ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They were wary of me at first. Reporters, they believed, like to sensationalize and stereotype gang members.
But these were their kids. These were kids.
And, yes, they could be violent, criminal. Yes, they had issues. Yes, they needed to get out of gangs. But getting them to understand that took time. It took trust.
And before the folks at Youth Development Inc.’s Gang Intervention program would let me go anywhere near the kids, the facilities, them, they had to trust me.
That was in 2001, and my first test was to sit in a circle with the kids – some gang members, others simply at-risk youths – to share our thoughts, fears, experiences.
A few of them, as I recall, talked about friends getting stabbed, drugs. But others talked about the usual teen angst things – their looks, dealing with Mom. After a while, I saw what the YDI folks saw – these were just kids.
And these kids needed YDI.
Ten years later, and the work goes on at YDI’s 4th Street Outreach, a maze of office space, private rooms and a huge open area where kids can be kids, safely, creatively, away from the streets and, just maybe, closer to a better way to be.
Ten years later, and the same two people who grilled me before trusting me are still there. Judy Pacheco is now associate director, overseeing the gang and mentoring programs and Teatro Consejo, which provides opportunities for youths to express themselves through painting, dancing, rapping, writing or acting.
Ruben Leyva is now program director of Gang Intervention.
Both are still as committed, still as protective of the kids as they were that day in 2001 when I met them.
“Gangs,” Pacheco said, “are still here. And so are we.”
I was welcomed at 4th Street Outreach for Thursday’s party to celebrate Teatro’s 25th anniversary.
The program attracts about 75 kids each year. The overall gang programs serve at least 350 kids in Bernalillo County, which doesn’t count walk-ins who participate in group counseling or Teatro, Pacheco said.
Teatro occupies the back end of the building, dimly lighted with strobes and black lights and pulsing with hip-hop. Walls are covered in urban murals and tagging. A stage at one end provides a place to perform; at the other is a well-equipped recording studio.
“We use art and performing arts to attract the kids,” said Jaxon Ayala, Teatro director and a member of the local band Soul Divine. “We have dance teams, art, slam poets. We create PSAs, videos, CDs, DVDs. All at no cost to the kids.”
One of the most ambitious projects Teatro recently completed is a “hip hopera” – a musical set to rap music called “Chasing Nowhere,” on the scourge of heroin on teens.
Heroin use, Pacheco said, is more rampant than ever among the youths she sees. So is prescription drug abuse, poverty, mental illness and the merging of local gangs with dangerous drug cartels.
“It makes it harder,” she said. “Kids given the opportunity will rise. But you have to convince them it’s better to make minimum wage at McDonald’s and stay out of gangs than to make $500, $1,000 in a few minutes of selling drugs.”
Most of the kids are referred to YDI by the schools, juvenile courts and detention facilities or they become interested in the program through YDI’s outreach efforts.
One of those kids is Arturo Almaguer, who tagged along with his older brother, a gang member, to 4th Street Outreach when he heard it had a place he could pursue his desire to create art.
“I’ve been painting all my life,” Almaguer, 19, said. “This place gave me space.”
He’s stayed out of gangs, he said. He hopes someday to study art in college.
Mike Bernard was a gang member from Denver who at age 17 was shipped to Albuquerque to live with his father, who in turn contacted YDI.
“I wanted to make a change in my life, but I had a lot of negativity,” said Bernard, who performed Friday under his hip-hop name Smikey D. “Then my counselor here heard me rapping and got me involved with the recording studio.”
Most weeks, he said, he had nothing to look forward to – no school, no job, no way of keeping off the streets.
But for those hours every week when he was in the recording studio, he found purpose. He found his voice.
“The studio was my counseling,” he said. “I’d get in there and talk to the mike and make music.”
Bernard, now 20, completed his GED, with YDI’s help. He graduated from Pima Medical Institute. He has a job. He still performs sometimes.
“I’m staying out of trouble,” he said, smiling. “This was the first place where adults didn’t look down on me.”
And that’s the secret behind what Pacheco, Leyva, Ayala and their staff do here.
“We don’t judge,” Pacheco said. “We give them hope. They trust us. We help them. This place is about kids; it’s not about control. They get that.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline Gutierrez Krueger at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor. — This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal