By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Residents say the yearly event better represents the area's identity than its image as gang turf. For days leading up to the bash, neighborhood children have stuck their heads through the door of Austin's Cash Market to ask Simon Vallejo, who sponsors the party, when it would happen. Volunteers and businesses have pitched in by helping to pack presents, run errands and fill bags with gifts and candy.
Finally, with a Frank Sinatra/Cyndi Lauper duet of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" blasting from a set of speakers beside the park's ramada, and a few scattered shouts of, "Here he comes," Santa cruises into view on 13th Place, waving from a red Mustang convertible.
His arrival and the accompanying party are reminders of what many residents say is the other reality of the Milpas: a place thick with the kind of community warmth and spirit that Phoenix is often accused of lacking. It's a place where families and friends have lived for generations, and where a homegrown man like Vallejo, who has worked at Austin's market for 22 of his 36 years, yet no longer lives in the neighborhood, would use his own money to throw a party for neighborhood kids.
"I started it because I had won some money gambling, and I just wanted to do something for the kids in the neighborhood," he says.
With help from dozens of volunteers, local businesses and some of the market's suppliers, the bash has grown from a low-key distribution of sweets and presents in front of the store into a raucous afternoon at the park with wieners, candy, soda, gifts, raffles -- 10 children's bicycles and a color television this year -- Santa and kids jumping themselves silly in a dinosaur-green Astro Jump.
Like many other people who live or work in the area, Vallejo draws a clean line between the neighborhood and its gang. "My friend Chino always says this neighborhood will make you or break you," he says. "And I think there's some truth to that. But not everybody here is an LCM-er. If you ask me where I'm from, I'll tell you I'm from the Milpas. But that don't mean I'm one of them."
It's a distinction that Vallejo's friend Joe Romero, who belongs to the LCM, doesn't make. For Romero, gang, neighborhood and family come as a bundled identity -- a safety zone where he can count on people to "watch his back."
"I didn't have to get jumped into it because I was born here," he says over lunch at the local Burger King. "My mother and my partners' mothers all know each other. They knew us as kids. And they know that we're not all bad."
However, that view isn't shared by the city of Phoenix. Romero is one of 14 LCM members the city has sued to halt what it describes as the gang's "forty-year reign of terror" over the neighborhood.
The suit -- pending in Superior Court -- accuses the LCM of participating "in gang fights, drive-by shootings, graffiti, and vandalism." They are well-armed and act with impunity, engaging "in robberies, burglaries, thefts, aggravated assaults, assaults and threats against residents," and completely disregarding "the law and community values."
The injunction would prevent Romero and 13 others from associating or having any contact with one another. It is a sweeping attempt to destroy the gang's social network.
But Romero, and many residents, including those who abhor the gang's criminal activities, say the injunction is an attack on basic civil rights that won't succeed in breaking the social network of the gang. And for the same reason that it would be difficult to stifle the success of Vallejo's Christmas party. Both are rooted in the deep loyalties shared by lifelong Milpas families and friends, and the feeling that the community will always have to fend for itself.
"I really don't know much about the injunction," Vallejo says a few days before the party. "But the idea of preventing these guys from talking to each other just isn't right. A lot of them are related. They're cousins. So what happens if one comes into the store and says 'Hi' to another one? Are they going to get in trouble for that?"
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.
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."
Romero has two small children, a 4-year-old boy named Benjamin and a 10-month-old girl named Joeanna. Myra Rosales is their mother. But she and Romero have been having troubles.
Romero says he doesn't feel he has missed out by not having a father.
"My mom did the job. I give her credit for that. She's the one who took care of me. She's my father. She did a good job when I has a kid -- strict. I always had to be home."
He says he grew up going to school with most of the "kids" listed on the injunction. "We would all just hang together, have fun, go places, do this and that."
The social clique of the gang evolved into a protective force as he grew older, involving him and fellow gang members in struggles over and perceived slights to the neighborhood.
"It's straight-out turf," he says. "The kind of thing where we say we don't like your gang because you're from a different neighborhood, and we'd go up to them and say, 'What are you doing over here?' Stupid stuff. That's just the way I was brought up. We don't like your gang. They don't like ours. We see you, and we want to fight and shoot, you know."
He says his "partners got killed because of another gang. One guy was 15. Another one was 17. One was Benjamin, my old lady's cousin. He's the one I named my son after. We played baseball and everything together. Another partner was named Randy. Another partner of mine was named Cookie. He died. Actually, he shot himself and his cousin sniffing paint."
Romero says that most of the violence occurred when he and other gang members were younger and trying to prove themselves.
With the court's decision on the injunction still pending, he avoids talking too specifically about the gang's activities. Yet he concedes that some of the injunction's allegations of criminal behavior by other gang members are true, adding that the gang members who have been imprisoned "deserve to be there. They know what they did and they're paying the price."
Neighborhood residents who spoke with New Times say the incarceration of Felix Medina, arrested last March along with three other more hard-core members of the gang, has helped to return some calm to the area.
"Felix used to stand out there in the street shooting that gun of his in the air," says one lifelong resident. "I'd call the police about it, but every time I did, they'd come to my house first. Felix could see that. He knew who was calling. It just wasn't worth the risk anymore, so I stopped calling."
The resident adds, "I always felt bad for Felix. His father was killed when he was a little kid, and he never had no one there for him. He just got into those drugs and the gang stuff and went bad."
Vallejo says that too many vulnerable kids -- including Lito -- looked up to men like Felix "because he came out of prison all tattooed down. That glamorized it. They didn't have anybody else to look up to. He kind of took care of them."
Romero attributes much of the gang's crime and violence to youth and alcohol or drugs. He blames the availability of drugs on illegal immigrants who set up drug houses in the area, and says the police ought to deal with those blights. But that hasn't kept him from buying and using. He began smoking marijuana when he was in his early teens. He also started early on alcohol.
"When we were 15 or 16," he says, "we'd be drinking. You didn't know how to handle your liquor, really, so you'd get buzzed and violent.
"Some guys, they didn't care. If they saw somebody they didn't like, they'd just go over there and punch them out. That's when you're trying to prove yourself. Guys are always trying to prove themselves to the gang. Like saying, 'I'm bad; I can do this.' A lot of younger guys do that."
The injunction accuses Romero and his partners of assaults, vandalism, burglaries, robberies, kidnappings, trespassing, drug dealing and violence associated with gang warfare.
Romero says he doesn't deserve to be lumped with the others, and that the suit attempts to pin the crimes of a few on anyone who knows them.
