My father came to the U.S. to work in the lettuce fields as a bracero, and met my mother at "La Placita," the historic Mission that gave birth to Los Angeles. They moved from Watts to North East Los Angeles during the Riots. Highland Park, a previously white neighborhood, became entirely Mexican as the old residents fled to the suburbs.
In this new ethnic neighborhood, I saw the first gang form on my street by a few kids who didn't like school, and instead spent their days hiding from the police, lying to parents, and looking for money and diversions. Over time they progressed to addictions, serious crime, irrational violence, and long incarceration. Few of those friends are still alive.
I had an odd advantage. As a young teen I suffered a physical disability that kept me close to home. Boredom led to an interest in music. Fortunately, I had parents smart enough to take hard earned wages and support my musical ambitions. They bought me instruments, paid for lessons, and gave me rides. Music gave me an avenue for pride, a positive identity, and a decent set of peers.
But I saw what was happening to those I grew up with. At 16, I approached Father Joseph Greeley, now a monsignor in Lakewood, and told him the Church should do something to help gang youth in the parish. He made arrangements for me to visit friends inside juvenile hall, and these visits led to an idea. Father Greeley encouraged and helped me start a support network for kids exiting from incarceration. We set them up with tutors, youth groups and mentor families. The success of that venture confirmed an intuition: What my troubled friends needed was a community of adults willing to give them essential skills, experiences, and acknowledgment.
Three years later I had another inspiration. This time my mentors were the fighter Sugar Ray Robinson, and two nuns, Sister Natalia Duran and Sister Georgiana Cahill. With the support, advice and funds these 3 gave me, I was able to attract a grant from the Campaign for Human Development and start an alternative school for the Clanton Street and Primera Flats gangs of East and Central Los Angeles.
At the time, I was assistant to the local truant officer, and frustrated at our futile task: Everyday we chased the same Primera Flats and Clanton gang members around the neighborhood, forced them back into school, and then watched them climb over the school fence an hour later. The routine became so predictable that truant teenagers would wait on corners because they knew I would drive by, and being chased by the truant officer's assistant became a way to break the boredom of their day.
We needed to do something different. We needed to create a school that these kids did not want to run away from.
I started El Santo Nino by asking "what does a troubled kid, a gang member, need in order to be competent, feel good about him or herself, and become invested in a future he doesn't want to jeopardize?" As I answered that question, I also learned that few of the gang members could read, and learning disabilities were the rule. School had obviously been a painful place for them. So we attracted volunteers from the police department, colleges, mental health agencies and parents. Enough adults that we could work long hours one-to-one and teach these kids in a way that made them feel prized, not shamed. One of my best memories is of a police officer stopping by and helping "Sharky" learn to read. The officer listened to this 13 year old for a couple of pages, and then put his arm around Sharky's shoulder and told him "You get better every day. I always knew you were a winner." I saw the pride in Sharky's face, and knew that some great shift in self-definition had began.