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By Ray Stern
By New Times
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By Stephen Lemons
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"The gang and the barrio are two different things," he says. "It was a neighborhood that's been there since the early '40s. People say, 'Where do you live?' 'I live in Las Cuatro Milpas.' That doesn't necessarily mean they are involved in criminal activity."
The Milpas has a sense of security missing in most neighborhoods. Most people know each other, or at least are familiar with family names.
"It's safer here at night than in many places in Phoenix," Valdez says.
The community also knows how to come together.
Valdez says he remembers a few years ago when a 13-year-old boy was killed -- while playing with a handgun -- how the community supported the family.
"The whole neighborhood had a funeral. The family couldn't afford no big wake. They had the wake in his house. They had the coffin in his house," Valdez recalls. "All I remember is seeing the house full of candles for light. It was real dark. People were walking, coming from across the bridges, from Campito (a nearby barrio), for this kid.
"That could only happen in a neighborhood like this," he says. "That could only happen here."
The outpouring of support is a reflection of the close-knit nature of the Milpas, where four generation families are the norm and cousins live close enough to each other to play like brothers and sisters.
Valdez believes violence can be stemmed if youths will learn of their cultural roots.
"There is so much culture that's within these kids, but . . . they don't see it," he says.
"They only see day to day, day to day, you know? Maybe as they get older, maybe they will really realize their culture, and the world will open up to them."
Unlike many of the young men in the Milpas who say their families are important, Valdez puts his words into action. He and his 20-year-old wife, Sandra, live across the road from Valdez's parents on East Apache Street. Their home is comfortable and quiet. A peaceful, centered feeling fills the room softly illuminated by candlelight.
The young couple have two children with unusual names. Their oldest is a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Mexicatzinyollotlixtli (the one who is related in body and spirit to all life on earth). Their daughter is one-year-old Citlalminamixcoatl (the star that shines in the universe).
The Aztec names reflect their parents' strong interest in indigenous cultures and spiritual paths. The family participates in weekly Aztec dances and spiritual gatherings held at Tonatierra.
"It is a real community atmosphere," Valdez says of Tonatierra, located at 812 North Seventh Street. "It's a good thing. Most of the members have families and stress the concept of the family being important. That's the number one goal."
Tonatierra offers an array of outreach programs to help youths develop into healthy adults who can build and support a strong community. The center stresses the cultural and spiritual underpinnings of indigenous peoples.
"This whole organization is totally different than, say, Chicanos por La Causa or other Hispanic organizations," Valdez says. "I call them Hispanic because that is what they are. Hispanic."
Valdez says Hispanic organizations tend to be overly influenced by the "dominant culture."
Tonatierra, in contrast, "is a grassroots -- Chicano, Mexicano and indigenous people -- an organization for the people."
The group is not concerned about getting funding or creating a vast bureaucratic structure, he says.
"It's about reaching out to people and trying to bring them together under a common understanding," he says.
Valdez plans to work at Tonatierra after he graduates from ASU next year with a degree and teaching certificate in Chicano Studies.
When he was a youth, he served LCM by fighting rival gangs, stealing cars, participating in drive-by shootings, spray-painting graffiti and other assorted mayhem.
In his 21st year, he was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison on a probation violation stemming from a car theft conviction. During his incarceration at the minimum security prison in Safford, Mendoza had plenty of time to think about his life.
His introspection lead him to Tonatierra, a community that blends cultural history, indigenous ceremony, family values and sober living as a pathway to an enlightened life. Indio embraced the teachings and embarked on a spiritual quest.
"He has proven himself at the community level as an individual of commitment and responsibility, a man of dignity, humility and respect," says Tupac Enrique, Tonatierra coordinator.
Mendoza now serves his LCM homeboys -- and youth across the state, country and hemisphere -- through prayer, outreach programs, speaking to youth groups and, if necessary, confronting gangsters like Felix "Gato" Medina.
Mendoza contacted New Times after it published a series of stories on Medina and other LCM gang members in October. Indio said there is far more to the story than just another police roundup of gangbangers.
Wearing a dark blue knit hat pulled tight over his scalp, a long-sleeve knit shirt that covered his numerous tattoos and jeans over his stocky physique, Mendoza leans back in his chair and provides a synopsis of Phoenix Chicano street-gang history, its philosophical underpinnings and a prescription to reduce, and hopefully end, the violence.