I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1987 and immediately fell in
love with the place. It was big and exciting and a quirky energy seemed
to hang in the air. I was young and there was always something new
to do; anything was possible. But nearly a decade later and, after
having taken a long look at Los Angeles as a community, I chose as
an adult to invest myself professionally and personally elsewhere.
I was NOT going to perform my life's work (teaching) in L.A.
city schools. My children were NOT going to grow up in Los Angeles. No
way in hell this was going to happen! Why?
Well, it all comes down to the nature
of what Los Angeles had become at the end of the 20th century. Just
since I moved there, L.A. has been vastly transformed by two powerful
influences: a protracted and bitter economic recession, and the scourge
of crack cocaine. The situation was such that the vast majority of
uneducated (or semi-educated) Angelenos had little to offer a potential
employer and work had almost disappeared to the extent that large areas
of the city were virtual economic wastelands of Third World dimensions.
Moreover, crack cocaine had contributed to the explosion of violent
street gangs until they were THE power in many areas. The streets
of Los Angeles reverberated with the powerful influence of a pervasive
culture of violence: there were an estimated 100,000 hardcore
gangmembers in L.A. County, and in the year I decided to leave (1995)
LA tallied up a record 1,785 homicides - 807 of them
gang-related. In the decade I lived in Los Angeles, more than 18,000 human
beings died prematurely at the hand of another - violence being the
leading cause of death in the city for people under 35.
People murdered for their shoes. People
murdered for $5 and some spare change. People murdered for drugs. People
murdered for absolutely no reason at all. I lived and worked amidst
all this until the magnitude of the tragedy threatened to break my
heart - until the stink of the violence began to choke me.
Two especially tragic murders prompt me to write this poem.
Once during a parent conference a
Mexican father asked me (an American) incredulously, "How can this
country let teenagers with guns be the most powerful force on the streets?" I
did not know what to tell him. The typical father I met from Oaxaca,
Zacatecas, or San Salvador was pro-law and order by nature, and hated
trying to raise his family in the middle of a war zone. Although some chicano writer
or college professor might see the cholo as a legitimate expression
of the Latino American identity, the average Mexican father sees a
shaved-head gang member with a gun and respect for nothing and nobody
as just as much of an ugly aberration as does his middle-American counterpart.
To tell this man about "rights" and the American Civil Liberties Union
in the middle of an area utterly without law is to talk nonsense. Sometimes
I thought the "progressive" Los Angeles political leadership so embarrassed
about what happened in their districts that they were frozen in a state
of semi-denial as to reality. Take, for example, the following statement:
"We have kids who are dying, who are totally innocent,
killed as bystanders, for no other reason than they are in the wrong place
at the wrong time. And the only reason they are killed is that there are
tons of these guns going out to the open market."
Chairman of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los
Was the widespread availability of guns more of a problem than the existence
of 100,000 hardcore gangmembers willing to kill you over a misunderstood
look or the color of your clothes? The presence of guns was the primary reason
that people slaughtered each other like dogs on the L.A. city streets? For
Los Angeles to have problems is one thing; to be disingenuous and insincere
in responding to them is quite another.
Everywhere in Los Angeles one encounters
the same muddleheaded half-truths and half-measures resulting from
half-brained thinking. There exists a specious L.A. "false humanitarianism" where
certain basic truths about life and personal responsibility lie buried
under a veritable mountain of obfuscation and blatant rationalization
in an endless stream of meetings, rallies, speeches, news conferences,
lectures, talk and more talk, committees and conferences about "diversity" or "multiculturalism," and
a hundred other ineffectual actions which are, in the end, just a lot
of hot air and noise signifying nothing on the street - and the violence
continues unabated. I could not for the life of me find a Los Angeles
politician convincing about crime after them having spent so many years
thinking about it purely as a civil-rights and civil-liberties issue
- as the gangs grew larger and became bolder. Possessing less education
and more common sense than the L.A. political elites, the average campesino on
the street saw the situation differently, in my experience. When I
spoke with them, the average Mexican fathers of my students saw the
situation much the same as I did: "Someone do something!"
I would sometimes in a pensive moment
think about the streets around downtown Los Angeles and compare them
to those where I grew up. What would have happened on the block during
my childhood if a drug dealer had appeared on the corner and the police
could not, or would not, take care of the situation? What would Mr.
Barich down at the end of the street, or Mr. Duerr beyond him - or
even my own father, do in such an unlikely situation? Knowing these
men well, I knew exactly what they would have done: they would have
taken care of the situation one way or another - if the State had not
gotten rid of the drug dealer, the residents themselves would have
done it. It would indeed be difficult to imagine a gang taking over
those streets, and if they had tried there would have been a bloodbath.
