One Tough Mother

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

He is 27 years old, with a baby face. When he comes to work at Mothers Against Gangs, he is clean-cut, neatly dressed. Even his white tee shirts are pressed. He welcomes visitors (no matter how many times he has met them) with a firm handshake, a huge smile and a warm greeting.

But he says, not long ago, "you wouldn't have liked me." He was a banger who looked and acted the part. A member of Las Cuatro Milpas -- one of the oldest gangs in Phoenix -- since he was 11 or 12, Garcia fulfilled all his obligations to the gang. He used and dealt drugs. He has arrests for robbery, burglary, vehicle theft and other minor incidents on his juvenile record. When he and some buddies broke into a Montgomery Ward and stole $4,000 worth of equipment, Garcia was sent to adult court where he squandered a break by violating his probation. When he was 19, he made the news after he and a teenager got into a dispute with a stranger at a gas station, then chased him through the streets of Phoenix in their car, firing shots at him.

Garcia says it wasn't until well after he had served about a year and a half in jail and prison that he decided to quit the gangster life. And when he did, he just severed his ties. He didn't move out of his old neighborhood, but he quit seeing his friends, didn't answer their phone calls, didn't invite them to his wedding this year.

Daniel Rodreges, foreground, often drops by the center to shoot pool.
Paolo Vescia
Daniel Rodreges, foreground, often drops by the center to shoot pool.
Elena Mora credits Mothers Against Gangs with turning her 10-year-old son Michael away from gangs. Behind them, a portrait of Edward Lopez adorns a wall in the center.
Paolo Vescia
Elena Mora credits Mothers Against Gangs with turning her 10-year-old son Michael away from gangs. Behind them, a portrait of Edward Lopez adorns a wall in the center.

He says this really wasn't as hard as it sounds, because a lot of his old friends are dead or in prison. While his wife is worried that others may seek him out and retaliate for leaving the gang, Garcia says he's not afraid.

"I ain't scared of nobody because I'm my own man. I'm gonna live my own life, without people telling me what to do and who to hang out with," he says.

When he got out of prison, he found it hard to get jobs with a felony on his record. Once, when he withheld that information on his application, he got hired for a warehouse position. He claims he was doing well until he was called into a supervisor's office and let go because of his deception.

"My heart just dropped," he says. "I went home and cried my heart out. It was like I was trying and I couldn't get anywhere."

He had gotten another job at the Bashas' distribution center, but hadn't started working there, when he began volunteering at Mothers Against Gangs a few months ago. When Lopez-Espindola realized his work schedule would cut into time with kids, she offered him a paid position.

Garcia says he is grateful that older gang members he met in prison advised him to quit the life before he ended up spending the rest of his days behind bars. He says he regrets all the pain he has caused his family, but he is thankful to his mother for encouraging him when he was in trouble and paying for a good lawyer to represent him.

"My mom's real proud of me now. She's just telling me to do what makes me happy. And this makes me happy," he says.

He takes a yellow sticky note and draws a line from right to left. As he dips the line down in the middle, Garcia says that was the trap of the gang life for him. He draws another parallel line, this one with an upward arc in the middle.

"I want to show kids there is a way around gangs, a detour around what I did," he says.

For someone whose son was cut down by a gang member, Lopez-Espindola is surprisingly compassionate toward the gangsters who come by the center.

"We have so much respect from the gangs because they know we are not against them," she says. "We are against the crimes they are committing. We don't see them as gang members. We see them as kids. And we will do anything we can to help them. But once they cross the line, we'll prosecute them to the fullest."

Lopez-Espindola believes that when it comes to gang involvement, both prevention and intervention can be effective. She thinks prevention techniques should start as early as kindergarten, because children in troubled families are exposed to drugs and violence at young ages. She cites an example of a 4-year-old boy who used to sit on the roof of a nearby apartment complex, acting as a lookout for his drug-addicted mother. By the time he moved away, she says, he was flashing gang signs. While some say intervention is nearly impossible -- once a gangster, always a gangster -- Lopez-Espindola disagrees.

"It's never too late," she says. She constantly preaches the value of self-worth, advising adults and children alike to look at their mistakes as lessons from which they can learn and move on.

Lopez-Espindola has snapshots and school pictures from kids who have been through the center, have stayed out of trouble and have kept in touch. One third-grader was referred to the center from a school principal after he stabbed a kindergartner. He's now in high school and is doing well, Lopez-Espindola reports.

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