Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
By Gregory Boyle
Hardcover, 217 pages
List price: $25
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers might find offensive.
NOTE: Some of the individuals depicted in this book have been given pseudonyms.
Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries
I spent the summers of 1984 and 1985 as an associate pastor at Dolores Mission Church, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese. In 1986 I became pastor of the church.
Originally, I was scheduled to go to Santa Clara University to run their student service program, but Bolivia changed all that. I can't explain how the poor in Bolivia evangelized me during that year of 1984-85, but they turned me inside out, and from that moment forward I only wanted to walk with them. This was a wholly selfish decision on my part. I knew that the poor had some privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel. Naturally, I wanted to be around this. When I raised this desire to work with the poor with my provincial superior, I was sent to Dolores Mission, instead of Santa Clara, as the youngest pastor in the history of the diocese. The church had been in Boyle Heights for some forty years, nestled in the middle of two large public-housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Together, they comprised the largest grouping of public housing west of the Mississippi. When I arrived, we had eight active gangs, seven Latino and one African American. (The projects were 25 percent African American back in 1986 and are now 99.9 percent Latino.)
At the time, the Pico-Aliso area was known to have the highest concentration of gang activity in the entire city. If Los Angeles was the gang capital of the world, our little postage-stamp-size area on the map was the gang capital of LA. I buried my first young person killed because of gang violence in 1988, and as of this writing, I have been called upon for this sad task an additional 167 times.
The first kid I buried was an eighteen-year-old identical twin. Even the family had a hard time distinguishing these two brothers from each other. At the funeral, Vicente peered into the casket of his brother, Danny. They were both wearing identical clothes. It was as if someone had slapped a mirror down and Vicente was staring at his own reflection. Because this was my first funeral of this kind, the snapshot of a young man peering at his own mirror image has stayed with me all these years, as a metaphor for gang violence in all its self-destruction.
At the time, there were so many gang-involved middle school kids who had been given "the boot" from their schools that their constant presence in the projects during school hours brought violence and major drug-dealing. So the first thing we did as a parish community, to respond to this gang reality, was to open our alternative school, Dolores Mission Alternative (DMA), in 1988. The school drew different gangs and their members to the third floor of Dolores Mission's elementary school in what used to be the convent. Fights were daily occurrences and keeping staff was a challenge. We had a principal last two days and several teachers who hung in there for just one.
With the school came a new parish attitude. Suddenly, the welcome mat was tentatively placed out front. A new sense of "church" had emerged, open and inclusive, replacing the hermetically sealed model that had kept the "good folks" in and the "bad folks" out. The Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base — CEBs) were sectors of people in the par¬ish, mainly women, who reflected on the gospel as it impacted their real lives. Their reflection compelled them to extend them¬selves to the gangs in their area of the projects. They would have carne asadas and other gatherings to communicate clearly that the gang members were not our enemies. One CEB even had a Thanksgiving dinner for homies who had no place to go. They wanted to signal to the gang members, "You are our sons/ daughters — whether we brought you into this world or not."
I can remember standing outside police tape on an early Sun¬day morning, just around the block from the church. The body of a gang member was lying on the ground, partially covered with a sheet. His head and upper torso were draped with the sheet, revealing only his oversize, cut-off Dickies shorts, white tube socks pulled up to the knee, and a pair of blue Nike Cortez — all standard-issue gang wear at the time. He wasn't from the projects, and who knows why he wandered into this foreign turf. Pam McDuffy, an activist mother in the community, sidled up to me and put her arm around my waist. She was crying. "I don't know who that kid is, but he was some mother's son."
Soon gang members began to "kick it" at the church. The garage became a quasi-weight room, and the bell tower always had some ten gang members or so huddled there, smoking cigarettes and passing the time. I figured if they're at the church, they're not wreaking havoc in the community. This didn't thrill all parishioners, and the grumbling reached a pitch that forced me to call a parish meeting. The parish hall was packed; this would be either a vote of confidence in my leadership or an opportunity for the parishioners to tell me, "Here's your hat, what's your hurry."
I didn't speak. But the "E. F. Huttons" of the community (when they spoke, people tended to listen), Teresa Navarro and Paula Hernandez, needed only to stand and invoke Jesus.
"We help gang members at this parish because it is what Jesus would do."
