Father G Sees Past Gang Tattoos, To The Heart
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
They call themselves Scrappy, Speedy, Sniper, Cricket and Bugsy. Some come from broken, abusive homes and take dark paths into gang life. When they want to quite gang-banging, many of them call Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle. For 20 years, he's managed Homeboy Industries, the largest organization in the country that assists at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth through job placement, training and education.
In a new book, he tells parables based on the stories of his homies, many of them from two big housing projects in the poorest parish in Los Angeles.
If you're a gang member, or if you used to be, what's gang life to you? Have you tried to leave? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, one of the Marines who's story is portrayed in the new HBO miniseries "The Pacific." But first, Gregory Boyle joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. His new book is called "Tattoos On The Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion." And Father Greg, thanks very much for being with us on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Father GREGORY BOYLE (Founder, Homeboy Industries; Author, "Tattoos On The Heart"): Good to be with you.
CONAN: And we started with the names, because you write in your book that names are very important. I wanted to ask you why.
Father BOYLE: Well, you know, when a gang member, and especially in a Latino gang, gets jumped in, and then he's given a name, and he has that name forever, but it's not so much the name as being called by name.
I think I mention in the book how the principal activity of most gang members is writing their names on a wall, and that's because they want to be known, as any human being does. They want to be acknowledged and recognized as a person who exists in the world. So knowing the name and that was something I learned early on, 25 years ago, when I first walked those projects, was to know everybody's name.
CONAN: And you tell a story in the book of, well, we mentioned the name Sniper, a kid who introduced himself that way to you.
Father BOYLE: Yeah, I was at a camp, and then the guys were lined up to talk to me - probation camp is a detention facility - and I'd never met this kid, and he was kind of gang-posturing mode. And I said what's your name? And he said Sniper. I said: Trust me when I tell you your mom didn't take one look at you and name you Sniper when you popped out. What's your name? And he said Gonzales.
I said, well, I know the staff here calls you Gonzales, but I still, I'm looking for your birth certificate here. What's your mom call you? And then he says Cabron(ph), which is kind of a salty word in Spanish. And I said I don't doubt that she calls you that on occasion. I'm looking for birth certificate here.
And then he kind of quiets down and gets very gentle and transformed a little, and he says Napoleon. And I said, wow, that's kind of a noble, different name, but I still don't believe that she calls you the whole nine yards, Napoleon. What does your mom call you?
And then I watched this kid sort of go to this distant, untraveled place, and he gets very quiet and very age appropriate, and he says: Sometimes when my mom's not mad at me, she calls me Napito(ph).
And I use it in the book as an example of kind of the posture that gang members sort of assume from, you know, Sniper to Gonzales to Cabron to Napoleon to Napito, and that paying attention to them and listening to them and valuing them so that they feel valuable leads them to a place where they can be the age they are.
CONAN: Which is striking because that pose they strike is, well, they're trying to be act much older than they are.
Father BOYLE: Older and more menacing, you know, and it leads a little bit to the wholesale demonizing that you hope to reverse and stop and stand against.
CONAN: One of the services you provide is tattoo removal.
Father BOYLE: Yeah, I don't think there's any place in the country that removes more tattoos than we do. We have two machines and 12 doctors and about 4,000 treatments a year.
So it's significant when a gang member says, you know, I want these off. In the early days, because we didn't have that many access to machines or doctors, we'd say face, neck, elbow down. But then gang members would come in and lift their shirt and say, you know, I want this one off, and it would be the name of their gang across their chest. And I'd say it's so expensive, so painful. You know, keep your shirt on. No one will see it.
And then they'd say, you know, my kid will see it. All right, that works for me. So now we remove any tattoo they want to endure the treatment of, you know, so and it takes a long time. You know, it's like six treatments and six weeks apart and quite the commitment.
CONAN: And just sticking with the theme of names for just a minute, another of the services you provide to the community is graffiti removal.
Father BOYLE: Actually, we don't do graffiti removal anymore. We used to. We had two homies killed six weeks apart, and it didn't have anything to do with graffiti removal or Homebody Industries, but you know, their paths sort of caught up with them, and I had a crew of 17. They wanted to continue, but I though, ah, this is too traumatic, and I just didn't want to go through another thing like that.
So I discontinued that, but we did it for five years. We have five businesses at the moment.
CONAN: And we'll get to that in just a minute, but was that a provocative act, one you thought would provoke retaliation?
