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Hearts and HandsCreating Community in Violent Times
By Luis Rodriguez
Seven Stories PressCopyright © 2003 Luis Rodriguez
All right reserved.
Out of each dead child sprouts a gun with eyes and out of each crime bullets are born that someday will find the place of your hearts.
Pedro was a thoughtful, articulate, and charismatic young man; he would listen, absorb, and respond. He had the sharp Spanish-African features of his Puerto Rican heritage, a thin but muscular body, and light curly hair cut short except for a small "tail" at the nape of his neck. His movements were quick and well developed due to years of surviving in the streets of Chicago. In 1993 Pedro was a twenty-year-old gang leader. For most of his life, he lived off and on between his welfare mother and an uncle. He had been kicked out of schools and had served time in youth detention facilities. He was also a great human being.
For four months that year the courts had designated me and my wife, Trini, as Pedro's guardians under a house-arrest sentence. He was respectful and polite. He meticulously answered all my messages. My six-year-old son, Ruben, loved him and my nineteen-year-old son, Ramiro, happened to be his best friend at the time.
During his stay I gave Pedro books to help him become more cognizant of the world. Books like Palante, a photo text about the Young Lords Party of the 1970s, opened him up to an important slice of history that, until then, he had never known about.
One evening, Pedro was talking with a couple of girls at the bottom of the stairs, two flights below the apartment. I had just arrived by cab from the airport following a speaking trip. Although I worried Pedro would trigger his ankle monitor--he had to stay within the hundred-foot limit--I walked upstairs, put my bags down, and began a chat with Trini. When I heard a commotion downstairs and Pedro yelled out my name, I knew he was being jumped. I ran down the stairs like a herd of wild elephants and saw two guys beating up on Pedro. I came out swinging (I hit mostly wall and a lot of air). The two guys took off as this heavy-set Mexican rushed toward them.
Pedro was down, but unhurt. I walked out and the two guys were still there. One cowered behind the wheels of a delivery truck. The other, cornered at the entrance of a Laundromat, picked up some kid's bicycle to throw at me. I confronted them both, saying that regardless of what beef they had with Pedro, as long as he stayed with my family, they would have beef with me. I'm sure they contemplated jumping me. But they hesitated and fled. In reality I was out of breath and vulnerable. Those young guys could have taken me, except that I acted as if I could hold my own.
For some time after, Pedro and I laughed about that incident. It also strengthened our friendship that he knew I would jeopardize myself to safeguard his presence in my home. His stay with us passed without further problems.
When Pedro was released from house arrest, he moved out of the neighborhood with his girlfriend and her small boy. She later had his first child. He found a job. Although he remained a leader of the gang, he also talked about struggle, about social change, about going somewhere. It appeared his life was making a turn for the better.
Then, in November 1993, Pedro was shot three times with a .44 and was hit in his back, a leg, and a hand. He lived, but he was not the same after that. During his hospital stay the same gang that had shot him ambushed and killed Angel, a friend of Ramiro's and Pedro's. An honor student at one of the best schools in the city, Angel was on his way to school. News accounts the next day failed to mention this, reporting only that he was a suspected gang member, as if this fact justified his death.
In the overcrowded room of the public hospital where Pedro was recovering with tubes taped to his body, and with fellow patients coughing and moaning nearby, I tried to persuade him to get his boys to chill. I knew Ramiro and the others were all sitting ducks. Pedro went through some internal turmoil, but he decided to forbid retaliation. This was hard for him, but with tears of rage falling down his cheeks, he did it.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. In early 1994, Pedro allegedly shot and killed one of the guys believed to be behind Angel's murder and his own shooting. He was a fugitive for about a year until he was captured, tried, and convicted. In 1996 he was sent to Stateville Prison to serve a forty-year sentence.
I tell this to convey the complexity of working with youths like Pedro, youths most people would rather write off, but who are intelligent, creative, and quite decent. The tragedy is that it is mostly young people like these who are being killed and who are doing the killing. I've seen them in youth prisons, hospitals, and courts throughout the land. Given other circumstances, these young people might have been college graduates, officeholders, or social activists. Unfortunately many find themselves in situations they feel unable to pull out of until it's too late.