"Some of these guys just have their own mind. They did stuff they wanted to do. We can't control all that people do. Some are just troublemakers. Others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He says he was one of the unlucky ones, and that the injunction reflects the city's desire to replace the neighborhood with a new football stadium (one of the proposed sites is just north of the Milpas).
The allegations against him in the injunction are fairly slim.
It says that at age 16, he wrote "LCM" on a brick wall with a white marker and had some marijuana and Zigzag cigarette wrappers in his possession. At age 19, he was present with two documented LCM members when police responded to a "shots fired" call in the neighborhood. That same year, police found him with two other LCM members when officers were investigating a "possible marijuana complaint." This year, a jury acquitted him of participating in one robbery. And charges against him for a second robbery were dropped because the victims of the crime failed to show up in court.
Vallejo says Romero's biggest problem, besides lousy choice of friends, has been laziness.
"I love Joe, but he just don't like to work. He'll have a job for a little while, then he don't have it no more. He was the baby of the family -- always taken care of."
Romero is working loading trucks at St. Vincent de Paul. Like a lot of kids in the gang, he never finished high school. He says Vallejo was one of the few who put an arm around him and encouraged him to stick with his education. But that wasn't enough. "It was too easy to ditch. I wasn't bad at grades. I was out there having fun, so I just wanted to take off."
Romero paints a rosy picture of uniting with other gangs and turning the turf wars into weekend sports competitions and barbecues. "We should be uniting. We're all the same color, the same race. We should respect each other."
But that picture clouds when he returns to talking about his family and his future. Though he says he didn't mind growing up without a father, his father's absence dogs his conscience about his own children.
"Seeing a baby born is like the most beautiful thing you can see, seeing it coming out and hearing it cry and knowing you're going to be a dad. It opens your eyes, know what I mean? I don't want my kids to be like me, not knowing my father. I want them to know their father. I want them to know all the good things, that I'm there for them, that I'll take care of them and don't want to let them down."
The one thing he's sure of is he'd like them to know the security of the gang. "I don't want them to have the bad stuff. I want them to have the good.
"It toughens them up and lets them know what to look for on the street. You've got to tell them that this is going to happen and what to [do]. I guess it just comes with where you're raised up at. It comes with the neighborhood."
Beyond that, Romero is unsure about how to provide for his children and love them. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, or how to proceed. He talks vaguely of getting his GED, but he has no horizons in view -- no sense of how to become the provider he says he'd like to be for his children.
Maybe he would leave the neighborhood to give his children a better life, he says, but he isn't sure where he might take them. He simply repeats the desire to get "the best for them -- whatever I can do for them. But I don't really know. . . ."
The disconnection between his desires and deeds -- between wanting for his children and being with them -- is apparent the afternoon of the party.
While his children wait with their mother, Myra Rosales, on line to see Santa Claus, Romero is across the street, talking with one of his many friends -- man to man. When Santa finally gets the kids on his lap, Romero isn't there to see it. He arrives again only later, when it's time for them to leave.
The day after Christmas, Romero was arrested on outstanding traffic warrants. Serving 10 days in jail, he'll see in the new year from behind bars. "He needs to learn his damn lesson," says an aggravated Rosales.
And episodes such as the police department's bizarre handling of a supremely sensitive family matter only serve to heighten suspicions:
"They were laughing," says Phoenix Police Detective Steve Bailey of fellow gang-squad officers upon learning that a suspect targeted for arrest in a March 31 sweep of the Las Cuatro Milpas neighborhood had turned up dead in a west Phoenix alley.
The officers weren't laughing specifically about the March 20 shooting death of 26-year-old Norberto Rosales Davalos, Bailey implies. Rather, it was the timing of his murder, which meant one less search warrant having to be served, one less dangerous confrontation and arrest of a gang member.
"Had he not been killed, he would have been arrested," Bailey says.
While officers may have been amused about the timing of Davalos' death, his family members are outraged that it took police 11 days to identify his body and notify them. And, after police say they finally did identify Davalos, rather than immediately tell the family, they used his photograph -- covered by paper -- as a prop in a public-relations stunt.
"The point is they knew he was dead and didn't tell us," says Davalos' sister, Myra Rosales. "Oh God, this makes me so mad."
The incident has heightened the already considerable distrust of the police in the Milpas, which lies beneath the western approach to Sky Harbor International Airport in an area bounded by Seventh, 16th and Mohave streets and Buckeye Road. The neighborhood has a long and deep connection with LCM. Many adults in the neighborhood came of age as gang members.
Davalos was shot to death sometime in the early morning hours of March 20. His body was discovered just before noon that day in an alley in the 2000 block of West Roma Street. It was taken to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office. Although he carried no identification, Davalos was well known to detectives who had targeted him as part of the three-month gang racketeering investigation of Eastside LCM.
Davalos had been fingerprinted repeatedly, including prior to serving a nine-month prison term in 1995. While he carried no identification, Davalos' numerous tattoos -- including "LCM" etched in large letters across his stomach -- made Davalos' ties obvious. His body also bore tattoos of his mother's name, Natalia, his own initials, the name of a girlfriend and his daughter, the word "Milpasa" and a spider web, which usually indicates a prison stint.
Despite numerous clues to his identity, police say they couldn't identify Davalos for 10 days. During this time, family members grew increasingly worried about his fate. The family called the jail and area hospitals repeatedly, hoping to learn what happened to Davalos. They knew Davalos had a drug problem -- heroin and cocaine addiction -- but he stopped by the house nearly every day.
"He would come over here and check on my grandma and my mom and see how they were doing," says his sister, Myra Rosales. "He would always bring my grandmother doughnuts, because he was a sweet freak."
He left the house on the evening of March 19 and never returned.
A review of police reports and autopsy records, and interviews with several officers and family members, raise troubling questions about the handling of the case.
Police sergeant Jeff Halstead says homicide detectives requested assistance from the gang squad within 24 hours of finding Davalos, who had been shot three times in the head. Halstead says the gang squad dispatched a detective who "had knowledge of the LCM eastside gang" to look at Davalos' body and tattoos prior to the March 22 autopsy.
The detective, whom Halstead has not identified, did not recognize the body or the tattoos even though gang-squad detectives have an extensive computer database of gangsters and their tattoos, Halstead says. The gang-squad detective then took fingerprints and ran them through a statewide database. Once again, police say, Davalos fell through the cracks, despite his criminal record and prison sentence.
"The guy was not in our system," Halstead says.
Police say Davalos was finally identified when gang-squad detective Steve Bailey happened to make an inquiry on an unrelated case and the homicide detective handling the case, Dennis Olson, asked Bailey to look at photos of Davalos.
Bailey immediately recognized Davalos, pulled a police record and matched fingerprints. Halstead says that occurred on March 30, the day before the March 31 roundup was scheduled.
When asked why the first gang-squad detective didn't recognize Davalos, Halstead said the gang-squad sergeant "just didn't send out the right LCM guy" the first time. Halstead's response indicates police clearly believed that Davalos was affiliated with LCM within 24 hours of finding his body. Yet rather than pursing the LCM connection, police apparently did little the next 10 days to formally identify Davalos and notify his family. While Davalos' body lay in the morgue, police prepared search warrants to enter his home to make an arrest.
Once a positive identification was official, police elected to conduct their sweep of the Milpas before notifying Davalos' survivors. Police executed several search warrants at 7 a.m. on March 31. A few hours later, police held a meeting with neighborhood residents at the Wesley Community Center to brief them on police actions.
At the 10 a.m. meeting, police displayed a poster with the photos of the three men who were arrested that morning -- Joe "Baby Joe" Minguia, Ray "Fat Ray" Valenzuela and Margarito "Lito" Rodarte -- along with a shot of a fourth man, Eastside LCM leader Felix "Gato" Medina, who had been arrested 11 days earlier.
The poster also displayed photos of four other men whose faces were covered up by white paper. The poster indicated three of the men were still wanted. Beneath the fourth photo, police had written "Deceased."
Central City precinct commander Joe Klima, who was head of the Phoenix police gang squad during the LCM sweep, says a LCM gang member approached a police sergeant, pointed to the photo marked deceased, and said, "That's 'Beto' [Davalos' gang moniker], isn't it?"
"The 'hood knew he was dead before we did," says Klima, adding that the sergeant declined to confirm it was Davalos because the family had not been notified.
"Everyone knew but us," says Myra Rosales.
Police finally notified the family at 1 p.m. on March 31 of Davalos' violent death. Police say they have no suspects in what appears to be a drug-related homicide.
Myra Rosales says the family was enraged to learn from neighbors that Davalos' photo -- even though covered -- was displayed during the briefing. Their anger escalated when they examined Davalos' body and saw that -- other than the bullet wounds -- it was in good condition.
"He looked perfectly fine," Myra Rosales says. "He didn't look like he had been out in the sun so long so that you couldn't identify him."
Two police officers familiar with the case told New Times in separate interviews that they understood Davalos' body was in poor condition, making it difficult to read the tattoos and quickly make a positive identification.
"It was my understanding that the tattoos weren't clearly legible because he had been there for a while," says Central City precinct commander Klima.
"A large part of it was his skin had bloated up a bit and his tattoos were kind of hard to discern," says detective Derek Stephenson, who oversaw the March 31 roundup of gang members which was to include Davalos.
Davalos' March 22 autopsy report, however, notes numerous tattoos, including "LCM" across the stomach. There is no mention in the report of the body being bloated.
Myra Rosales, who viewed his body before the funeral, also says his tattoos were clearly visible, which should have led police to her door much sooner.
"We don't get how it took 11 days for them to notify us," she says.
A review of police reports prepared by lead homicide detective Olson raises more questions than it answers concerning the sequence of events.
Olson repeatedly fails to document key times and dates related to Davalos' murder. For example, in a report dated March 26, Olson notes, "we were unable to identify the victim through fingerprints" and that the prints were sent to the FBI for examination. He does not state when he concluded the prints could not be identified nor when the prints were sent to the FBI.
In the next paragraph, Olson states that detective Bailey looked at a photo of the victim, recognized him and found a police record matching his fingerprints. But, once again, Olson does not state the time or date.
Olson states in the March 26 report that he notified the family of Davalos' death. Once again, he gives no time or date.
However, in a supplemental report prepared by Olson on April 17, he states that the notification occurred at 1 p.m. on March 31, a time and date confirmed by the family.
Olson refused to respond to requests for an interview, deferring all questions to police spokesmen.
Asked why Olson did not record dates and times of significant developments in the case, police spokesman Sergeant Bob Ragsdale says such developments may not be all that important.
"Detective Oslon knows what he's doing. He's one of our finest homicide detectives," says Ragsdale.
Asked why Olson makes reference to notifying the family on March 31 in a report dated March 26, Ragsdale says the date on the report doesn't necessarily correspond with the time it was prepared.
"The report was started on March 26. It was kept in draft form. He added to the original report," says Ragsdale.
Myra Rosales believes the circumstances surrounding notification of her brother's death are related to the police roundup.
On the evening of March 31, police held a second briefing for the community; more than 100 residents were told about the arrests. Rosales says her older brother, Alex Rosales, a former parole officer, asked police why the family wasn't notified sooner.
"My brother, he talked to the sergeant and he told him that the reason they didn't tell us earlier was because they wanted to do the sweep first and then tell us," Myra Rosales says. "But why? My brother had been missing for 11 days. I don't get it. They knew who he was."
The 23-year-old single mother of five children lives with four of her kids, her mother and grandmother in a small, drafty stone house on East Cocopah Street. An electric space heater warms the living room and adjoining kitchen. Scores of photographs -- mostly of children -- line the walls and bookshelves. Myra's 10-month-old baby, Joeanna, crawls across the floor, occasionally pulling herself upright before her knees give way and she drops to the floor, landing on her bottom.
A stream of children -- including 4-year-old Beto, son of her late brother -- tumble through the front door and poke their heads out of an adjacent bedroom.
Rosales' aunt lives next door, and Beto's mom, Gina Garcia, two doors down. More than a score of other relatives are scattered throughout the close-knit Milpas barrio.
"I have 28 kids in the immediate family," Rosales says. "Just to have a party, there is no need to invite friends."
Her mother, Natalia, 51, entered the United States more than three decades ago from Nogales, Sonora. Natalia is also a single mother, raising three sons and Myra.
Natalia's mother, Imidana, 78, rounds out four generations of women and children in a house where men are absent -- except for photographs on the wall.
"I don't have a husband, no boyfriend, no nothing. I'm lonely," Natalia says in a cheerful yet resigned tone. "I'm looking for one."
She works two days a week as a beautician and spends much of her time taking care of children and her mother.
Her son's unsolved death torments her. "I just want to know who did it," she says.
The lack of suspects combined with the unusual length of time it took police to notify the family of his death fuel her suspicion that the police were somehow involved.
"Norberto told me the police had told him they were going to kill him," she says.
Myra Rosales offers no support to her mother's theory. Instead, she believes her brother was killed in a drug deal gone bad.
Davalos' murder comes four years after another of Myra's brothers, Antonio, while fleeing police, ran a red light, crashed into a car and killed a person. Antonio is serving a 19-year prison sentence. A third brother, Alex, has moved outside the Milpas neighborhood and has no regular contact with the family, Myra says.