People applauded and the parish never looked back.
Soon the women organized major marches, or caminatas, moving through the projects, often in the heat of tension and in the wake of ceaseless shooting. The Comité Pro Paz (Committee for Peace), as the women called themselves, would move to hot-spots, and their gentle praying and singing presence would calm the gang members ready for battle.
It was one such march that gave birth to Homeboy Industries in 1988. Armed with fliers reading Jobs for a Future, hundreds of women walked to the factories surrounding the housing projects and, with this show of force, handed a flier to the foreman of each factory. It had become clear that what gang members most requested were jobs. Having a jale (a job) was all they ever talked about. We waited for the factories to call with employment offers, but this never happened. Still, an organization was born: Jobs for a Future — which initially sought gainful employment for the gang members from Pico-Aliso.
This parish-led program soon launched projects that hired huge swaths of gang members: the building of a child-care center, neighborhood clean-up crews, and graffiti removal, landscaping, and maintenance crews. Gang members were placed in a variety of businesses and nonprofits, and Jobs for a Future paid their salaries. I wrote more rubber checks than a U.S. congressperson. We constantly lived in the paradox of precariousness. The money was never there when you needed it, and it was always on time.
It was during this period that I promoted any number of truces, cease-fires, and peace treaties. I spent a great deal of time in a kind of shuttle diplomacy, riding my bike between neighborhoods (as gang members do, I use interchangeably the words "gang," "barrio," and "neighborhood"; they all refer to "gang"), securing signed agreements from the warring factions. Some were Pyrrhic victories such as an agreement not to shoot into houses.
I learned early on that all sides would speak so positively about the peace process when first approached.
"Yeah, G [what most homies call me; short for Greg], let's get a peace treaty going."
But once you brought them together, they couldn't resist posturing in high gear in front of one another. I eventually ceased having these meetings, and like the Soviet Union and the USA, I worked out all the details of peace beforehand and just had the principals sign the agreements.
That was then; this is now. Though I don't regret having orchestrated these truces and treaties, I'd never do it again. The unintended consequence of it all was that it legitimized the gangs and fed them oxygen. I eventually came to see that this kind of work keeps gangs alive.
The unrest of 1992 was unlike anything I had ever seen in Los Angeles. Working my paper corner as a sixth grader during the Watts riots in 1965, I had a sense then of containment — that this was unrest happening "over there."
Not so in 1992. The sky, blackened with smoke, reached every corner of the city. I sat on the stoop of an apartment in Pico Gardens with a huge gang member, a shot-caller. When all the other homies were out of earshot, he turned to me and said, "This is the end of the world, isn't it, G?" his voice trembling and uncertain.
I reassured him, "No, 'course it isn't."
But I wasn't at all sure that he was wrong. The National Guard arrived in our projects several days after the initial explosion of things, but we didn't need them there. Things didn't explode in this, the poorest of communities in Los Angeles, where everyone fully expected mayhem. I suspect the reason they didn't was that we had so many strategically employed gang members who finally had a stake in keeping the projects from igniting that the peace was kept.
Because I said as much in a Los Angeles Times interview about the riot, Ray Stark summoned me. Ray was a hugely successful Hollywood agent (Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas) and a megahit movie producer (Funny Girl). His beloved wife, Fran, had died shortly before our visit, and Ray wanted to make an impact on this burgeoning and daunting gang issue. At our meeting Ray suggested some ideas that I had to respectfully dismiss. Finally, after I swatted down a number of these suggestions (e.g., arm gang members with their own video cameras so we could make a documentary), Ray was exasperated.
"I give up, what do you think I should do with my money?"
I told him that an old bakery was for sale across the street from the church. He could buy it, and we could bring rival gang members together. We could call it The Homeboy Bakery.
Ray was electrified, and so we began the economic-development branch of Jobs for a Future. Some months later, we commandeered a tortilla machine in the Grand Central Market, and now, with multiple businesses, we became Homeboy Industries (no longer Jobs for a Future) in the summer of 1992.
