THROUGH THE FIRE: Hope for Our Neighboring Homeboys

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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.”

Three Homeboy success stories. From left to right: Agustin Lizama, Robert Juarez and Assistant Executive Director Hector Verdugo.

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.

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5 Comments

  1. Mickey Okamoto on

    Comparing gangbangers to JA’s returning from camp is a stretch at best or a misguided, even a blatant disrespectful view of our community. Criminals who chose on their own accord to break the law should not be considered in the same context as JA families who were unjustly uprooted and criminalized by the government. How about some truth and integrity in your column. Gangbangers deserve what they get, they should help themselves first before anyone else does. There are many more deserving people in this world. This column reeks of the same people who claim Arizonans are Nazi’s just because they choose to uphold U.S. Law.

  2. Mickey – I can see your point about the comparison. But I didn’t take offense the way you did and I greatly admire Father Boyle’s efforts to turn the homeboys around.

    By the way, I completely agree with your comment about Arizonans. We are part of the 70% who support Arizona!

  3. So… let’s say Arizona gets rid of all illegal immigrants. Who is gonna do all the dirty work? Who is gonna wash the dishes or mop the floor for $5 an hour or less? The real problem are not the illegal immigrants from down south but legal immigrants who come to harm people here by e.g. planting bombs on Times Square. From the Indians’ point of view, we are all illegl immigrants!!

  4. If you do your research you will see that the communities in which most “gangbangers” are raised in are communities that are marginalized by the government for the purpose of keeping the status quo (the rich, rich, the poor, poor). Go ahead and search for the term “institutionalized racism” and see what you get. Many of the people who choose to join gangs see it as their only salvation from terrible home lives and the only way in which to belong to a stable “family” unit. Just because they do bad things does not mean that they are fundamentally bad people.
    Furthermore, they are marginalized and deemed “deviant” the same way in which the JA community was during and after WWII. Not to say, in any way, that the JA community and Gangs are correlated. What the author of this piece is saying is that the JA community was once in a place where they were treated the same way that gangsters are treated today, even though they had done nothing wrong.
    Also, knowing what i do about homeboy industries (which I’m assuming is a lot more than the people who previously commented), the gang members who go there for help are seriously looking for a way out of gangs and off the street. Sure, some of them may relapse, but such is to be expected when gang life is the only life they’ve known, but in their hearts they want to change, be respected and LIVE.
    I take offense that people who are obviously ignorant to the sociological foundations of gang life, underprivileged communities and institutionalized racism are choosing to judge people whom they don’t even know and from the looks of it, wouldn’t even try to get to know if they had the opportunity.

  5. Rafu Fan: Thanks for the comment and support of the citizens of Arizona. Your support of Father Boyle’s effort is your choice I just feel there are 100’s if not 1,000’s of better organizations and causes to support besides gangbangers and it seems others agree.

    Shimoda-san: So let’s say all the illegals leave Arizona. What could we expect. Gee, the possibilities are endless, quality schools with high teacher to student ratio’s, clear freeways, empty emergency rooms, more government services, etc. As for who does all the dirty work, well not everyone in the U.S. legally make the big bucks you and I do. Could you imagine legal residents doing dirty work for cheap. I did, these people are sometimes called students, starving students, etc. Heck, I even do the dirty jobs for free now when I volunteer.

    Disgusted: You should be. Blaming the cause of gangbangers on government. I would have expected you to have included the evil corporations, hollywood, Republicans, etc. everything else besides the individual. Typical. Yes JA’s were marginalized like the gangbangers but that’s where the comparison ends. Gangbangers deserve to be marginalized, they did something wrong. I am glad you have sympathy for the criminals. I reserve my sympathy for the victims. I believe that one must live with integrity and character which includes taking responsibility for one’s action instead of conveniently placing blame everywhere else except where it belongs. Good luck with your Homeboy Industries (maybe they should change the name to Homeboy Charity because that’s what it is.) I will be on the look out for the “institutionalized racism” along Bigfoot and UFO’s (another government conspiracy).

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