A dearth of men is the norm in her kin's households, Myra says.
"If you look at our family, when we have get-togethers, there's really not that many men," Myra Rosales says. "My mom is a single woman, and we still have our family going. My aunt is a single lady, but she still has her family going."
What has happened to the men, especially the young men who father children?
If Myra's experience with her brothers and the three fathers of her five children is typical, the men vanish at an astounding rate. Some are in prison. Others die from violence or drugs. Some just leave. Many of the young men place a higher priority on hanging out with their "homeboys" than their families.
It's not rare for young men to sire children at the same time with different women. Myra's late brother has two daughters, born a month apart.
"He probably fathered more children that we don't know of," Myra says.
Myra believes many of the men are too dependent on the women and their mothers for support. She's frustrated with her boyfriend -- Joe Romero -- the father of her two youngest children.
"I do it all for him. I buy his shoes; I buy his underwear, his clothes; I put food in his mouth. Right now, he goes back to his mom, his mom is not going to accept him. He's going to want to come back home, no doubt. Because here it is too easy for him. And yet I nag at him and everything."
Myra says she wants to crack the whip, wants Romero to do more to support her and their children. Besides mothering her children, Myra works full-time at SkyMall as a customer-service representative, earning about $10 an hour.
"I should be more harder on him and not give him anything, not do anything for him," she says.
Her resolve crumbles in the face of her emotions.
"But I love him," she says.
Myra wants a different life, but doesn't know how to get there.
"I would like to have my man that had a job and that would support his family. A man should give his family a house," she says. "He knows that he has kids. You have to get a stable job somewhere so you can make enough to support us. He doesn't have a job. He's off and on with jobs. I don't know what it is."
Myra doesn't understand why her boyfriend, and many of the other young fathers in the neighborhood, avoid their children. For many, the closest contact with their children are tattoos bearing their children's names.
"Why can you not love this child like I love this child?" she says while holding Joeanna, a beautiful black-haired baby. "How can you not want to be around this child?"
There was a time when Romero hung with the LCM gang. He is named in the civil injunction.
"I would go out and grab him and say, 'Come on, you're going home with me now,'" she says.
"Running around with his homeboys -- it's not about that. It's about your family."
But the family and the homeboys and violence seem forever intertwined.
In mid-October, her cousin, Noe Rosales, got into a scrape with police after an officer attempted to arrest him in his front yard on misdemeanor traffic warrants. Noe broke free from the officer -- with the help of Myra's aunt, Raquel Rosales -- and ran down the street.
Police helicopters and a score of cop cars couldn't find Noe, who hid in a neighbors' attic, watching the search from a window.
Later that evening, Myra saw Noe at a nightclub on East McDowell. A fight broke out and spilled into the street. Someone fired a gun, and a friend of Myra's was shot in the face.
"He was leaning on me and my shirt got all full of blood as I was holding him," she says.
Her friend survived the shooting.
Myra says a police officer came up to her and said he was one of the officers that had identified her brother's body; he expressed condolences.
Another officer at the scene recognized Noe Rosales as the man who had bolted earlier in the day.
"He took off running," Myra says of her cousin.
This time, police caught up to Noe Rosales, and he landed in jail, where he was also served the civil-injunction papers.
By morning, Myra's friend had been shot in the face. Her aunt had been arrested and thrown in jail for helping Noe flee. Myra had spoken with an officer who helped identify her dead brother. Her cousin had fled from police twice within eight hours, been arrested, thrown in jail and served a civil injunction.
"There are things I could tell you that I have seen," Myra says cryptically.
She believes the police continually blow minor events -- like Noe's arrest for traffic warrants -- out of proportion.
"I think they make things big out of something little," she says. "But when something big is happening, they don't make the effort to do what they got to do."
She says a major concern is the steady influx of Sinaloans who party, fire guns into the air and deal drugs.
"When they are shooting, shooting someone, where are the cops?" she asks. "We hear gunshots sometimes at night from the Mexican people. Get them people. They are the ones that can kill somebody and take off to Mexico and nobody is going to know nothing."
Danny was born when Myra was 14, and she raised the boy for seven years. When Danny asked to spend more time with his father, Myra sent him to Las Cruces.
She was bringing Danny to Phoenix for a visit when disaster struck.
"I don't know how I lost control of the wheel," she says.
The car flipped over and rolled three times, throwing two girlfriends sleeping in the back seat through the rear window. One of the women was severely injured, but has since recovered. The other woman, 21-year-old Toni Marie Lucero, wasn't so lucky.
"She died instantly," says Myra, who suffered deep bruises from her seat belt.
Myra's son, Danny, suffered serious injuries even though he was wearing a front seat belt. Everyone was airlifted to a Tucson hospital.
Both Myra and Lucero were pregnant, Myra with Joeanna.
Lucero was carrying the child of 19-year-old Margarito "Lito" Rodarte.
Friends say Rodarte and Lucero loved each other deeply.
Their relationship had inspired Rodarte to focus on his future rather than hang out with his LCM homeboys. Rodarte was on the verge of graduating from North High School -- a rarity for Milpas residents.
"I know he really did love her," Myra says.
Lucero's death plunged Rodarte into a deep depression.
"When I was in the hospital, he wouldn't even talk to me," says Myra.
He was oblivious even to his sisters, who had raised him.
"He blanked everyone out of his life for three to five weeks. He would not even talk to me, and we were very close," his 24-year-old sister, Lisa Anna Medrano, wrote in an October 18 letter to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank T. Galati.
Rodarte failed the only high school class he was taking that spring, and by late summer 1998, he had thrown himself back into the heart of Eastside LCM, which was kicking up trouble under the influence of Felix "Gato" Medina. Fresh from a four-year prison stint, Medina, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, was an imposing physical force. Rodarte added to the power of the gang with his sheer bulk -- 5-foot-9, 275 pounds.
Medina and key homeboys like Rodarte ruled the neighborhood, beating those who got in their way. Before long, armed robberies, beatings and heavy drug use were the norm at the LCM clubhouse on South 13th Place ("Marked Man," October 14).
The flare-up in violence and drug use by LCM attracted attention of the Phoenix gang squad, which launched an intense investigation that employed tough racketeering laws that assure stiff prison sentences without parole.
Family members say Rodarte quickly fell under Medina's command.
"Lito is very trusting, and he thought Medina was his friend," Rodarte's mother, Dora Rodarte, wrote Judge Galati on October 20.
