Removing His Tattoos, But Gang Scars Remain Gabriel Hinojas spent more than half his life in a Los Angeles gang, but he's decided to quit. He's even having his gang tattoos removed. But still he worries that his young son will end up following in his earlier footsteps.
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Removing His Tattoos, But Gang Scars Remain

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Removing His Tattoos, But Gang Scars Remain

Removing His Tattoos, But Gang Scars Remain

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Now, L.A. recently announced a new anti-gang initiative that will focus on giving teenagers work opportunities as an alternative to joining a gang. Gabriel Hinojas could have gained from a program like that. He's 26 years old now; he's spent almost half his life in a Latino street gang. After his last trip to prison, Gabriel made a big decision. He was going to leave the gang and try to be a good father.

Rob Schmitz of member station KQED spent time with Gabriel and his family and has this report.

ROB SCHMITZ: Gabriel Hinojas is running late but maintains his cool. As the short and stocky Latino casually struts into a laser tattoo-removal office, the doctor asks him which tattoo he wants removed first.

Mr. GABRIEL HINOJAS (Former Gang Member): Wherever you see any ink on me, doc.

SCHMITZ: The doctor gives him a look that seems to ask - where to start? Black Gothic letters make up the word Florencia across Gabriel's forehead. This name, his former street gang, is also tattooed along the entire front side of his thick neck. It's a menacing look.

For Gabriel, these tattoos are reminders of a chaotic and disturbing life, reminders he wants erased. The doctor points what amounts to a laser pencil toward Gabriel's face.

Unidentified Man (Doctor): Ready?

Mr. HINOJAS: Ready.

Unidentified Man:

Let's get this one off across the forehead here. Any time you want to stop, say the word stop and we'll stop. Otherwise I'm just going to go for it.

Mr. HINOJAS: (Spanish spoken)

SCHMITZ: Laser pulses as hot as 800 degrees are shot into Gabriel's tattoos, exploding the ink and burning his skin. The pungent smell fills the room.

Unidentified Man: Three letters to go. It's fading out nice.

SCHMITZ: Gabriel's abusive, drug-addicted father abandoned him and his mother when he was 14. Soon after, he ran away and joined the Florencia gang in South Central Los Angeles. He bought a gun. He started selling and smoking crack. And then he tried to break into his crack dealer's car.

Mr. HINOJAS: I felt like a crackhead, I felt like a basehead, you know, so I went back and got the gun, clocked the back and I went to the house and shot the house up, shot the front door. Lucky I didn't hit nobody because I wouldn't be here right now talking to you.

SCHMITZ: A judge sentenced Gabriel to two years. He got out on parole three years ago, and he now lives in East L.A. with his family.

SCHMITZ: Gabriel and Sandra, along with their four children, live in this tiny two-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood patrolled by Latino gangs. Gabriel does administrative work for Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit whose goal is to reform gang members. But living the straight life is challenging. The lack of money, which Gabriel used to resolve by stealing cars or selling drugs, is something he and his wife now struggle with all the time.

Mr. HINOJAS: Lately, we haven't been shopping, because we're paying bills. It's just hard, you know, it's just hard, it's just responsibility of having four kids.

SCHMITZ: It's hard, but it's worth it. Gabriel's face lights up as he dreams of a life that many would consider routine.

Mr. HINOJAS: Now I want (unintelligible) go to places where, like a suburb or something with the family. You know what I mean? Go on little family trips and stuff like that, you know what I mean? Just come back home, go feed the dog. Then you forgot to feed him. I want that, you know?

SCHMITZ: But on the path to this new life, he's learned something, that parenting children who up to now haven't had a responsible father in their lives, is very difficult.

(Soundbite of children shouting)

SCHMITZ: From his living room couch, Gabriel tries to calm down his first-born son, Junior, who's fighting with his older sister. Junior has a violent temper and bullies other kids. Gabriel and Sandra are worried about his obsession with guns and gangsters. In the past year, Sandra has caught Junior flashing gang signs from her car.

Ms. SANDRA HINOJAS: He will see gangsters out in the streets and he'll throw the F at them or he'll them Florencia. And we're just like - we'll look at each like what the hell is he doing, you know?

SCHMITZ: This might not be so shocking if it weren't for his age. Junior is four years old. Sandra is worried about him.

Ms. HINOJAS: He would see the guns around Gabriel a lot, you know, and then I guess, that's what he probably, I want to be like my daddy, you know, and he's - ever since that he always wants guns, always wants guns. Instead of an ice cream, he wants guns. Instead of chips, guns. All the time.

SCHMITZ: At the mention of this, Gabriel's face darkens and he grows quiet. Four-year-old Junior chimes in.

JUNIOR: I like guns.

Ms. HINOJAS: Well, guns are not good for you, Junior? No, they're not. Why? Why?

SCHMITZ: It takes Junior's five-year-old sister Leilani to explain to him why they're not.

LEILANI: They could shoot people.

SCHMITZ: Gabriel silently gets up and walks out of the apartment, resting his arms on the outside balcony. This topic is clearly a sore spot for the young couple. A few minutes later he comes back in to deal with another one of Junior's tantrums. Gabriel says the only way to calm him down is to sit him in front of his favorite video game.

The game is called Driver. And it allows Junior to shoot people onscreen.

Ms. HINOJAS: That's the only way he can stay there, the only way. And Daddy always gives him his way.

Mr. HINOJAS: I got him.

SCHMITZ: Gabriel knows his wife hates this game, but he has a hard time saying no to his kids. He doesn't want to be like his parents.

Mr. HINOJAS: But like right now, I give him his way, because I never had, you know, I used to be strict (unintelligible) you know. I want to give him the things I never had. You know what I mean?

SCHMITZ: Back at the tattoo-removal office, a doctor is finishing up the Florencia on Gabriel's forehead. It's now red and puffy, but the tattoo is still there. It'll take six more visits over the next couple of years to completely erase it. But as the tattoo vanishes, Gabriel's scared the lifestyle that it symbolizes will return through his son, and it's going to take more than a laser to remove it.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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