Ex-gang members find positive way out of the game

Cindy Von Quednow

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Suite 706 is more than a small space in the large black building on the corner of West Olympic Boulevard and Union Avenue. It is overshadowed by the famous “La Curacao” shopping center and “Pollo Campero” restaurant, but what goes on in this suite is more enduring than a flat-screen TV or a side order of “tostones,” (fried plantains).

It’s the home of Homies Unidos, a community organization based in the Pico Union area of Los Angeles that helps former gang members work their way back into society through education, job training and many other programs. It seeks to heal the physical and emotional wounds of its members and their families by promoting peace and education, and putting an end to violence and discrimination.

“Our main goal is being able to dream the possibly of a world without violence,” said Allegra Padilla, 27, an organizer with Homies Unidos. “We provide a safe space for youth and other community members who have traditionally been marginalized . . . to come forward and use their voice.”

Homies Unidos was created in 1998 as a type of sister program to the office in San Salvador, El Salvador, created two years prior.

“We focus a lot also on local issues: gentrification, police brutality, immigration enforcement,” said Padilla, who has been with the organization for almost three years. “We’re up against something that is very deep, it’s very entrenched, and it’s going to be a process for us to start to see some victories on that level.”

Homies Unidos has various programs that seek to fulfill these goals through peace and unity.

“The Epiphany Project” trains members on basic life skills during a 10-week program.

Legal clinics on detention and deportation are held every month in order to raise awareness and answer questions on issues that affect the immigrant community.

“Libertad con Dignidad,” or “Liberty with Dignity,” is a direct response to the harsh conditions in El Salvador and Honduras, mostly perpetuated by the governments of those countries.

The most popular of the Homies Unidos programs is a tattoo removal service, which takes place weekly and is free of charge.

According to Mirna Solorzano, director of operations at Homies Unidos, the organization has about 100 to 150 active members. Membership is made up of an informal network, mostly facilitated through word of mouth. “It’s more of a come and go thing,” said Solorzano, 32.

“(Homies Unidos) gives me resources that I don’t have,” said Jesus Fonseca, 22, a volunteer for about two years. “It welcomes the community.”

Fonseca never “joined a ‘hood” as he puts it, but was interested in the organization after they made a presentation at his high school.

Eliseo Figueroa, 24, is a former gang member who was recruited by Alex Sanchez in 2000. At the suggestion of Sanchez, Figueroa was sent to his native Oaxaca at the age of 18 in order to kick his drug addiction and gang activity. Today he is a regular volunteer.

“I want to do the same work he’s doing,” said Figueroa of Sanchez. “(I want to) tell youth that what they are doing is not the right way to go. . . I’m here to help others not follow the same steps, or do the same things I went through.”

Both Figueroa and Fonseca offer various services to Homies Unidos, through outreach, phone banking and translating for non-English speakers during events.

Volunteers and organizers stay connected by building consensus with other organizations and networks.

“We work with a lot of different people on a lot of different issues,” said Padilla. “We’re part of a community that’s always seeking for social change.”

One of the problems Homies Unidos faces is the portrayal of gang violence and the Pico Union area in the mainstream media.

“Just because you grew up in Pico Union doesn’t mean it’s horrible,” said Padilla, who, lives in Lincoln Heights. “I think people have to acknowledge the richness of this community.”

Fonseca, who said he is “well-rounded” because he grew up in the area, agreed. “To me it’s very multicultural.”

Padilla’s problem with the media and law enforcement is they don’t focus on amending the problem. “(They) always sensationalize the violence and don’t really talk about root causes, prevention, or education,” she said.

Due to the undocumented status of many members, they are often deported to their home country. Padilla said that Homies Unidos works closely with the El Salvador chapter to support deportees. As part of their vision of growth, Homies Unidos hopes to create offices in other Central American countries.

Solorzano said Homies Unidos attempts to build that consensus with the official sectors of the city. “We need to educate the community of the phenomenon of gangs and how we can work together, instead of locking up and continuing the oppression,” she said.

Through the work they’re doing in Los Angeles and abroad, members, volunteers and organizers can accomplish this. Their relationship and ability to interact is inspiring and impressive.

“I really enjoy working with people, that’s why I took this job,” said Padilla. “I could get a job that pays two or three times this amount but, I’m here.”

“A lot of us do work outside of our hours . . . it’s not a 9 to 5 job,” she added.

“And it’s a job we love,” chimed in Figueroa.