"Margarito has been getting into trouble since Felix Medina got out of prison," Dora Rodarte's letter stated. "Margarito and all the boys from the naborhood were scard of Felix Medina. He would victimized all our naborhood young men and teenagers into doing what he would tell them to do. All the boys from the naborhood were stealing for his coke habit! If they didn't do what he said, he would shame them and call them wimps and would beat them up."
Medina's physical presence wasn't the only thing influencing Rodarte.
"He felt that Felix Medina gave him unconditional acceptance and I guess he felt he belong to something," Dora Rodarte wrote.
Rodarte had never belonged to anything. His mother spent 10 years in prison on heroin-related convictions. By the time she was freed, Rodarte was entering his teenage years. His father reared him for three years while his mother was in prison. His father, however, was blind, and his father's new wife, didn't get along with Rodarte.
Rodarte was shuffled between family members for most of his childhood, with his sisters bearing primary responsibility. He began drinking beer, using marijuana and cocaine when he was 16.
Despite the difficult upbringing, he did fairly well in school and was involved in sports. His English teacher at North High School was impressed with Rodarte, particularly with his description of a fantasy childhood he never had.
"The first assignment, a poem about childhood, not only revealed a very beautiful, almost Palmer Style handwriting, but more importantly, images of tenderness, goodness and a youth full of family love," Christine Reed stated in a October 14 letter to Judge Galati.
Rodarte's drug habit led to a possession of marijuana arrest in 1997 and probation. An April 1997 pre-sentence report stemming from the marijuana charge stated that Rodarte "does not appear to pose a significant threat to the community. He has no history of violent or aggressive behaviors."
Rodarte completed most of the requirements of his probation, including 360 hours of community service and a substance-abuse outpatient program.
However, Rodarte found it difficult to resist the temptations of the gang life and unconditional acceptance offered by Medina.
In September 1997, Rodarte and several other LCM gang members severely beat a man whom Medina believed was a police informant. Although the assault was reported to police, no arrests were made for 18 months.
By the spring of 1998, Rodarte was in love with Toni Marie Lucero, and for the first time he was no longer spending much time with LCM homeboys.
"In '98, he met his girlfriend Toni, who completely changed his life," his sister Lisa Anna Medrano wrote to Judge Galati. "He was not hanging out with his friends. He wouldn't even go to parties any more."
Then, Lucero was killed.
Rodarte returned to his homeboys. In November 1998, he was involved in an armed robbery. On March 31 -- the day that police finally notified Norberto Rosales Davalos' family of his death -- Rodarte was arrested during the police roundup of LCM gangbangers. Small amounts of marijuana and paraphernalia were found in his room.
Medina had been arrested 11 days before Rodarte. During a videotaped interview, Medina ratted on his most loyal friend, Rodarte, telling police that Rodarte and several other LCM gang members were involved in the September 1997 beating of the supposed police informant.
Less than a year after his girlfriend's death, Rodarte faced felony charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault and possession of marijuana. And, significantly, he was charged with participating in a criminal street gang.
Yet Rodarte refused to cooperate with police during his interrogation. He declined requests by New Times to be interviewed. And rather than fighting the cases in court, where other gang members could be implicated in crimes, Rodarte agreed to a series of plea agreements.
Prior to his sentencing, which could have landed Rodarte in prison for up to 10 years, Judge Galati received numerous letters on his behalf. Most urged the judge to place Rodarte into a drug rehabilitation program.
His mother told the judge she had turned around her life and asked that he consider that in sentencing Rodarte.
"I have been clean now for eight years and I help a lot at my church," she wrote. "You know, sometimes all a boy needs is one last chance."
On November 3, Margarito "Lito" Rodarte, less than two months shy of his 21st birthday, was sentenced to five years in the state prison.
Felix Medina, the man who betrayed Rodarte, is in the Maricopa County jail pending his February trial on felony charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault, kidnapping, weapons misconduct and participating in a criminal street gang.
Many of his childhood friends ran with the Eastside LCM gang. Some of them died. Some of them went to prison. Some of them disappeared.
None of his eighth-grade classmates at Herrera Middle School graduated from high school.
Valdez, 23, not only graduated from high school -- becoming the first person in his family to achieve such honors -- he's nearing completion of studies at Arizona State University.
"One of the main reasons I see how I made it through the system was my family," Valdez says. "My mom and dad really stressed education. When I was out on the streets, or out after nine at night -- my mom would get in the car, go down the streets and find me.
"She would come and pull me into the car. Everyone would laugh and I would be mad."
As peer pressure mounted, Valdez says he would try to sneak to school without his backpack and school books.
"Back then, to carry a backpack, you were a nerd," he says. "I wanted to be in the in crowd."
Unlike many of his peers, Valdez lived with both parents, and with their guidance, he kept carrying those books. He has managed to maintain his connection with the neighborhood while discovering the world outside the barrio.
"When I leave here and go to school, it's like a different world for me," he says.
But those differences don't necessarily mean it's better outside Milpas. For Valdez, life in the barrio remains vital.
"I plan on living here my whole life. I really don't want to leave because I'm so close to my family," he says.
It's also important, he says, to maintain his respect with his peers in the neighborhood.
"I don't change my dress, my attitude, my ideology, my philosophy when it comes to neighborhood," he says.
"School is one of the least important things on my list. First thing is my family, and then my community."
Valdez says people confuse the Las Cuatro Milpas gang with the Las Cuatro Milpas barrio.
"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.
Excerpts of the tape-recorded interview conducted on December 10 in the Tonatierra office at 812 North Seventh Street follow:
Reimundo Mendoza: A lot of those young kids that got in trouble, we have been working them. We were not only working with them but, they are my homeboys, too. I have been with them since they were little kids. I'm an older guy. I was hanging out a generation and a half before. I'm 30 years old. When I was in the neighborhood, they were still like, shit, not even teenagers yet. By the time they started coming around and hanging out we had lost a lot of homeboys, me and my brother. We were looking to act a little different and we wanted to change things for them.
New Times: What do you mean by lost?
RM: We lost homeboys, man. A lot of homeboys died. Some gangbanging. And others just because of drugs, or because of paint. A couple of them were sniffing paint and shot themselves. We saw all this happen in like a year and a half. It's say, mid-'90s, early '90s. I was in prison in '91; when I came out, all these guys were starting to hang out a little bit more. So, me and my brother, Oso, we tried directing these guys a little different. We were tired of seeing homeboys die, homeboys go to the joint and homeboys strung out on dope
At about the same time we found this place here, pretty much this place found us. Tonatierra. We tried to get involved with all these things here -- culture, the history of our people, the Mexican people. It was something that really interested us and something that was lost to us as a people. The more and more we learned about it, the more and more we realized what we were doing was wrong.