I would then think about my present
situation. Sitting in my Pico-Union classroom, I would look out at
the Mexican and Central American immigrant fathers in the audience
during "Back to School Night." These were, in
the vast majority, hard working family men whom over time I had gotten
to know. I would think to myself the same thought yet again that had
occurred to me in frustration over and over: "Why cannot the good
people on both the immigrant Latino and the mainstream American side
work together to clean up this mess?" Both ethnic groups more or
less shared the same family values and work ethic - and even in the
worst Angeleno neighborhood there were more decent people trying to
make their way in the world than opportunistic predators. And it was
their children and my students who were growing up in physical danger
amidst all this chaos and violence! As the adult males in the community,
is it not our responsibility to provide moral guidance for the youth
- especially the young men? And in cases where we are unable to persuade
young people towards a positive path, we cannot let them destroy the
Think of the gang member with the
gun and the tattoos on his neck selling death on the corner. Think
of that gangster who stuck a gun in that newly arrived immigrant's
face the other day and laughed uproariously while the poor man urinated
in his pants. "ĦEs mi vida loca!" - the crazy life of
the L.A. gangster - "Disrespect me in my 'hood, and me and my
homies we'll fuck you up!!" Surely we men could all organize,
and with the greater adult strength of purpose and discipline get rid
of this gangster and his buddies in the nearby park that surely will
come running with guns when he calls for help. At least some of the
Central American men in my classroom would have had military training
and/or combat experience. I myself had law enforcement training and
could shoot straight enough. All we need is the will to organize, to
hold fast to the goal with the knowledge that it is the future for
which we are fighting, and we can change things! If not, we will live
and work in this shithole in fear of these guys forever! I know what
the majority of these men would have told me: "I don't want any
problems with nobody!" Terrorized and just trying to survive,
I despaired that the poor Latino immigrants who populated the neighborhoods
around downtown would ever band together to take back the streets.
It is a situation fraught with risk, to say the least. However, to
do nothing is often worse than making a difficult decision and living
I could see clearly that if things
were ever to change it would be the residents themselves that would
have to change them. You can't ask the State or its agents (ie: the
police, social welfare agencies) or any other actor with only a secondary
interest to clean things up for you - especially in a life-or-death
fight with a violent street gang that fears nobody and will kill you
(or try to kill you, at the very least) if you cross them. You have
to do it yourself. I, along with many others, worked hard to help those
who would let us help them help themselves to progress onward in the
world. However, in my opinion, this is only one side of the equation.
It is a sad but true fact that in this world there exists violent and
depraved individuals with whom the
only profitable discourse may be had over the barrel of a gun. The
neighborhoods around downtown Los Angeles were filled with such characters.
Without in one way or another dealing with this hardcore element, the
disaster story of LA would never change dramatically, in my opinion.
But what if the violence were to touch
someone very close to me? What would I have done if some half-wasted
gangster with one foot already in the grave had hurt precious little
Roxana or Ivett (students of mine)? If someone had taken the life of
brilliant Maria, with so much going for her in the future? I really
don't know what I would have done. I knew the neighborhoods. I knew
how to use a gun. My civic obligation clearly would have been to leave
retribution to the law and the uncertainties of the criminal justice
system. But in much of Los Angeles the law by itself meant next to
nothing - it was a piece of paper written by a stranger for the benefit
of someone else in some other place; it protected hardly at all, and
punished only occasionally and haphazardly. If I were to await justice
from the criminal courts, I might wait forever. I don't know if I could
have let it go at that. I just don't know. In retrospect, I am glad
to have never been put in that position. I am so glad not to have been
in such a position.
As a school teacher in Los Angeles, I spent years
trying to show young people through my example and actions the possible good
in life. Day-in and day-out I spoke with and listened to children, laughed with
and sought to correct them - all in the hope that they might grow up straight
and true. This I considered nothing less than a central expression of my masculinity.
However, it was only one side of myself, and I had done "other" things before
I became a teacher. But what would ambushing and killing some gangster in a dark
corner solve? He more than likely has younger brothers and/or cousins - maybe
even children of his own - who were going to grow up and take his place as future
gangsters. More importantly, it would do nothing to un-do the damage already
done to those I loved. It might even have seriously compromised my own future.
In the end, it would have solved nothing. And I knew those gangmembers and they
rarely changed. If they didn't change, someone else would more than likely in
turn cut short their life. There are all kinds of justice in this world.
And what if the local community were
able to start a grass roots mini-revolution and win back control of
the city streets? Even in such a case what would these people have
to offer legitimate employers in terms of job skills? They mostly can
offer only unskilled labor in an economy where such employment has
more or less vanished from the United States. They had only the sweat
of their brows and the strength of their backs in a age when brainpower
ruled the day. The LA school system was by and large NOT full
of future rocket scientists or brain surgeons (or software engineers
or Information Age specialists for that matter). I used to work in
those schools and I know! Los Angeles was all too often masses of uneducated
(or semi-educated) poor people fighting each other for scraps around
small enclaves of extreme wealth. It was companies and businesses which
had long since left for more hospitable climes with others damn unlikedly
to want to relocate to a combat zone. It was inferior and overwhelmed
public schools contrasted with expensive and exclusive private schools.
It was gunfights and murder made so common that it often hardly even
captured the attention of the general public.
After getting a good look at Los Angeles
for more than a decade, there was no way I was going to live my life
and raise my family in such a place. You gotta be kidding me! I
believed in the traditional American concept of the middle-class: be
not filthy rich, nor be desperately poor. The middle-class in Los Angeles
was largely non-existent - or it was people from the suburbs commuting
to work and then escaping back home at nightfall. It was not my concept
of the ideal community, to say the least.
I empathized with writer Jimmy Breslin
who on the slaying of a young man by gang members in New York City
"Dies the victim, dies the city. Nobody flees New York because
of accounting malpractice. People run from murder and fire. Those
who remain express their fear in words of anger."
GOOD RIDDANCE TO THE CITY OF THE ANGELS!
I left Los Angeles with both a deep
sadness in my heart for the Godforsaken place and a seething contempt
for it in my head. It was never my desire to contemn Los Angeles, but
I found the status quo so bitterly unsatisfactory on a number of different
levels. Instead of beating my head futilely against the wall forever,
I simply went someplace else. However, the nearly ten years I lived
there were for better or for worse a huge influence on my life.