Our first office was on the church property, but our second was a storefront at 1848 East First Street, from 1994 to 2000. White Memorial Hospital, long supporters of my work with gang members, paid my rent. It was here that gang members from all the forty-plus gangs in the Hollenbeck Police Division (some ten thousand members) began to arrive, looking for a way out of the gang life. Perhaps gang members had always longed for this, but for the absence of a place to go, the desire had festered. Soon we added staff and job developers to locate employment in the private sector. We began tattoo removal because of a guy named Ramiro. A gang member, fresh out of prison, with a long record, had FUCK THE WORLD tattooed on his forehead, completely filling the space there. He told me his job search was not going so great. I'm only imagining him at McDonald's: "Do you want fries with that?" and seeing mothers grab their kids, fleeing the store.
So I hired him at the bakery, and little by little we erased his forehead. We have since added many laser machines and doctors who perform more than four thousand treatments a year.
We owe it all to Ramiro (who moved on to a job as a security guard at a movie studio — no trace left of the angriest moment in his life).
Businesses have come and gone at Homeboy Industries. We have had starts and stops, but anything worth doing is worth failing at. We started Homeboy Plumbing. That didn't go so well. Who knew? People didn't want gang members in their homes. I just didn't see that coming.
At the turn of the century, we needed more space, so we moved to our third headquarters up the block at 1916 East First Street, into a rehabbed printing factory. After a while, we started serving gang members outside Boyle Heights as well, and we now had a thousand folks a month, from forty-five different zip codes. Members from more than eight hundred gangs from all over the county now came seeking employment, tattoo removal, mental health counseling, case management, and legal services.
By 2007 we had so burst our seams that we built our current headquarters, Homeboy Bakery, and Homegirl Café near China¬town in downtown Los Angeles. Our most successful business is Homeboy Silkscreen, ably run all these years by Ruben and Cristina Rodriguez, and we operate four others: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandising, Homeboy Maintenance, and Homegirl Café, where women with records, young ladies from rival gangs, waitresses with attitude, will gladly take your order.
Los Angeles County claims 1,100 gangs with nearly 86,000 members. A great number of these youth know to come to Homeboy when they are ready to "hang up their gloves."
Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help, only for those who want it. In this sense, we are a gang-rehabilitation center. Often the homies who come to us are not-ready-for-prime¬time players. Just released from prison, they are offered what is often their first jobs, where they glean soft skills at Homeboy Industries like learning to show up on time, every day, and taking orders from disagreeable supervisors.
We provide all of this, free of charge. We are a worksite and therapeutic community. We are a training program and business. We are all of the above all at the same time. Once the homies come to feel some confidence in the workplace, they can move on to higher-paying opportunities elsewhere. Also, we give homies a chance to work with their enemies. The place has become the "United Nations" of gangs. When enemies work with one another, a valuable "disconnect" is created on the streets. It forces a fellow active gang member to ask the employed homie, "How can you work with that guy?" Answering that question will be awkward, clumsy, and always require courage, but the question itself jostles the status quo.
Finally, Homeboy Industries can only hire and help a finite number of gang members. Though thousands have found assistance, it remains a tiny drop in a pretty deep bucket. In the city of Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries has operated as a symbol as much as a place of concrete help. For more than twenty years, it has asked this city, "What if we were to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?"
After two decades, the city of Los Angeles has embraced Homeboy Industries as its own and has allowed it to shape how we see this "condition" and how we can, in part, respond to it.
A homie named David who had sunk to homelessness and heroin addiction was beating himself up one day.
"Look, David," I tell him, wanting to cut his meat up for him, "You have to crawl before you can walk, and then walk before you can run."
David's eyes soften with tears. "Yeah, but I know I can fly. I just need to catch a gust o' wind."
Homeboy Industries wants to be that gust.
It's when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart.
In 1992 Homeboy Bakery is launched, but seven years later, in October of 1999, it burns to the ground. I get the panicky call at three in the morning with the news. I arrive to find the bakery surrounded by fire trucks, hoses shooting water everywhere, flames stretching high. Women from the projects across the street greet me and wrap me in their arms. Tearfully, they promise that when the sun comes up, they will have a venta de comida and begin the fundraising.
A young girl hugs me, crying, "Don't worry, G, we'll have a car wash."
I must admit, initially, I thought it was arson. When I say this, people often presume I mean that gang members did it. I never thought that. Homeboy Bakery stood as a symbol of hope to every gang member in the county. That they would destroy this place of second chances didn't make sense.
But we had lots of enemies in those early days, folks who felt that assisting gang members somehow cosigned on their bad behavior. Hate mail, death threats, and bomb threats were common, especially after I wrote Op-Ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times (which I had done just prior to the fire).
We used to joke during this period of hostility that emanated from those who opposed the very idea of Homeboy that with so much vitriol leveled at us, we ought to change our voice mail message after hours: "Thank you for calling Homeboy Industries. Your bomb threat is important to us."
From my office once, I heard a homegirl answer the phone, and she says to the caller, "Go ahead and bring that bomb, mutha fucka. We're ready for your ass."
I ask her who's on the phone.
She covers the receiver, nonplussed, "Oh, just some fool who wants to blow the place up."
"Uh, kiddo, um," I tell her, "Maybe we should just say, 'Have a nice day and God bless you.'"
The day of the bakery fire, within an hour of my arrival, the fire inspectors are able with certainty to deem the cause of the fire to be "natural." The place was eighty years old, after all, with wiring from aquel tiempo. An electrical short traveled through the walls, took a breather in the bakery's office long enough to percolate, and soon the whole place imploded.
But, of course, we don't know all this in the first half hour, and during this time of not knowing, a wizened, Irish-looking fire inspector comes over to me.
"You the owner?" he asks, flames shooting through the roof of the bakery behind him.
"Um," he says, "You got any reason to believe why someone might have started this fire?"
"Uh, you didn't have any . . . uh . . . disgruntled, ex-employees, did ya?"
"No," I tell him, "All the disgruntled ones still work for me."
I needed to break the tension even if he didn't need to. He does not smile.
"You know this area, where the bakery's located?" he surveys it with a whisper, turning his head from side to side. "Well . . . it's known for hoodlums."
Like this might come as a surprise to me.
"Well," I tell him, "I think we're okay here cuz at Homeboy Industries," now I'm the one whispering, "we only hire hood¬lums."
Again, no smiling.
The next day we were able to inform all the bakers what happened, but we couldn't locate one of them, a kid named Lencho. So when the time came for his shift to begin, Lencho steps off the bus, wearing his perfectly planchado white uniform, with the words Homeboy Bakery embroidered on one side and his name, Lencho, emblazoned on the other. His step is light as he walks to the parking lot.
But once he enters, he sees the soggy mess extracted by the firefighters. He sees smoke still wafting through the sizable hole in the roof. He sees his coworkers, all rivals from enemy gangs, picking through the rubble. No one needs to explain. He stands there frozen, puts his head in his hands, and begins to sob.
This was his reason to get up in the morning. Just as important, it was his reason not to gangbang the night before. The union he shared with his coworkers, former enemies, was deeper than anything he had ever known in his family and certainly stronger than the bond he knew in his gang. All we could do was surround him with love and the promise of rebuilding.
Ten years later, he is back, working in the brand-new bakery.
The original bakery was hugely famous from its first week. News crews would visit almost daily. Articles were written with photos of enemies working alongside one another. Tour groups came from all over the world. Busloads of Japanese tourists dropped by. Even Prince Charles's business advisers swooped down on us.
"Pip Pip Cheerio" meets the Homies.
Our foreman at the time was a man named Luis, in his mid-twenties, who arguably had been among the biggest, savviest drug dealers our community had ever known. We knew each other for more than a decade, and any offer of a job was always, graciously, but surely, declined. Luis was as smart as they come and quick-witted.
He used to say, "When we were kids, we would play Kick the Can but so did the cops. You know, they'd play Kick the Mexi-Can or Kick the PuertoRi-Can."
He never got caught. Too smart. If the cops rolled by and he was standing with me, he'd mumble, "Beam me up, Scottie." But when his daughter, Tiffany, was born, things changed. He wanted to work at the bakery, and his natural leadership abilities soon moved him up to foreman. Not only did he work with former rivals, he also supervised them, which is a great deal more difficult.
One day we received an odd request for a tour from farmers from the central valley of California. They want to see the bakery. It's part of Luis's job description to greet the busloads and the film crews. He hates this part of his job, and his whining could make your teeth ache.
"Do I gotta?"
The day the farmers arrive, he and I are waiting for the bus to pull up, and I'm swinging at his whiny complaints like a bunch of pesky gnats.
Finally, the bus drives into the awkward bakery parking lot, and I wave and direct it to its reserved spot. It's one of those ultramodern buses, sleek and slick, equipped with a microphone at the front of the bus for the tour guide.