You know? It also changed us. . . . It changed our way of thinking and changed our perspective of life, you know? So, what we did was got all the stuff we learned here, and we just fed it to the homeboys -- Lito, Fat Ray, all of them. No one was as open to it as we were. Because they are still young, they are coming up in the neighborhood and they only see what they see when they come out of their front door.
So, all that craziness going on in the neighborhood, you know? So, we kicked it with them a lot. We just hung out with them.
One of the main things that we did throughout all these times was we had a football league going. . . . We ended up playing football with them [gangbangers from La Victoria] for two years. Man, we had some killer football games. It was real competitive and it was real strong. We played football with these guys so much, that after a while, we start seeing each other here and there, it's like, "Hey, yeah, you're from La Victoria."
We had younger homeboys that were fighting with each other. Me and my brother saw the opportunity there to try and get some kind of understanding with these people. We went at it through a culture perspective. We are all the same people. We all come from the same place. If you look at our different neighborhoods, the only thing that separates us from who we really are, is just our names. They're La Victoria, we're LCM. We all dress the same, we all listen to oldies, you now, we like lowriders, some of the homeboys party in the neighborhood. It's basically the same thing, it's all the same thing, we're all the same. . . .
But of course, the neighborhoods being how they are, some of them fight. That's going to happen. There is no stopping it. But for us, what we said, "If it's going to be a fight, let them fight, but we are going to keep this understanding between each other and it's not going to be some big old thing where we are going to start shooting each other and killing each other." That was all good.
NT: How did you become a gang member?
RM: I came up just like these guys when they were younger. I was into it heavy -- gangbanging. I was 14 years old when I got jumped in. I wasn't born in the neighborhood. My family, my mother and all my uncles are all born and raised in that neighborhood. Well, some of my uncles came from Mexico and moved to that neighborhood. My grandmother she still lives in the neighborhood to this day.
NT: What did you do as gang member?
RM: Just represent your neighborhood. That's it . . . back then (mid-1980s), it wasn't really as serious. As we got older, it got more serious. It's just, it's like chaotic man. When you're young, like that, you're part of the neighborhood, all you are thinking is just to be bad and show the other neighborhoods you can't fuck with the neighborhood. We're tougher than you. If you come trying to act crazy with us, we get crazy with you.
. . . we didn't get along with west Phoenix. It was on, on sight. Anytime you see them you knew we were going to fight. . . . West Side Chicanos, there's no love there at all. . . . That was a big part of my life when I was younger was getting it on with them. The purpose of my life was to get after those guys as much as I could. You know, I was like a soldier for the neighborhood.
NT: What did that entail?
RM: Just going out and hitting up on the walls, you know, writing on the walls, going over in their neighborhood and just . . . cross them out and put your name and put your neighborhood's. That's part of soldiering, you know? Letting them know we are out there. If you want some, come get some. That was one of our mottos, we used to say, "Want some? You come get some. But be bad enough to take some."
For me, that's how it was. For a lot of my other homeboys, it wasn't really like that. They were just together to hang out. For me, I took it like that. I was really serious about it. It got more and more serious with West Side Chicanos because one of our homeboys ended up killing one of their homeboys. A lot of my partners went to jail. . . . From there it was like hide and seek, laying low, we couldn't hardly go anywhere because there were so many fools after us. For a long time we weren't really doing nothing.
That's when break-dancing came out. So a lot of the neighborhoods (gangs), they got smaller and smaller. Some neighborhoods, they weren't even neighborhoods no more because of break-dancing. All the younger kids got into break-dancing and started doing that instead of being part of gangs. That was like in the mid-'80s. For that time, when I was 17, for a good two years, our neighborhood was really quiet. There really was nothing going on. Everybody was into that. Not only that, but the jean-pressing, New Boy style, punk rock style. All that was all in. So the neighborhood was pretty much obsolete.
And those movies came out, that movie Colors came out, man, and we had people coming to us, "Jump me in, I want to be from LCM." So right then and there, man, our neighborhood blew up again. Also, all the youngsters from the Eastside Las Cuatro Milpas, started getting together. The younger generation starting coming up -- they are back.
NT: The movie Colors triggered it?
RM: Oh man, big time, That movie had everybody jumping off. Neighborhoods came out of the woodwork. That's where BHHP, Hispanic Homeboys came up, South Side Posse, . . . Dope Man Association, Hispanics Causing Panic, a lot of these brand new neighborhoods, popping up all over the place. That's when our neighborhoods started getting strong again.
NT: Are you from Southside or Eastside LCM? (Las Cuatro Milpas means "the four fields." The gang has four divisions across the metropolitan area, Eastside, Southside, Northside and Westside.)
RM: I originally got jumped into Westside LCM. I have a cousin I used to hang out with when I was younger. He was from Westside LCM and I got jumped into the Westside Milpas. But I lived in south Phoenix, so I would always go over to hang out in west Phoenix.
I don't claim a side now because I'm from LCM. Sides don't mean anything to me now. But back then, I was from Westside Milpas. At that time (mid-1980s) there wasn't a Southside Milpas. At that time, the neighborhood broke up (as break-dancing took off), and I kind of drifted away, too. I had a girlfriend, two kids, I was kicking it. My ex-old lady, we broke up, she took my two kids and that's a whole other story. Some of the guys from east Phoenix moved to south Phoenix, and I started hanging out with them. At about that time, this Colors came out.
NT: What year?
RM: '88 or '89. (Colors was made in 1988.) And everything started jumping off, especially in south Phoenix right there with us. All kinds of guys wanted to get jumped into Southside LCM. So we started that one up. Then my brother, he got his own clique going up in west side Phoenix, far west side Phoenix and they jumped up, a big old clique jumped up out there. And then a cousin (of a Southside LCM member) . . . he started claiming Northside LCM up there . . . and they fucking blew up, and they had a big old clique going on up there. . . . Within a half year, it was just huge; I mean the neighborhood was just huge.
That's when it got really serious. For me, that's when gangbanging came to a whole other level. That's when it started involving guns. Before, it was fist fighting. Before, people were getting shot and killed, but you had it mostly in some of the neighborhoods that are so old and some of the fighting between those guys was so serious they were killing each other. But in our neighborhood, we really didn't have that kind of a hatred with another neighborhood like that, other than West Side Chicanos. And because of the time lapse, (the fighting) between our neighborhoods, it was dead.
NT: Did the movie Colors re-ignite the rivalry with West Side Chicanos
RM: . . . We started really going at it with each other.
