By SHARON YAMATO
A couple of weeks ago, I returned from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City where our short documentary film on Michi Nishiura Weglyn won an Honorable Jury Mention. Dizzy with excitement and slightly puffed up from the attention, I couldn’t wait to write a column about every thrilling moment we spent in the film festival limelight – being collectively wined and dined by none other than Robert De Niro himself (okay, so I only really got to see him across a very crowded room).
It didn’t take long for me to get my feet firmly back on the ground when all of life’s humps and bumps nastily resurfaced. It started with the trivial – like things I had forgotten to do—then moved on to the tragic—like the news that a friend’s boyfriend had been killed in a rock climbing accident. Suddenly, my fifteen minutes of fame seemed frivolous. It occurred to me that making a film was such a minor, secondhand pursuit compared to living a life, and I was reminded that brief celebrity was an insignificant blip on a screen.
Then on May 15 came the LA Times column by Tim Rutten titled, “What price hope? Homeboy Industries is hurting; it’s time for L.A., rich and poor, to step up and help.” One of LA’s noblest institutions, a 20-year-old organization offering jobs to gang members and ex-cons headed by our own LA saint, Father Gregory Boyle, was laying off 330 out of 427 employees. What could be more important than this serious threat to a program that Rutten aptly called “an effective program with a soul.”
Headquartered just up the street from Little Tokyo near Union Station, Homeboy shares a certain kinship with the JA community (believe it or not). It wasn’t that long ago that JAs fresh from camp were back on the streets of LA with no jobs and no employers that would hire them. Father Boyle calls this predicament part of the prevailing culture’s need to disparage those who occupy the place “out there” and whose lives seem to matter less. What results is a message of shame and disgrace for those on the outside. Those exact words—shame and disgrace—were used by Michi Weglyn when she spoke about how she and other Nisei felt after the war. In fact, JAs were isolated so long in camps that to get back in the mainstream, it took people who were willing to take a chance to offer opportunities. That is exactly what Homeboy Industries
has done—offering counseling, job training, tattoo removal, and most of all, jobs, to more than 12,000 ex-gang members. If you take away the tattoo removal, Homeboy Industries could easily be considered the homies’ answer to the Quakers after WWII.
Granted, the tattoos scare people, but not Father Boyle. In his recently published book, “Tattoos on the Heart,” he tells the story of how the tattoo removal business began. A gang member, fresh from prison with a long record, came to him with the words, “F— the World,” tattooed on his forehead. He told Father Boyle, “I can’t get a job” (no kidding). “G” (as the homies call him) hired him at Homeboy Bakery, and little by little, they painfully and painstakingly erased the tattoo. Four thousand tattoo removals a year later, Homeboy still operates a thriving tattoo removal business at no cost, and this once profanity-marked ex-gang member now works as a security guard at a movie studio.
Success stories like this roll off Father Boyle’s tongue like Scripture passages. His book will not only warm your heart, but I guarantee it will bring tears to your eyes. Though he laid himself off from Homeboy Industries, Father Boyle is still donating all the proceeds of book sales to the organization he started from the streets of Boyle Heights. There is nothing he would like better than if the book became “Tuesdays with Homie.” He encourages everyone to buy it and not lend it out to anyone. For a real treat, go hear him speak at any of his book signings scheduled for June in Pasadena, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and Glendora (more info at www.homeboys-industries.org).
More than anything, Homeboy needs contributions. If it were up to me, I’d say a few NBA players should pony up some big bucks to use their tattoo removal services. But even if you don’t have a tattoo or the $5 million they really need, you can help by using their myriad of services, which includes a silkscreen business (custom shirts, pens, and embroidery), a car wash business, and a bakery/restaurant. Now that several of their more industrious homies are out of work, you can even hire one to do odd jobs around your office or house, and they have good references.
Short of that, a few of us have decided to put together a fundraiser on July 17 at the Homegirl Café (the best Mexican food this side of Little Tokyo), just three blocks north of Union Station on San Bruno at Alameda (just across the street from the Chinatown Gold Line Station). Just drop me an email if you want an invitation, and I’ll gladly send you one. Father Boyle will be there, and you’ll get a chance to get your book autographed and/or shake hands with a real-life superstar. Even if you can’t come, any small contribution can help keep the kids from going back to what once felt safe for them—in gangs, in prisons, or on the streets.
In his talk, Fr. Boyle recited a line from “O Holy Night:” “He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” That’s what he wishes for all his homies—for their souls to feel their worth. More importantly, he encourages us all to join in connecting together to feel our worth—because isn’t it nice to be reminded that all of us do matter?
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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey. She can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.