Memories Fading on Pico and Union

A picture of the mural in 1990. Courtesey of SPARC.

The paint is peeling and fading on a mural amidst signs in Spanish and local super markets in the barrio community on Pico and Union. The Catholic images and names that are written across mural hint at la historia behind it. Que onda con los nombres? What do they mean? Digging led to Burlington Homeboy and Homegirls Industries, a partial history of Pico and Union, and an art group named Earth Crew.

Touched by the tragic death of one of their friends, the vision of Earth Crew was born. “We all kinda wanted to show the muralists; hey this is what we can do with a spray can. This is what our generation can do,” says Joseph Montalvo.

Better known to his Earth Crew members as Nuke, Montalvo is a graffiti writer who tells a story through the power of his can as well as a muralist of Boyle Heights. Behind a strip mall on Pico and Union in 1990 is where the story of this mural begins.

They included highly influenced Catholic images, expressing the “L.A. cholo culture aesthetic,” said Montalvo.

The wall became the canvas for local gang members, transforming into a homage for community members who died in gang crossfire by writing their names across the mural.

“Three or four names that we added of people who got killed while we were there. One of those names is of a ten year old girl who was killed due to gang violence in the community,” Montalvo said.

However, the L.A. gang culture aesthetic has faded. The sense of community that the mural carried is no longer felt. Que onda, why has the graffiti mural to begin to disappear?

Mothers and grandmothers of the community decided to have an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe along the right hand wall of the strip mall.

Today the original Virgen de Guadalupe no longer resides on the wall. It has been redone, but not by Earth Crew and not with their permission. For them, this is a violation of integrity and disrespect.

“We’re still here. We’re alive!” Montalvo said.

The dedication that reads “Dedicado a todos aquellos que no tuvieron la oportunidad de disfrutar la vida en paz y a la esperanza que témenos de evitar más muertes” is halfway gone.

The Burlington Homeboys and Homegirls mural is in need of restoration, or else the story and community history it carries will be lost as the paint fades away. The mural carries with it the beginning of not only Earth Crew, but also of the role and effect it had on the local gang youth who participated in its making.

“It played a cathartic role in those guys who were painting it. It reflected the violence that was all around them, and that they had probably caused themselves,” Montalvo explained.

While speaking to Montalvo, he expressed the influence of Helen Samuels, Earth Crew’s mentor and guide once on the crew. Seeing their passion to create art through graffiti, Samuels always sought to help Earth Crew carry out its purpose such as finding locations for the murals or filing paperwork.

“Helen was always making sure that we knew the type of role we were playing in the neighborhood. That we were there as medicine people,” Montalvo said.

Earth Crew struggles to survive, but as Montalvo kept emphasizing, it is still very present.

20 Years of Building Hope Through Jobs

Father Gregory Boyle speaks at the Chicano Studies Research Center on Jan. 26. Photo by Chicano Studies Research Center.

Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, spoke of his gang intervention experience at the Chicano Studies Research Center on Jan. 26, as he promoted his first book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”

He began his mission as a priest looking for a safe spot for neighboring youth and now Father Boyle is an award-winning speaker, gang consultant to various agencies, and member of the National Gang Center Advisory Board.

Growing up in the Los Angeles area in a large Irish-American family, Father Boyle knows the dangers youth face in gang involvement. He accredits his family support system as the reason for not joining the gang life. “I never would have joined a gang, but that doesn’t make me morally superior,” said Father Boyle.

After receiving his master’s in English from Loyola Marymount University, he received a Master of Divinity from the Weston School of Theology and a Master of Sacred Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology. After doing missionary work outside of the United States, he returned to Los Angeles in 1992 and established Homeboy Bakery, an independent nonprofit organization that provides former gang members with a safe environment and skills to join the workforce. It has expanded to Homegirl Café and Catering, Homeboy Silkscreen and Logo Service, and Homeboy Maintenance. The organization offers services including counseling, free laser tattoo removal, and skill development workshops.

As the largest gang intervention center in the United States, he admits that he and the organization have had their share of difficulties financially, as well as with the public and the police. He has had to endure bomb and death threats, receive hate mail, see his bakery burn in 1999, and survive leukemia, but he still holds strongly onto his mission. “There is no ‘us’ or ‘them;’ it is an illusion,” said Father Boyle in relation to how people may be reluctant to relate to gang members.

The book, which took 20 years to write, is meant for a broad audience. He describes the novel as talking about what matters, “It is a string of stories bound together using vague themes. It is about the lethal absence of hope,” said Father Boyle.

Rather than promote his achievements at the reading, he did as he has done throughout his 20-year career: promote understanding. “Knowing my truth is your truth; your truth is the gang member’s truth,” said Father Boyle.

Father Boyle, “the Ghandi of the Gangs”

“Father Boyle, the Ghandi of the gangs.” To some this may seem an exaggeration, but to others this is exactly what Father Boyle represents, because he truly was a form of relief and a hope to a better future for gang members.  Homeboy Industries is an organization created by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Roman Catholic priest.  Homeboy Industries assists former gang-involved youth and the recently incarcerated to become contributing members of the community.  This free program enables counseling, education, tattoo removal, and job training and placement to provide an opportunity for young men and women to redirect their lives for a better future.

Father Gregory Boyle came to speak about his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, at UCLA on January 26th, an event provided by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.  The small room where his speech was to be given was packed with people curious about what he had to say, and they had their full attention on him.  He told stories about his reasons for creating Homeboy Industries, how the company came to be, and what it meant to many of the gangsters.

About the industry, Father Boyle says, “We didn’t start, we just evolved.”

He believed in the industry, and that is why he had hope in pursuing the company despite much of the hate that had arisen upon establishing the company.

Father Boyle made sure his audiences kept full attention on him.  He spoke about being asked to do baptisms, quinceñeras, weddings, and (jokingly) exorcisms.  Never turning away an individual who walked into his office, he teared as he recalled individuals to whom he had reached out to and to whom he could have made a difference if they had only stepped foot in his office.

There was a group from Homeboy Industries, whom he had the opportunity to take as speakers at the White House Conference on Children and Youth in 2005.  It was a symbol of their achievement of how far they had come, where they were now sipping white wine with First Lady Laura Bush.  “Anything worth doing is worth trying” is a motto Father Boyle lives by to this day.

Father Boyle says the “chips have fallen into place,” as Homeboy Industries and Homeboy Bakery have expanded to sell their chips and salsa at various Ralphs locations in Southern California. I have yet to try some of these chips, but I am sure they are delicious, as Father Gregory Boyle strives to create the most authentic taste of home in a bag of chips.


For your benefit, Homeboy Industries Contact Info:

130 W. Bruno St.

Los Angeles, CA 90012-1815

(323) 526-1254

Money Woes for Homeboys

A previously LA Gente-featured organization, Homeboy Industries, has also been reeling to stay afloat amidst extreme financial hardships.

On May 14, Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of the organization, lamentably announced the laying off of 300 employees, including all senior staff and administrators.

Since its inception, Homeboy Industries has enjoyed great success, as well as high praise, in its work rehabilitating gang members and training them for jobs; however, the money needed to sustain its burden has proven elusive.

The organization attributes the hardship to the flailing economy, as private donations are extremely low and as there are fewer jobs for graduates of Homeboy’s programs.

Father Boyle also explains that they receive little money from public funds, as the local government has focused on intervention programs that reduce violence amongst current gang members.

In response to being asked if he was optimistic for the future, Boyle is quoted as responding, “Hope comes from the soul; optimism comes from observable evidence. And this place is soaked with hope.”