One Tough Mother

By Laura Laughlin Sophia Lopez-Espindola's grassroots organization has survived bullets, business setbacks and political pitfalls

At a recent meeting, 8-year-old Elsa Torres stands in the middle of the circle to tell the group about her uncle, who she says is in prison for killing someone to protect himself.

"He has seven years to go . . . and he's gonna come straight to my house when he gets out. He calls me every day, even though he has a short time to call," she says. "And I can't wait until he gets out, because I miss him."

Frank Garcia is a former gang member who now works for Mothers Against Gangs. He tells the group members, most of them slumping in their chairs, that he envies them because they have a chance to avoid the same gang life he chose.

Jose Beltran wears an ankle bracelet to keep him out of trouble.
Paolo Vescia
Jose Beltran wears an ankle bracelet to keep him out of trouble.
Luis Becerra, Jose Beltran and George Acedo (from left) participate in a youth group exercise.
Paolo Vescia
Luis Becerra, Jose Beltran and George Acedo (from left) participate in a youth group exercise.

"You should get a job, get a house, get a family, be happy," he says.

Before the next group session the following week, Jose Beltran says he was struck by Garcia's messages.

"He knows what's up, he knows what he's saying," says Beltran, who is on house arrest and must come to the center to perform more than 200 hours of community service.

A skinny 16-year-old who wears an electronic monitoring bracelet on his right ankle and a woeful expression on his face, Beltran has been to Mothers Against Gangs before. Two years ago, he was picked up for a weapons violation and was ordered to serve 200 hours at the center. He didn't go through the youth program then, because he couldn't fit it in with his work schedule.

Lopez-Espindola says Beltran and his cousins came to the center together then and made progress. But once they were back home and on the streets, she says, they began to get into trouble again.

Beltran's latest arrest came when a group of kids started shooting at him and some girls in a car. He says he drove home, got his gun, returned and fired back. Now he is allowed to go only to work or to the Mothers Against Gangs center. If his monitor goes off once, he'll face a stiff penalty when he appears for sentencing next month, either being held in custody until he's 18 or transferred to adult court.

He tells the group he wants to change his ways. "But it's not as easy as that. I'm trying to stay out of trouble, [but] I'm not going to just be kicking back when people keep messing with me. They keep messing with me."

Beltran says his enemies keep taunting him. They even broke his car window recently and he was powerless to retaliate. "I can't even go out of my yard," he says.

When he describes the crime that got him back into trouble, Garcia stops him when he talks about going home to retrieve his weapon. That, he says, is where Beltran could have avoided arrest. He should have stayed away.

The bright light in his life, Beltran says, is the daughter he fathered when he was 14. Having her has made him want to "start calming down," he says, because he doesn't want her to get hurt or grow up without knowing her father. And while Beltran's own mother has told him to consider moving to get away from the gangs, he wants to stay and watch his daughter grow up.

"She's just starting to say, 'Daddy,'" he says. But he says her mother won't let him see the child, a situation he's trying to change.

This is something else Frank Garcia can relate to. He tells Beltran he has a son from a prior relationship, but the mother won't let him see the boy because of his gangster past.

"It hurts, it hurts deeply inside," he says.

"Mejor [better] to beat you up a whole bunch of times," the teenager replies.

All of the teenagers in this group are here because they have committed crimes. Some of them are involved in gangs, others aren't. They say kids join gangs because they want to feel protected and be popular. When asked to define a gang, one boy says it's people trying to protect a neighborhood, another says it's a group trying to be better than anyone else. Beltran says a gang is a group of guys that hang out. As to what a victim is, a 15-year-old offender offers: "A person that gets hurt that wasn't supposed to."

George Acedo, a 17-year-old dropout, is at the center performing 60 hours of service after a burglary arrest. He says that staying in a gang will land you in "a tomb, a hospital or jail." He has asked Garcia how he can remove the gang symbols from his remote-controlled race car.

Frank Garcia tells the teenagers that if he can get out of the gang life, they can, too. "I walked away and I feel proud that I walked away. You know why? Because I'm not getting locked up. I'm not killing anybody. I'm not getting killed. . . . I know how you feel. I don't go out. I don't go to clubs. I don't want to get shot at. I know it's hard out there because I've been there."

Looking at Frank Garcia today, it's hard to imagine him as a gangster.
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