Youths like Pedro aren't in gangs to be criminals, killers, or prison inmates. For them a gang embraces who they are, gives them the incipient authority they need to eventually control their lives, the empowerment that other institutions--including schools and families--often fail to provide. Yet without the proper community guidance, gang involvement can be disastrous.
In August 1994 a media storm was set off when eleven-year-old Robert Sandifer of Chicago, known as "Yummy" because he liked to eat cookies, shot into a crowd and killed a fourteen-year-old girl. A suspected member of a Southside gang, Yummy disappeared; days later he was found shot in the head. Two teenage members of Yummy's gang were later convicted on charges surrounding his death. Hours before his murder a neighbor saw Yummy, who told her, "Say a prayer for me."
This is a tragedy, but without a clear understanding of the social, economic, and psychological dynamics that would drive an eleven-year-old to kill, we can only throw up our hands. While the Columbine High School killings received more attention (fifteen people dead in one day is a good reason), the fact is that in poor urban communities young people may know a dozen or so friends and acquaintances killed over a school year. They are traumatized and confused, but the consideration that these deaths receive is usually scant or, as is often the case, focused on their "innate" predilection to violent and criminal behavior.
Yet it isn't hard to figure out the array of forces behind much of this violence. Yummy was a child of very real and chosen policies during the Reagan years, of substantial cuts in community programs, of the worst job loss since the Great Depression, of more police and prisons and few options for recreation, education, or work. He was a boy who had been physically abused, shuttled from one foster home to another, one juvenile facility after another. At every stage of Robert's young life, he was blocked from becoming all he could be. Yet there was nothing to stop him from getting a gun, using it, and being killed by one in return.
No "three strikes and you're out," no trying children as adults, no increased prison spending will address what has given rise to the Pedros and Yummys of this world. Such proposals deal only with the end results of a process that will continue to produce its own fuel, like a giant breeder reactor. They are not solutions.
In 1993, along with Patricia Zamora, who at the time worked with Casa Aztlan Community Center in Chicago's Mexican community of Pilsen, we organized a nucleus of gang and nongang youth to help them find their own answers and to conceptualize their own organizational structures in their own interests. By June 1994 some thirty people gathered in my backyard, ready to start a new youth organization. They came mostly from the predominantly Puerto Rican area of Humboldt Park (my son's friends, and Pedro's homies) and Pilsen, two areas known for gang violence and marked by crowded three-story brick flats, trash-strewn vacant lots, graffiti-scarred alleys, family restaurants, corner bars and liquor stores, carnecerias, storefront churches, and used-car lots.
The group agreed to reach out to other youths and hold retreats and weekly meetings, and to organize a major conference. All summer they worked, without money, without external resources, but with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. The leadership consisted of kids with names like Pinkie, Jungle Boy, Jay Jay, Chupa, Bobo, Cholo, Satan, Puppet, Chuckle, Mexico, Frosty, and Mugsy. My kids, Ramiro and Andrea, and their mother, Camila, were also there.
Their efforts culminated in the Youth '94 Struggling for Survival Conference, held that August at the University of Illinois, Chicago. More than 150 young people and about 30 adults attended. A few gang members set aside deadly rivalries to take part in this gathering. They arrived by bus, on foot, or got rides from parents and teachers. They came from Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Logan Square, Little Village, West Town, Rogers Park, Uptown, the Southside, the Northside, and the Westside. Even students from suburban high schools and colleges participated. They held workshops on police brutality, jobs, and education, and peace in the neighborhoods.
There were a number of mishaps, including a power failure that blacked out the whole building. Yet the young people voted to continue meeting. They held their workshops in the dark or with sporadic flashes of cigarette lighters, raising issues, voicing concerns, coming up with ideas. The adults--parents, teachers, counselors, resource people, and a video crew from the Center for New Television--were there to boost what the young people had organized. Later some of them established Video Machete--a production group organized by Chris Bratton and Maria Benfield--that has grown into a major training and filming organization for youth and have presented screenings in New York City, Chicago, and Taos. (Chicago has pioneered such efforts, including the internationally known Street Level Media.)
