Faces of Milpas

Other Milpas leaders like Art Luera believe the injunction is a serious infringement of civil rights.

"This is very important," he said during a community meeting in October. "It is absolutely important because what is going on today is what happened in the 1920s during Nazi Germany. And that's the taking of your civil rights."

Whether the injunction is enforced will be determined by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Talamante after a trial next year.

Santa tries to cheer one of the several hundred children who attended the annual Milpas Christmas party.
Paolo Vescia
Santa tries to cheer one of the several hundred children who attended the annual Milpas Christmas party.
There is no mistaking the late Norberto Rosales Davalos' affiliation with the "LCM" street gang.
There is no mistaking the late Norberto Rosales Davalos' affiliation with the "LCM" street gang.

Vallejo says that he never liked the "negativity of the gang" when he was growing up. Yet in this tightly knit community, gang members have never been strangers.

He guesses that about half the young men in their early 20s listed in the injunction played ball for one of the basketball or baseball teams he has organized, coached and often paid for out of his own pocket over the years.

"I think wanting to feel a part of something is what gets kids involved in things, good and bad. If they're playing sports, a lot of these kids used to sleep in their uniforms. That's how much it means to them. They want people to know they're part of a team."

Vallejo says that some of the parents of the young men targeted by the injunction asked him to be a character witness at the hearing. "I wouldn't speak for all of them, because some of those kids are crackheads who belong in jail. It might sound mean, but maybe they'll clean up and straighten out."

But he says some of the "kids" aren't the gangster kingpins that the injunction portrays.

Joe Romero and Margarito "Lito" Rodarte are two of the men he spoke for. Both had played on his basketball and baseball teams.

The basketball team was called the Chicano Bulls. Its success was seen as a barometer of how Milpas kids measured up against the outside world.

"Nobody thought much of us because we were just a short bunch of Mexicans. But we hustled. We played a touring team from South Carolina that year. Big kids. First half they went out there and just blew us out. They were dunking on us. My kids got a little intimidated. So I told them, 'Look, anybody can dunk a basketball.'"

Vallejo says his team came out playing a hard run and shoot in the second half. "We stole the ball and sunk a lot of threes. Joe was a surprise to people. He was probably the best shooter out there, period. They see this little fat Mexican kid and they figure he can't put it up. But he's got a little bit of moves on him, and if he's open, he'll put it in every time.

"We lost by one point, and the only reason we lost was because it was curfew. It was 10 [o'clock], and I had to get everybody out of the gym. We would have beat those kids.

"Joe's not a bad guy. And neither is Lito. Lito's a good boy. He's very bright. But he hung out with the wrong guys. When I testified for Lito, I said he was a big teddy bear. I made his sister cry when I spoke. They asked me what my relationship is, and I said, 'He's my friend, a former player. And he's my son.' Him and Joe were my boys. He would come and introduce his girlfriends to me and say, 'Here's my dad,' because he didn't have one around."

Vallejo says he empathizes with many of the youngsters in the neighborhood. He grew up poor, and, like many of them, he didn't have a father on the scene. "My dad was three years in the navy, in Vietnam. They got divorced when I was really young. My Uncle Ray was like my dad." Vallejo also looked up to the owner of Austin's Market, Vince Austin.

"I think kids really need a father figure," says Vallejo. "In my case, I don't think I was a bad kid. I wouldn't have caused a lot of trouble, but I grew up in a family where the expectation was to finish high school, go to college and get on with it. Too many of these kids don't have that."

Romero is one of them.

He lives sometimes in a small yellow house on Cocopah Street, sided -- like many houses in the Milpas neighborhood -- with painted wood panels. The front windows and doors appear boarded and blocked. The yard is dirt surrounded by a chain link fence. At 21, he is a stocky man with short black hair, muscular arms and a broad face with narrow eyes that always seem to be squinting.

"Simon was always a father to me," Romero says. "He always took me everywhere -- Suns games, basketball and baseball, and he was always telling me to stay out of trouble, but everybody has their own mind."

Romero was raised by his mother. "I have just one sister, my mother and grandmother. I have no father. He's never been around. I know his name: Charlie Romero. But I never seen him."

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