Park, with one display depicting the figurines standing on a darkened street corner in front of a brick wall adorned with drawings of dice and sports cars.

Gonzales has been drawing Homies since he was in high school in Richmond, Calif. Homies were first published as a cartoon strip in Low Rider magazine when he was 17 and drove his lowered ’74 Chevy Caprice around the Bay Area.

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Since then he has sold them--and his other Latino art, including Aztec, Pancho Villa and Virgen de Guadalupe renditions--on T-shirts and stickers. Over the years he has designed 40 Homies characters with distinct personalities, including a priest, a chef, a police officer, a grandmother and little children, along with a pumped up man and young Chicana girls.

Gonzales said he began the series with the six characters he believed would be the most popular, and planned to introduce other figures as the toys caught on.

“You can misconstrue anything,” said Gonzales, who owns the rights to the name Homies in music, clothing and toys. “I’m not trying to push any negative lifestyle. It’s just reality. That’s what’s out there.”

He said he named his characters Homies because it meant “anybody from your hometown or anybody you would acknowledge as a friend,” long before it was twisted to mean fellow gang member.

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But Morris, the LAPD officer, said the toys and stickers carry unmistakable signs of gang life. In one sticker, a character named “Sad Boy” has a black tear on his face, a tattoo that Morris said represents the loss of a fellow gang member “in the line of duty.” (Gonzales said it’s not supposed to be a tattoo, just a teardrop.)

Several of the figurines wear white T-shirts and baggy pants, some with a shirt or jacket buttoned only at the top button, which Morris and others say is typical gang attire.

“We’re thinking of putting them up in court and saying: ‘if you’re dressed like these guys, you’re violating probation,’ ” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Jesic, who prosecutes juveniles in Sylmar and saw the toys on sale for 50 cents at a grocery store two weeks ago. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, especially in this area that has numerous gangs.”

But Manuel Gomez, UC Irvine vice chancellor and professor, complained of the police characterization of the toys as gang memorabilia simply because of their clothing.

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“Everyone has their uniform, but it does not, in the current culture, mean gangs,” said Gomez, a Latino culture expert. “Minority ethnic groups of young men, regardless of the kind of club or organization they form, often are referred to as gangs.”

He said that Gonzales’ art captures the desire to create an “independent spirit” that is common in Mexican American barrios.

“It is just one more reflection of a reality that should not and cannot, perhaps, be denied,” Gomez said.

But is it an appropriate gum ball machine toy?

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“I wouldn’t want my kid buying it and I don’t believe they’re positive images,” Gomez replied.

“If my 7-year-old son brought that to my house,” said Flores of the Mexican American Political Assn., “I would say: ‘No, mijo, I don’t want you having that. I don’t want you glamorizing this lifestyle.’ ”


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