Joe, Simon and Santa
By Edward LebowOn the Saturday before Christmas, the holiday gathering at Lewis Park, in the Milpas neighborhood southeast of downtown Phoenix, contradicts the often-reported image of a neighborhood besieged by crime and violence. Police files, court records and newspaper stories might be full of disturbing accounts of a community terrorized by the Eastside Las Cuatro Milpas gang (LCM), but early in the afternoon, the park, in the heart of the neighborhood, is filled with hundreds of children and their families waiting for Santa Claus.
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.