Father BOYLE: Yeah, both were different from each other and heartbreaking, as difficult a thing as I've ever been through, and both were really quite distinct from each other. But you know, even when gang members change their lives, sometimes they, you know, have such histories that they are remembered.
CONAN: We want to hear today from gang members in our audience or former gang members. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Jake's on the line from Columbus, Ohio.
JAKE (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Jake, go ahead, please.
JAKE: Yeah. They were asking for stories from former gang members, so I thought I'd tell mine. I was involved in a gang of skinheads, and I actually thought they were my brothers. It was a long, long time ago, and I would never be involved in such a thing ever again, obviously.
But they thought someone thought that I said something that I didn't at a get-together, and I was beaten up pretty bad, and luckily that was how I was out of it. If it hadn't been for that, I don't know. I don't know how these kids get out of something like that, and I think that's the biggest problem, is that once you're associated with something like that, it's too scary to get out.
CONAN: Did you have tattoos?
JAKE: No, no, luckily, thank God, thank God.
CONAN: Well, you're well out of it, Jake. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Father Greg, obviously skinhead gangs would not be the problem in your part of Los Angeles, but what he was saying about the circumstances of getting beaten up, you write about it in the conditional love that is offered to gang members by the gang.
Father BOYLE: Yeah, gangs are bastions of conditional love, and one of the ways to counteract it is to offer community, which will always trump gang, and that's what happens at Homeboy Industries. It's a therapeutic, multi-systemic service place. You know, it's a secure base in psychological terms.
If attachment is the issue, that they never really attached, then they can come to our place and learn, from kind of unconditional acceptance and love, a kind of resilience that you normally get in a family that's loving and vibrant.
So then they're able to go out into the world and encounter whatever the world is going to throw at them, but they also discovered a way of re-identifying. They start to say, oh, now I see what a real man is and what a real father is, and oh, that's what courage is. I used to think that it looked like this.
And so yeah, I always ask gang members every day, when they come in, they're ready to start all over again, and you have to kind of, you know, talk to them about you can't wear that cap anymore, and different things, you know.
And I always ask them: Name one good thing that's come into your life because of your gang. And I've never had a gang member, and I know more gang members than anybody, I've never had one say, be able to identify a thing.
CONAN: And there is a curious because it is the kind of society it is, you describe gang members, or former gang members, who find themselves in a situation where they are socially helpless to the point where they don't know how to wash their clothes, go to a laundromat and do their laundry except if they were perhaps doing it in a prison sink.
Father BOYLE: Yeah, that's a story about a kid who had had been in prison for 10 years but had been so entrenched in gang life for 20, and he said: I spent the last 20 years building a reputation for myself, and now I regret that I even have one. And he just began to sob in my office.
And when he contained himself a little, he says: Now what do I do? I know how to sell drugs. I know how to gang-bang. I know how to shank fools in prison. I know how to drive, but I don't know how to park, and I only know how to wash my clothes in the sink of a cell. And now what do I do?
So I hired him that day, but you know, it's part of the once you buy into that kind of crazy life, getting out is, you know, one step at a time, and when you're held, I think, at Homeboy Industries, then you can little by little get to a place.
But Homeboy Industries is like an AA meeting. You know, you've got folks who are 20 years sober, folks who are 20 minutes sober, and guys who are drunk, you know. So it's kind of a spectrum and a continuum, and the folks, if you will, who are 20 years in recovery in terms of gangs are, you know, putting their arms around the younger guys and saying, yeah, you don't want to react that way. You don't want to say that to that guy.
Because it's I have 400 workers, and all of them are enemies with each other inasmuch as they come from rival gangs, and black and brown, and so you just there is no them. There's only us, but it takes people a while to come to that.
CONAN: Here's an email we got from Ellen. She writes: Dear Father, while substitute-teaching in a girls unit in Sonoma County, California juvenile hall, I discovered you through "Father Greg and the Homeboys." Since there was only one copy of the book for the girls to share, they had physically split the book into chapters so they could all get quick access to it by passing them around one chapter at a time.
As a high school teacher of children who haven't been taught to read much or can't, I have always wanted to tell you how much these girls loved reading about you and your work. The same was true when I worked in a maximum security boys unit. Thanks so much for all you do.
Father BOYLE: That was a book by Celeste Fremon called "G-Dog and the Homeboys." It's still around, and homies write me from all over the country, and homegirls, and say it's the only book they've ever read.