Another thing that happened during those years was the dope thing. That was a whole other world inside the neighborhood. There is different levels of gangsterism. There's the soldiers, just doing work for the neighborhood and going out and gangbanging. Then, you have just a group of guys who just hang out. They don't really gangbang, they're just there to hang out and party because we did party a lot.
NT: What do you mean by gangbang?
RM: You go out there and try to get at them. You are looking for them in their neighborhood, at house parties. You just put in work. . . . You drop them, you beat them down, you jump them, whatever.
Then you have the guys that sell dope. That's the third element. They didn't gangbang, they didn't just hang out. They did nothing but just sell dope. That was that.
I went through all that. I saw all of that shit.
NT: How did you end up in prison?
RM: I was stealing cars. That's another thing that jumped up after Colors; youngsters were just jacking cars left and right, man. I never knew about that. Somebody younger from the Milpas came to me in cars. "How are you guys stealing those cars?" They showed us how to do it like that.
So there's a free ride to go and do drive-bys. That's the first thing I thought. Man, you don't have to go in your own car no more. You can get another car, do a drive by, drop the car off and book. You know? That moved gangbanging to another level.
NT: Were most cars stolen for drive-bys?
RM: Nah, it was money. It was joyriding -- just going for a cruise. These guys are poor, man. Most of these guys from the neighborhood are poor. They don't have no cars . . . you don't have to steal a bike no more. You can take a car and it will get you where you want to go.
I got busted for that. I went to jail. I came out. Of course when you go to prison or jail, you get a lot of time to think . . . my time was real short, I was on a minimum yard and it wasn't really that big of a deal. I did real small time compared to a lot of other guys in my neighborhood.
I had a lot of time to think. At the time I was in there, my brother was out here and he met Tupac (Enrique, Tonatierra coordinator). And he was telling me about the different things that he was learning about our people. There is a lot of things, one thing that really hit us, these gangs, all these gangs that are out here, have been around, as we know it, since the beginning of time.
The only thing that has changed is the mentality and the structure of the gangs, the so-called gangs. We call them neighborhoods. Before, we called them Calpuli, an indigenous term for community. They had these all throughout Mexico and here. It was just a little society within a tribe to where that was their little neighborhood. You had all these youngsters who were warriors for that little tribe.
They had names. They had certain functions that they did for that neighborhood. One was protecting it. One was providing food, providing shelter, helping out the old people. There were a lot of things that they did. They had roles. They had a function. They had something to do. They had a purpose. When the Europeans came here, and did what they did, that purpose was taken away and they had to find new things to do.
During all this time of colonialism and all this subjugation that was taking place, the mentality of the Calpulis changed. And it changed so much that it grew into what it is today. So these dudes, all these youngsters have no more direction. They are not living for anything no more. Now they are dying for it. They believe, they think they know what they are dying for. . . . "I'm going to die for my neighborhood."
Say you have a soldier, say an army, and he belongs to a certain battalion. . . . His whole function is to protect his country, and if he has to, he's going to die for his country, for the beliefs his country believes in. Well, for us, it was the same thing, except it wasn't for the country, because to us, the country isn't something that we can relate to. The barrio is something we can relate to. So we took that and brought it into the barrios. And that's how we're doing it.
But it was twisted. It's twisted man. It's all screwed up.
They (barrio youth) know something is wrong. They know . . . a foul game is being run on them. But what can they do? It's something that's out of their hands. In order for them to survive and to have some kind of happiness in their lives, or pride, that's what they are going to do. They are going to sell dope. They are going to be a soldier. Whatever it takes, just to maintain some kind of life. That's all they got. That's all we had. That's all I had when I was younger.
A lot of these youngsters are walking around with this film on their eyes. They can't see what's really going on. With these (Tonatierra) teachings, it's wiping that away and we are able to see clearly what's going on around here. . . . So we are able to understand what it is we are doing wrong, and we are changing it. That's what I did for myself.
NT: How did you accomplish this?
RM: Well, it took a long time. I've been coming seven years, eight years that I have been involved with Tonatierra here. It's going to ceremonies, learning about your history, learning the truth about what happened in this country. When you go to school, they are going to teach you about European history, a little bit about Asian history. They teach you about American history, your forefathers and all this, and when it comes to my people, our history, they give you about that much. (He holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.) Very little of what truly happened to our people.
So they touch base about all the other things. When they came to that chapter (on the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs) they talked about it in one day. . . . Most of it was all negative. Incas had llamas. Mayas were a lost civilization and the Aztec's were bloodthirsty warriors who sacrificed to the gods. . . . Pancho Villa was a bandit and he fought and killed and murdered and raped innocent women and children.
This was what they said I was. This is where I came from. I said, "Wait a minute here, man. All these other guys had these outstanding forefathers -- Abraham Lincoln and Washington and the cherry tree."
They didn't do nothing for me. Right then and there, I said, "Hey, man, I must not be anything. My people didn't do anything to contribute to society, you know?" Here I am walking around with all these other people, all their history is so grand and great, and me, I'm just a nothing. So this is what I got here, so this is what I'm going to go for. You know? So that's basically how I seen it.
NT: How old were you at this time?
RM: I was 14, 15, going to school. After that I was like this with school (he waves dismissively). Before that I was pretty much a straight-A student. I did great in school. But once I seen that, I was like, man, I wasn't interested no more. After that, I learned the street. And I learned everything I had to do with that. That's the culture. When I came out of the joint, I started learning about this, it touched me so deep inside man, that what we are doing out there is basically the same thing we did before, but it's twisted. It's more negative than it is positive.
NT: Describe the twist.
RM: The twist is, is that here we are as a people, we still have some of our culture, some of it is still there. But they took big chunks of our history and our culture out and placed graves in there. We are not really a whole. We are only like a quarter of what we originally were. So that's that twisted mentality that we have. We don't have our purpose anymore. We don't have that understanding that we had before. One of them was the understanding that we had to live with the earth. Before we lived with the earth in harmony. We rolled with it. The earth turns this way and we were turning with it. Now we are not doing that anymore. We are trying to go back this way. You know? You can't do that, man. It just throws you off.
They (schools) teach us about all these things that have nothing to do with reality as we know it. But these teachings (Tonatierra), it's something. It teaches us about compassion, it teaches you love, it teaches you understanding, it teaches you to care for all living things. One of the main ones is compassion for life. To be able to look at one another and say, "You're my brother. That's my sister. That's my brother. We all have a common relationship."
We all come from a common beginning. But with them (gangs), oh, you come from there, we come from here and there is a separation. We have so much separation.
NT: How do ceremonies help the teachings?
