OAKLAND (CBS 5) – They are not supposed to be on each other’s turf. But once a week, they sit down for dinner together.
In the middle of a violent spree in Oakland, volunteers are serving up new hope for old rivals.
Every Wednesday night at the YMCA on 45th Avenue, the Homies Empowerment Program hosts a dinner for young people who live nearby. It’s a territory that recently has been ravaged by drive-by shootings and murderous retaliations.
“Here you have young people who are from rival neighborhoods. Some identified as Nortenos, some identified as Border Brothers,” said Cesar Cruz of the Homies Empowerment Program. “To break bread is something sacred and special. These kids break bread every week, and they cross enemy lines to get here.”
Breaking the bread is a crowd mostly made up of Latino teenagers. In some of these tough East Oakland neighborhoods, gang membership is a given. Some teenagers are hardcore, others are simply identify as gang members, but don’t participate in criminal activity.
Either way, many are sworn enemies. Brenda Pas, 16, and Roy Ramos, 17, could not be seen together on the street.
“We’re from different neighborhoods,” Ramos said.
“To be real, sometimes it would be weird because you would be seeing them and you would be thinking dang, I can’t be speaking to you,” Pas said. “But then, when you sit down and you really hear their stories…I can relate because I go through that.”
They sit together to eat and learn about Latino history and about nonviolent activism, even though many know somebody who has been killed. Oakland has seen a flurry of gang-related shootings in recent weeks.
“We’re divided by blocks and by gangs. Just on Monday at the corner of my house somebody got killed for wearing a red belt,” said 18-year-old Ivan Cruz. “But here it feels like you’re protected, even though I may have a certain color and somebody else has a certain color. But we have the same skin tone, we have the same purpose of being here, it’s to unite.”
For two hours a week, the dinner provides a peaceful refuge from the tensions of the street. On this night, they gather to watch an Emmy-award winning PBS documentary from 1981 called “Children of Violence,” that depicted Oakland Latino gang life. It showed teenagers living and dying for their street gangs. Thirty years later, survivors from the documentary tell their stories about how some of their homies didn’t survive and how they can.
Former gang member Gary Baca is now a radio host on KPFA radio.
“It’s good that the community, and YMCA and the Homies Empowerment can get these kids together and get to know each other,” Baca said. “It’s easier to kill a kid that you don’t know than killing a kid that you do.”
Cesar Cruz, a teacher of Latino studies who is also a YMCA staff member said he gives the students a choice: “Do you want to end up on a rest in peace t-shirt? Or do you want to end up on a poster, like Zapata, like Cesar Chavez?”
“Yes, rest in peace,” Cruz continued. “But for a legacy! What will your legacy be? And that’s what we’re working on, so that they can change the world.”
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