CONAN: We're talking with Father Gregory Boyle about his new book, and that is called "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion." We'd like to hear from those of you in our audience who are members of gangs or used to be, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
More than 80,000 gang members call Los Angeles home. Father Gregory Boyle has, so far, reached 8,000 through Homeboy Industries, offering everything from tattoo removal to job training to hope. His book hit stores this week. It's called "Tattoos On The Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion."
You can read more about two of the former gang members he worked with, Rascal and Willie, in an excerpt on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
If you're a gang member or used to be, what's gang life to you? Have you tried to leave? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Got to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Let's go to Laurie(ph), Laurie calling us from St. George in Utah.
LAURIE (Caller): Yes, hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm not a gang member, but my son-in-law was. He was living in Los Angeles and was involved for about 10 years. He did get out, but he still struggles a lot with things that he did and the person that he was then.
He has a hard time believing that he can be of worth, and because of where he's living now, he's not in touch with any of his former gang member friends or anything like that, and he just really needs someone to talk to.
And I was wondering, you know, how we could hook him with someone that he could talk to that could kind of help him through some of this stuff. He's doing very well, going to college, working, married to my daughter and doing well that way, but just really still struggles with that.
CONAN: Feels the call to the old life?
LAURIE: No, he really doesn't. He's very ashamed of the things that he did and the things that he was involved in, but at the same time, that was a world that felt secure to him, a place where he felt he had a place, and now that he's out of there, he struggles just feeling like, you know, can I ever get over the things that I did and the person that I was? Am I just pretending to be a good guy? So he has a hard time with that part.
CONAN: Father Greg?
Father BOYLE: Yeah, you know, I hope you go to my Web site, which is homeboy-industries.org and then just email me there, and as a matter of fact, you know, we get about five tour groups a week from all over the country, and we just had Utah in, a group of people who actually work with gang members in Salt Lake City, I think.
So I can put you in touch with people who are more local, but I'm certainly happy to talk to him and...
LAURIE: Yeah, he's a long way from Salt Lake. The way he got out was kind of interesting. He came in at a time with several friends, all about the same age. They were, you know, like 12 when they started doing running drugs and stuff.
But by the time he had been there for by the time he was 18, most of his friends had been killed or were incarcerated, and so there was kind of a turnover, and he actually just kind of slipped away during that time because his immediate supervisor, his immediate gang leader guy was in prison.
So he just kind of drifted away and has been out long enough now that when he bumps into people that he knows, which happens from time to time as he travels back and forth, they acknowledge that they know him. He acknowledges that he knows them, and they let each other go their ways because he's out long enough they know he hasn't reported them, turned them in. So he's not a threat. But it's always still it's still a part of his life. It always will be.
Father BOYLE: You know, part of it is gangs are the places kids go when they've encountered their life as a misery, and misery loves company. It's about when you talked about esteem, and does he really is he really worthy? And that's really the antidote.
You know, if you can infuse a kid with hope and because hopeful kids don't join gangs, and you give them a sense of the truth of who they are, that they're exactly what God had in mind when God made them. So...
LAURIE: Right, that's....
Father BOYLE: He has a past, but ever sinner had one, so...
LAURIE: And that's not who he is, and that really resonates with what I was thank you for saying that because that's what I have told him. I mean, he didn't even realize, as we were talking about how he got into the gang, what his home life was like.
He didn't realize that that really played an impact until we got talking about it, and then he could see how basically the gang was home because he didn't have that.
So now he's building a home with my daughter and with our family, and I think that's been, you know, really helpful for him, but there is times when he just feels like he'd like to talk with someone else who's done it. So I will...
Father BOYLE: Yeah, contact me...
CONAN: Okay, and if you didn't scribble that down quickly enough, we'll put a link to it up on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION and you can find it there. Laurie, thanks very much for the call. We wish your son-in-law the best of luck.
LAURIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see. I wanted to ask you, Father Greg - you've made a real difference in a lot of people's lives, but does it sometimes feel as if you're just swimming against a tide? The situation has gotten so much worse in so many ways.
Father BOYLE: You know, it actually hasn't. In L.A., I mean, the gang capital of the world, we had 1,000 gang-related homicides in '92. Now that's been cut in half and in half again. Law enforcement would take, you know, the sole credit for that, but that's preposterous because it's an enormously complex social dilemma, and it stands to reason it would require an enormous set of complex solutions and strategies.
So in the past 20 years in L.A., you know, lots of people have done lots of things, from mentoring to after-school programs to Homeboy Industries.
