‘One Door Closes, Another Opens’
Yesterday, I buried Arturo. He had worked at Homeboy Industries on our graffiti-removal crew for more than a year. He was an avid reader and taught himself a native Aztec language, and last week, hours before he was gunned down, he greeted me in my office with his characteristic kind words and warm embrace.
Six weeks before, I buried another one of my crew, Miguel, who was painting over a wall at the time he was shot. Three months prior, Miguel had been released from prison, came to see me and, with great tears, lamented, “I’ve spent 20 years building a reputation for myself, and now I regret that I even have one.” I hired him on the spot.
Though police detectives have assured me that these two deaths had no relation to graffiti removal, to our organization or to each other, I’ve decided to discontinue this part of our program. Since 2000, graffiti removal had been one of our job ventures, employing nearly 50 rival gang members to clean the walls in Council District 14.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that we have no other choice but to discontinue the program. Bringing youths who have been involved in gangs back into gang territory increases their vulnerability. We’ll find other jobs for those laid off. One door closes, another one opens. This is a setback, a disappointment, but Homeboy Industries will continue to locate employment, remove tattoos, offer counseling and run businesses for gang members seeking a renewed sense of future in a climate of lethally absent hope.
It’s important to remember that young people who join gangs are not seeking something -- but fleeing something. They move rapidly away from a disconnected misery, born of violence, domestic mayhem and negligence. Then they find themselves in gangs and regret forever this decision they never really made.
The deaths of Arturo Casas and Miguel Gomez should spur Los Angeles to a redoubled vigor in addressing this issue at its vexing roots. And yet, if our diagnosis is bad, how good will our treatment plan be?
Miguel and Art were a whole lot more than their criminal records and past gang allegiance. Just because they made mistakes didn’t mean that they were mistakes. At Homeboy Industries, rival gang members substitute the confines of gang affiliation for the ever-widening expanse of real, live community. And community will trump gang any day. The deaths of young people before their time ought not to invite further demonizing, but rather call us to “look beyond fault and see need,” as the old spiritual goes. The thing certain to awaken bravery in us all is the commitment to create a community of kinship in this city, where felons are hired, where everyone with a past is offered a future and no one is allowed outside the circle of our compassion.
At a car wash on Sunday, 50 people from Homeboy Industries gathered to help raise money to bury Arturo. At least 13 different gangs were “represented” in the collection of my employees who washed cars in the hot sun. Enemies, working together, side by side, in a common purpose. The puniness of gang turf transformed into the vastness of kinship.
Some might call such an effort a waste of our time, energy and resources. The prophet Isaiah is helpful here -- “For in this place of which you say it is a waste, there will be heard again the voice of mirth ... the voices of those who sing.”