RM: The ceremonies for me got me focusing on myself, which really needs to take place in order to have an understanding with anybody else. You have to understand who you are and where you fit in this old cosmos we are sitting in . . . the more you are together, the more you are understanding and complementing each other, the stronger you will be as a people and the more focused you will be with your surroundings, and it will be all harmonious and it will be all one wavelength."
NT: Describe the ceremonies.
RM: One of the ceremonies would be the sweat lodge. Eventually, what it does, is give you peace. Before I'm like this (defiant) man. I'm walking around, "I'm Mr. Indio, muthafucka." You know? "Don't fuck with me. I'm Mr. Indio." Well you go in for a sweat lodge man, Mr. Indio goes into a sweat lodge, and they bring all these elements in there and that has Mr. Indio on the floor laid out . . . ready to throw up and he wants to get out.
These are all elements of the creator. Right? This one entity. This being. Something that's mysterious. Something that's out there created this. And you bring these four things together, water (fire, air and earth), that's just four little things that can put me on the floor. . . . That's a humbling experience. After that, I started thinking, "Man, I ain't shit. I've got some street knowledge, and I can hold my own out here in this world, but when it comes to the grand scheme of life, I ain't about shit, man."
So that right there, that's humbleness, man. That's when you start thinking, I ain't Mr. Fucking Indio no more. I'm just Mr. Indio. I just have to try to hold my own and try to make it in this world and leave something behind and teach that to these youngsters.
So that right there starts changing you, little by little.
Another ceremony I do is the Sundance.
We dance up there (at Big Mountain on disputed lands of the Hopi and Navajo nations). It changes your whole outlook on life. I did it four days, and I've done it three times already. Each time you go there, you change as a person. You become something different. You're not the same any more.
One of the big things that keeps hitting me stronger and stronger is compassion. Compassion. That's something that's so strong, so strong, that can change you. When you have love for something, and you care about something, and you believe in it, and damn, man.
Like before, I could watch TV and you see all these things happening out there. "Stupid muthafucka, he did that." Or a little kid dies, oh man, that's fucked up, the fucking kid dies. That was my mentality before, right.
And now when I look at it, okay, here's another stage that took place. "Aw, that poor kid, man, that stupid muthafucka, he should be killed, fucking punk, ass bitch. Why did he go and do something like that?" Then it changed even more. I started crying.
Like that little kid that got burned the other day. Man, that really hurt me. Not only did that hurt me, but that man, who did it, I didn't feel hatred for that man. I felt sorry for that man. He must be going through some shit in his mind that's hurting him so bad that he doesn't -- whatever it was man, I feel sorry for that guy, too.
And for his family. I started tripping on myself, saying, look at me man, I'm starting to feel sorry for all these people. And before, it would be, "Ah, he burned that little girl. That's crazy." You know? That's the kind of mentality that's changing me.
NT: How do these lessons apply to the LCM homeboys?
RM: All these kids, I grew up with, when I was older. With Lito, with Fat Ray, Felix the Cat . . . I was cool with that dude. I hung out with Felix (Medina). I knew Felix since he was a kid. Man, that fucking guy, I still love that guy. But, oh, man, that fucking guy, because of what he did with the neighborhood and the things that he did over there. Man, I hurt so much over what happened over there with these boys, man. Because we had these boys -- they were far from being like us. But they had an understanding, and that thing sticks to you -- whenever you teach them about something. We had barrio runs, a couple of them been to the sweat lodges. They were learning a lot of things. All of a sudden, this fucking fool (Medina) goes in there and just turns everything upside down.
And now, I can't even talk to some of those guys, because we just don't see eye to eye anymore because of what happened to Felix and the neighborhood. Like it said in the article ("Marked Man," October 14, 1999), he (Medina) turned the neighborhood into factions. It's not so much a split. We are all still LCM. We are still LCM to the heart. But we just can't, because of things that happened, we just can't go and be the same like it used to be.
NT: How did Felix influence the homeboys?
RM: We all hung with the Cat. We are all homeboys, man. We all hung out. But there was a split there because some of us said, you know, some of us were like, "Man, you don't have to hang out with that fool, because he's wrong." This was how I see it, he was wrong with what he was doing.
RM: He did some shit to his own people, his own people, he did some shit that he just shouldn't have done. You don't do that to a homeboy. I'm not going to say what it was. But, he did some things to his own homeboys that he shouldn't have done. For us, some of the homeboys, the way we seen it, we turned our back on him. We said, "You know what? You're going to act like that with your own homeboys, well then fuck you. You're not our homeboy." Well, he's still my homeboy. But I'm not going to associate with him anymore. That's how we seen it. But those other ones, they were like, "He's a homeboy and we got to back him up. . . ." So they stayed hanging out with them. You know, that right there, caused the neighborhood to split.
NT: Why was Felix messing with his homeboys?
RM: He was strung out on dope. He had dope problems. That's all it was. He's a big dude. . . . He was out there punking people left and right. It wasn't that Felix was a leader of those boys. He was far from that. When he got strung out on dope, he was going to do what he wanted to do and that was it.
It ain't like the homeboys were like, I don't think it was so much they were scared of him, but what are you going to do? Your brother is going around acting crazy and taking shit from people. All you can say is, "Hey, be cool homes. Don't do that." He ain't going to listen to that. He's got dope on his mind. "I want my dope. I want my fucking dope and I'm going to get it"
NT: What does Felix think about Tonatierra's teachings?
RM: This is nothing to him. To be like this, for him, I think he would consider that being weak.
NT: How did you approach Felix?
RM: I got into confrontation with Felix. . . . After that, I think some of the other homeboys thought I was mad at them, too. So we stopped talking all together. It's not that I'm mad at them. It's just very disappointing in the way that they handled Felix. The way that they still kicked back with him and hung out with and the way he was being with certain other homeboys.
It's really hard to go and talk with them. Before, man, we're tight. Everybody was. . . . It was a family. Then this fool goes over there and starts breaking up the family. You start feeling a little resentment towards the people. You feel like they should have helped you step forward and say, "Hey, cut it out." . . . after that happened, I just stayed away because I didn't know who I could trust.
NT: What do you do now as far as reopening communication with your LCM homeboys?
RM: I've got a long road ahead of me. . . . I'll just play it by ear. If it's meant to happen, it's going to happen. I leave it in the hands of the creator, I go by that. . . . One of the main reasons I go to the Sundance is for my barrio. I go out there and suffer for four days for all those guys out there. And I pray, and I pray hard and say, "Man, help me to help them." Also for my family and lots of other reasons. One of the main reasons was to get all this knowledge and teach them about all these things that are helping me change myself as a person.
That's my main thing.
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact John Dougherty at his online address: email@example.com
See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.