Do I think that's the reason why we've seen this decrease? Absolutely. And along with deployment that's sensible of law enforcement and smarter policing. But it's all contributed to the fact that it hasn't gotten worse. In fact, it's indeed gotten better.
But you know, our program is not for those who need help. It's only for those who want it. So 12,000 folks a year walk through our doors. Whether they end up working for me or not, they're all receiving services, and we're helping them redirect their lives and to jumpstart kind of a new path, and you know, and then you hope employers will get the idea.
What if we were to invest in these folks, especially when they come out of prison, rather than just endlessly seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?
CONAN: Let's go next to Shane, Shane with us from Lancaster in South Carolina.
SHANE (Caller): Yes, sir, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
SHANE: Well, I just wanted to comment (unintelligible) I would say 99 percent of the cases, most gangs are formed for self-protection and end up becoming fairly negative, especially with the illegal connotations and the violence.
I am myself a member of what I think you would call a gang. There's a group of about, at this point, 70 of us that have known each other since we were teenagers. I'm 35 years old now, but I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, in a really rough segment of town.
And I was a goofy, long-haired white kid in an ethnic neighborhood, and I didn't fit in well. And as a teen, I had a lot of trouble at home, a lot of alcohol abuse and drug abuse. My father died when I was about 12 years old.
I found myself surrounded by a group of people with similar situations, from broken home lives, that lived in rough areas, but instead of getting together to do crimes or to do drugs, we banded together because we didn't do those things.
People from all walks of life, rich kids, poor kids, the thing that we had in common was a terrible home life, and before you knew it, you know, when I was 19 years old, there were 30 of us living in a giant house together that we all pitched in, and at any given time maybe eight to 10 of us had a job.
But we kind of formed this community, if you will, and a lot of it was based on the ideas of honor and of tolerance, and locally we're known as the Goof Troop, was what they called us, because we're just a bunch of social misfits, and we have, you know, American Indian, we have homosexuals, we have skinheads and neo-Nazis. We have your dreadlocked hippies, a whole bunch of us.
But the thing that links us together is the fact that: A) we don't want to walk the path that our parents walked and that those around us did; and B) the only thing that we can't tolerate being intolerance.
We don't all share the same beliefs by any stretch. Some of us actually have tattoos with GT on the shoulder for the Goof Troop, as we're known, and at least in my personal experience, I'm proud to be a member of Troop, and I think it's really changed my life.
CONAN: Well, it doesn't have the it certainly doesn't sound like a gang in terms of the negative connotations that we usually associate with that word, but Father Greg, I wondered if you had a response.
Father BOYLE: Yeah, you know, I only know L.A. and that gang violence is really about a lethal absence of hope, and actually what you've describe is what all gang members, you know, have pretty much experienced in terms of broken homes.
But they choose to band themselves with groups that end up being almost always antisocial and occasionally violent, and they define themselves as we are the guys who hate those guys.
So that's different from your experience, and I applaud you for banding together to not destruct or self-destruct but to support each other. But gangs, there's a sort of a myth, that the outsider view says gang members get together to - for self-protection or for because they long for a sense of community. And no kid is ever seeking anything when he joins a gang. He's always fleeing something. And that's important to get right, in terms of our diagnosis so that our treatment plan will be sensible.
CONAN: Shane, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
SHANE: Thank you for taking my call.
Email with a question, with a very practical question from Andrew(ph). I'm a pediatrician. Many of my patients' parents are former gang members - they've gotten out - but they still have their tattoos, especially their MCL MVL tattoos, and would like to have them removed. How hard is it to learn how to do that removal and how much does the machine cost?
Fr. BOYLE: The machine costs about 50 grand and...
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. So we've got two donated and we have two because they -we use them more than anybody uses them so they overheat and we have to take a break and move to the next machine.
It's a very easy procedure, and we have a medical director that trains people to do it. But - so it's not just, you know, you don't have to be a dermatologist to do it. We have nurses, we have PAs, we have doctors whose specialties are something other than tattoo removal who come in and donate a half a day or a day to provide the service, which is enormously significant for folks who want to - you know, most of the mistakes we all make, you can't erase them. But tattoos aren't one of those mistakes. You can actually erase them.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you. There's a part of your book in which you talk about the temptation to hate. And that followed an incident where a kid caught a bullet and died. And you were in the hospital with him on a vigil and were there to see it. And it turned out that you knew the two kids in the car who'd fired the shots.
