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.

Battling Back

Xavier Lopez, 16, is a junior at Mesa High. He's tall, skinny and wears wire-rim glasses. If not for his cool, subdued demeanor, he'd fit the classic stereotype of a bookish nerd. He's an only child, and has a maturity that his mother believes comes from having spent most of his life around adults.

Like Ortiz, Lopez considers himself a friend to many gang members. But, also like Ortiz, he's always wary of getting too close.

"I never tell gang members at school where I live," Lopez says. "It's not that I don't trust them, because some of them I do trust and are friends. It's just that if I'm being associated with them by another gang, and if something happens, the consequences may come down on me. Or if they get into something, they might come to my house looking for refuge. I don't want to put myself in the position where I have to defend them or anything."

Laura Beingessner
Escuela Azteca juvenile probation officer Gary Goss.
Paolo Vescia
Escuela Azteca juvenile probation officer Gary Goss.

Lopez's parents are divorced. His father lives in Phoenix, and he lives with his mother and stepfather. His mother works for Xicanindio Artes Inc., a Mesa arts organization, and his stepfather is an artist. The walls of their home are filled with his stepfather's paintings and Native American masks that his mother has picked up over the years. The art influence has rubbed off on Xavier. He talks of going to art school and doing computer animation or drafting for a living.

Three years ago, Lopez's family moved from central Mesa to east Mesa, because it was the only part of town where his mother could afford to buy a house. Moving into the Area 5 section of town, a region known for its rampant gang problems, worried her.

"That was one of my greatest fears about him going to high school," says Dina Lopez, Xavier's mother. "I've always tried to be very open with him about my fears, and sometimes he thinks that I tend to be overprotective, but I explain to him that he's my only son."

Lopez's first two years at Mesa High were smooth enough, but his junior year has been wracked with turmoil almost from the beginning.

Lopez began the year as a member of the school's soccer team. The team includes many members of Wetback Power, a gang made up of Mexican nationals. Early in the school year, one Mexican national member of the team -- who Lopez believes is not a gang member -- began taunting him. With his Wetback Power friends cheering him on, the Mexican national kid insulted Lopez.

"He'd say I was gay, call me a bunch of stupid names, throw the ball at me, stuff like that," Lopez says.

The encounters were classic examples of the hostility that frequently surfaces between Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals. Two months ago, the abuse went from verbal to physical.

"It had been raining and we were all out there playing soccer in the rain," Lopez says. "And then lightning started, so we were supposed to come inside. I went and got the ball, and they all said, 'Let's throw him in the water.'

"The one that actually pursued it was the one who'd been bugging me. He threw me in the water, and I was waist-deep in water. I got mad, and I got up and hit him. So we started fighting, and the coach got there and sent me to the nurse's office. And the other kid went inside with all his friends."

Lopez had a big welt over his eye and his nose was so badly bruised that doctors initially thought it might be broken. Both he and the other kid received five-day school suspensions that were eventually reduced to two days. After the fight, Lopez couldn't face dealing with his nemesis and an aggressive support group of gang friends. So he quit the soccer team.

Lopez says that fights like the one he experienced are rare on campus, but often happen immediately after school.

"At Mesa High, you always hear about how they went to some park after school, and it's two rival gangs that are going to fight," he says. "Or they'll go to a car wash or something."

Ortiz says he recently saw a gang fight break out after school when he was driving through east Mesa. Rival gang members threw signs at each other, then immediately pulled into a corner gas station. The gang members brawled, seemingly oblivious to the scores of drivers who were observing them. They knew that onlookers would be too afraid to try to stop them. -- Gilbert Garcia

Seeing the Light

Lambert Ormsby should hate Stapley Park. It's on the grounds of this east Mesa hangout that a 15-year-old Ormsby took a buckshot for the barrio, putting himself in the line of a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun aimed at one of his gang friends. He was blinded by the gunfire.

But Ormsby still likes to walk around the park, albeit with the aid of a cane. He likes to sit on the benches and revisit the scarred childhood centered on this park, as though he can remold it into something beautiful, by sheer force of will. Maybe it's like the war veteran who feels a need to return to an old battle site, in an attempt to make sense of something senseless.

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