Tales Out of School

It's tough to be a teen. But what happens when your friends and family are all in gangs? Five students talk about growing up in the Valley's roughest neighborhoods.

He's a sweet, sensitive kid whose personal insecurities have frequently made him vulnerable to gang pressures. He wants to be accepted -- he sees redeeming qualities in many gang kids -- so whenever they ask him to join, he is tempted to say yes.

Ortiz attended Papago Elementary in Phoenix. When he was 13, his family moved to Mesa, where he went to Mesa Junior High.

He says that gangbangers at the school liked to make examples of other students by beating them up on the playground. It was a way of showing off for their gang peers, of asserting their control over the school environment.

Lambert Ormsby took a buckshot for the barrio and lost his sight when he was 15.
Paolo Vescia
Lambert Ormsby took a buckshot for the barrio and lost his sight when he was 15.
Lambert Ormsby likes to walk around Stapley Park in Mesa, his longtime home.
Paolo Vescia
Lambert Ormsby likes to walk around Stapley Park in Mesa, his longtime home.

"They'd always be together in one group," Ortiz says. "They'd go to different people and pick on them. And they'd go fight them, just to fight them. For no specific reason."

He remembers the feeling of helplessness that would overtake him whenever he saw these outbreaks of random violence.

"I was afraid," Ortiz says. "When I'd see people getting hurt by gangs, I'd get scared, because I could picture myself being that young kid getting hurt. They'd take someone into a corner and just beat them up, in between five or six different people.

"Everyone was too afraid to stop them, because if you tried to stop them and they figured out who you were, they'd be after you. I think that's why a lot of little kids are getting into more gang activity now, because they see all the stuff that's going around, and they say, 'If I join a gang, they won't harm me. So I'll just be with them for a while.'"

It's a rationale that very nearly hooked Ortiz himself. He'd always gotten along with the bangers in his neighborhood. So when he was in eighth grade, they asked him to join.

"They were in a group, but the leader came up by himself and said, 'You've been our friend, do you want to join our gang?' It's like a life-or-death situation. If you say no, you're afraid they'll kill you. But if you say yes, you're in for life."

Ortiz didn't know how to respond. He meekly told the leader that he'd have to think about it. He agonized over the decision for days, before telling the gang members that his answer was no. "They respected my decision," he says. "But you kind of do get nervous saying no to their face."

Ortiz might have given a different answer if not for the guidance of Manny Chavez, a juvenile probation officer who's been assigned to both Mesa High School and Mesa Junior High for the past four years.

Chavez is a political activist and community organizer who throws himself into his school responsibilities with a rare zeal. He spends every spare moment he can working with at-risk kids, trying to offer positive alternatives for them. He's created a ballet folklorico dance troupe. He coaches a soccer team. And four years ago, Chavez created an on-campus club called Si Se Puede (Yes You Can).

Chavez was a farm worker when he was young, and he grew up to befriend the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Ch#aacute;vez (no relation). As a result, the probation officer has adopted the UFW as a model example of how to empower a community whose interests are being ignored.

He's used Si Se Puede to organize voter-registration drives, put together charitable events and rally political action -- such as a recent protest outside Mesa Lutheran Hospital about Gricelda Zamora Gonzalez, a 13-year-old girl who died of a burst appendix after being misdiagnosed with gastritis at the hospital's emergency room.

But Chavez merely oversees the club, he doesn't run it. He sits back and lets students decide what moves they want to make. In a way, he takes the same approach with gang issues.

When Ortiz came to him four years ago and said that he'd been asked to join a gang, Chavez didn't tell him what to do. He simply offered a maxim to inform Ortiz's decision: "Every bad thing you do in life has consequences."

When Ortiz talks about Chavez's impact on his life, his eyes get watery and his voice cracks with emotion. Over the past four years, whenever Ortiz has been tempted by the gang life, he's turned to Chavez. When gang leaders asked him to sell drugs for them, he wrote letters to Chavez, pouring out his confusion.

He credits Chavez and school officials with helping to contain gang presence at Mesa High, but he also says that high school gang kids tend to be more controlled on campus than their junior high cohorts. He says that by the time they reach high school age, gang kids have matured enough to realize it's not in their best interests to stir up trouble at school. He says they often look upon school as "free time," a refuge where they don't have to worry about being hassled by the law or rival gangs.

"They mainly keep to themselves," Ortiz says. "When they're in school, they respect that. But when they get out in the street, it's neighborhood against neighborhood." -- Gilbert Garcia

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