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. I don't know if it was the temptation truly for me to, you know, you have to kind of deal with the fact that kids you love -kids kill kids you love, you know, and that was the reality that I learned a long time ago. And I buried 168 young people killed because of the sadness, some you know more than others.
But you start to enter into the complexity of this whole world and it's never black and white and it's never us and them. And you always are trying to seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what everybody in poor communities have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. So nobody's existence, or goodness, or identity can be erased by a single horrible act, and nobody would want to be judged that way.
So, you know, I have the benefit of knowing the complexities of all these kids. And so when they do a terrible thing, you know, you hold it into a kind of measuring the entirety of who they are rather than the singularity of this act, and that everybody is a whole lot more than the worse thing they did. But, again, it - there is a temptation to kind of say - that's it.
And there are conditions to love and you want to love without measuring, without regret, and with a kind of a no-matter-what-ness I talk about in the book. That no matter what, I'm going to be with you. And I was with the kid when he died and I was with these kids as they - facing their trials.
CONAN: We're talking with Gregory Boyle. His book is "Tattoos on the Heart." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Luis(ph), Luis calling us from Phoenix.
LUIS (Caller): Yes. I'm calling from Phoenix. Basically, I just want to say that a lot of times, there also is kids that don't come from broken homes but they do join the gang - like myself, personally - because peer pressure. Basically, all your friends are in it, all your friends are getting into it, and you just follow along like following the leader. And you just get into it and start doing the things that they start doing.
And, also, I had a lot of friends that did it because of the rush. They were doing it because they wanted to feel that excitement of doing those things that weren't, you know, right, like selling the drugs or doing all those kind of violent actions.
CONAN: So for the adventure, the excitement, to some degree.
LUIS: Excuse me?
CONAN: For the adventure, for the excitement?
LUIS: A lot of people I knew did that. They actually came from very good homes, and they joined just because they wanted to do the - those kind of things and get that thrill. A friend of mine actually went to life in prison. He came from a rich family and joined one of the gangs - joined us. One of the things that we did - and he actually killed somebody and he is spending the rest of his life in prison.
CONAN: And I could guarantee that's less of a thrill. Are you still involved with those friends, Luis?
LUIS: Honestly, I had to get away from them because I couldn't be in that situation anymore, because - you know, they were selling drugs and doing things. And if I would be around, then I would get in trouble and end up in jail for something I wasn't doing, because I never sold the drugs, but I did do some of the violence. But, like I said, I had I do happen to get away. Otherwise, I'd still be in it now.
CONAN: Hmm. Peer pressure, Father Greg. Is that part of the problem?
Fr. BOYLE: You know, I think probably less than you think, you know, when he was talking about a rich family, you know. You say, well, there's something there, because truly, truly, nobody has ever met a hopeful kid that's joined a gang, and - rich, poor or middle class. And a kid who is somehow connected to tomorrow, finds his present compelling, can imagine a life. And everybody knows that even in rich families, you know, there's something there sometimes that can lead a person, a young person, to be deeply stuck in a kind of despair that on the surface, you say, boy, I don't get it. That seemed to be quite the family that was intact. But I would always say there's something there, because a hopeful kid isn't going to succumb to peer pressure, not in terms of gangs. And that's the truth, I think.
CONAN: One final email, this from Jason(ph) in Portland. Father Boyle is probably aware that how to respond to gang crime has become a big political issue in local communities and in Congress. Can he comment on the two approaches being considered now: the Feinstein gang bill, which is almost wholly about suppression and the law enforcement approach; and Congressman Bobby Vassar's(ph) Youth Promise Act, which is almost wholly focused on prevention?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. Obviously, I think the Youth Promise Act is the more sensible approach. And I'm kind of disappointed in the Dianne Feinstein bill, to be sure, and I've written op-ed pieces against it because it's not very smart and it's not very sophisticated. And it's more of the same, and if anybody could tell me how the same has really helped us in the past, it hasn't. And enormously complex social dilemma - so you would want to match it with lots of intervention prevention and sensible approach.
CONAN: Father Greg, thanks very much for your time today.
Fr. BOYLE: Thank you.
CONAN: "Tattoos on the Heart" is the name of the book, "The Power of Boundless Compassion." And Gregory Boyle joined us today from the studios at NPR West, our studios in Culver City, California.
Coming up, one of the Marines whose story is part of the new HBO series, "The Pacific," R.V. Burgin, joins us. If you served in the Pacific War, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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