Luis pretends he's the tour guide. "Welcome to Homeboy Bakery," his voice nasally drones with tour-guide disinterest. "Observe gang members in their natural habitat."
He is holding his fist up to his mouth, for greater amplification. "Please keep your hands in the bus at all times. Do not attempt to feed the homies. They are not yet tame."
"Cállate, cabrón," I say through the part of my mouth not smiling, welcoming our visitors from the farmland as they get off the bus.
Later in the day, I visit the bakery several blocks from my office. Seeing Luis triggers the memory of his earlier tour.
"Oye," I ask him, "How'd the tour go?"
"Damn, G," he shakes his head, "What's up with white people anyway?"
I was actually curious as to what was up with us.
"I don't know, what is up with us?"
"I mean, damn," he says, "They always be using the word 'GREAT.'"
"Oh, hell yeah. Watcha. This buncha gabachos stroll in here and see the place, and it's all firme and clean and machines workin' proper, and they say, 'This place is GREAT.' And then they see the homies, tú sabes, enemies working together all firme, and they say, 'You fellas are GREAT.' Then they taste our bread and they go, 'This bread . . . it's GREAT.' I mean, damn, G, why white people always be usin' the word 'GREAT'?"
I tell him I don't know. But, trust me, every opportunity I could find after that, I tell him how 'GREAT' he is, just to mess with him a little.
Some four months later, it is nearly closing time, and I arrive at the bakery in the evening. Luis sees me in the parking lot from inside the building and rushes outside. He's excited, and yet "enthusiasm" is not ever the card with which Luis leads. He's too cool for that. He barely lets me get out of my car.
"Hey, G," he says, thrilled to see me, "You not gonna BELIEVE what happened to me yesterday after my shift."
He proceeds to tell me that, after work, he goes to pick up his four-year-old daughter, Tiffany, at the babysitter's. He puts her in the car, and they drive to their tiny apartment, where, for the first time, Luis is paying rent with honestly earned, clean money. He unlocks the front door, and Tiffany scurries in, down the hallway, and lands in their modest sala. She plants her feet in the living room and extends her arms and takes in the whole room with her eyes. She then declares, with an untethered smile, "This . . . is GREAT."
He turns and says to me, "I thought she was turning white on me."
He tells me that he lowers himself to her eye level, placing his hands on his knees for support.
"What's great, mija?"
Tiffany clutches her heart and gushes, "MY HOOOME!"
Luis seems to be unable to speak at exactly this moment. Our eyes find each other, and our souls well up, along with our eyes. We can't stop staring at each other, and tears make their way south on our faces. After what seems like longer than I'm sure it was, I break the silence.
I point at him. "You . . . did . . . this. You've never had a home in your life — now you have one. You did this. You were the biggest drug dealer in town, and you stopped and baked bread instead. You did this. You've never had a father in your life — and now you are one . . . and I hate to have to tell you . . . but . . . you're great."
And I hate to have to tell you this, but the first time I retrieved this story from my memory bank was to tell it at Luis's funeral. He wasn't doing anything wrong on the Wednesday afternoon he was killed. He was loading the trunk of his car, in the projects, readying himself for a camping trip with friends. Two gang members, with their faces covered, entered their "enemy's" territory, looking "for fools slippin'." They saw Luis and must have thought to themselves, He'll do. They walked up to him and executed him.
I told the "Great" story at Luis's funeral largely because of the questions I had been repeatedly asked by his friends and homies during the week that spanned his death and his burial.
"What's the point," they'd ask, "of doing good . . . If this can happen to ya?"
It was a good question, worthy of a response. I told that packed church that Luis was a human being who came to know the truth about himself and liked what he found there.
Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century female English mystic, saw the life struggle as coming to discover that we are "clothed in God's goodness."
This became Luis's life's work. He embraced this goodness — his greatness — and nothing was the same again. And, really, what is death compared to knowing that? No bullet can pierce it.
With That Moon Language
Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, "Love me." Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise, Someone would call the cops. Still though, think about this, This great pull in us to connect. Why not become the one Who lives with a full moon in each eye That is always saying With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world Is dying to Hear.
Excerpted from Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle. Copyright 2010 Gregory Boyle. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.