Unfortunately the building personnel told us we had to leave because it was unsafe to be in a building without power. Casa Aztlan agreed to let us move to several of their rooms to continue the workshops; I felt we would probably lose half of the participants in the fifteen-minute ride between sites. Not only did we hang on to most of the youths, we picked up a few more along the way. In Casa Aztlan's flooded basement, adorned with crumbling plastered walls, we held the final plenary session. The kids set up a roundtable at which it was agreed that only proposed solutions would be entertained. A few read poetry, including Ramiro. It was a success because the young people wouldn't let it be anything else.
Over the years Youth Struggling for Survival (YSS) grew and brought together young people from twelve different Chicago communities and surrounding suburbs, including Aurora. Several hundred young people have gone through the organization's processes. Our elders base increased to more than a dozen, including several families. We worked also with organizations like Barrios Unidos of California, which organized several peace summits in the 1990s; the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's gatherings around themes of youth, violence, and the veritable place of mentors and elders; and the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. In addition, YSS incorporated spiritual experiences, including Mexika, Lakota, and Navajo traditions, such as the purification sweat ceremony, guided by respected teachers in those traditions. YSS set up Day of the Dead altars, honoring mainly the young people who have died in street gang wars, and, once, a Mexika-style pyramid made of bamboo and paper for a ritual pageant event in the Logan Square neighborhood.
In 1997 PBS-TV aired a segment on YSS for the series "Making Peace," produced by Moira Productions for the Independent Television Service. Viewings of the series resulted in more than two hundred community meetings across the country. And we have linked with similar groups in the United States as well as in Europe, Mexico, and Central America.
As is bound to happen in this kind of work, there were some terrible setbacks. Three of our young leaders were killed and others ended up behind bars, including Ramiro, convicted in 1998 for three counts of attempted murder.
Yet YSS's positive impact is undeniable. Over time community organizations--Alternatives, Senn/Youth Net, Youth Options Unlimited, Family Matters, Public Allies, the Chicago Foundation for Women, Chicago Association House, Youth Services Project, Strive, Yollocalli Youth Center and Radio Arte, the Quantum Project, Aspira, the Aurora public schools, and the Music Theater Workshop--hired many of our leaders. A few of our members set up their own businesses, and many have gone to college.
A number of these young people have spoken at schools, conferences, juvenile facilities, and Native American reservations. They've attended gatherings in Santa Cruz, El Paso, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Kansas City, North Carolina, Atlanta, and San Francisco, as well as in Canada, Italy, and Cuba.
By reaching out to assist other youth from falling into the traps of violence, drugs, and alcohol--even though some of them were still themselves active with these--they have contributed to changing themselves. One young man, who once held his brother as he lay dying from bullet wounds in the streets of Pilsen, gave an impassioned talk to children in the Pine Ridge reservation, warning them not to emulate the big city gangs, which some of them were beginning to do. "You have a beautiful culture, with great traditions," the Mexican youth said. "You don't have to end up lost like many of us. We may not make it, but you have a chance to do something about your own future." For young people who beforehand had not seen more than five blocks of their own neighborhood, to reach out so far and so wide has been crucial in helping them see the vastness of what's possible in the world, as well as in meeting other young leaders who are trying to accomplish similar goals.
YSS is but one example of young people tackling the issues head-on. There are hundreds more across America, rising in number every year. The point is that for a long time young people have organized themselves for their art, music, and well-being--on their own terms. They've already taken major steps in running their own lives their communities, even their schools. The question may then be whether the relationships between adults and young people are mutually respectful and beneficial.
I've learned that people like Pedro are not "lost causes."
But then, as a wise man once said, the "lost causes" are the only ones worth fighting for.
Excerpted from Hearts and Hands by Luis Rodriguez Copyright © 2003 by Luis Rodriguez. Excerpted by permission.
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