Community dialogue often gets a bad rap, conjuring images of endless words-without-action. Yet dialogue can lead to action, especially when fueled by crisis. In East Los Angeles, a group of Latina mothers proved that dialogue rightly enacted can be transformative even in the face of violence.
Los Angeles is the epicenter of American gang activity, with an estimated 152,000 gang members reported by the Department of Justice in the year 2000.
One aspect of Los Angeles gang life that marks it from Chicago or New York gangs is the expression of locura, or wild, destructive behavior (which includes drinking and drug use). As sociologist Edward Flores notes, the typical police response to gangs is the suppression approach, which assumes gang members can never be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, this only hardens gang members and escalates violence.
In early 1990s, a group of Catholic women in Los Angeles tried a different approach, that of dialogue. As members of Dolores Mission Roman Catholic Church, which sat squarely in the middle of East Los Angeles, the heart of the gang zone, these women faced a crisis. In their despair they turned to dialogue. Ken Butigan, Director of the Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service (www.paceebene.org), writes their story.
These mothers felt paralyzed by their situation. The surrounding neighborhood in East Los Angeles had become a war zone. The presence of thirteen active gangs—each vying for dominance, meant that killings and injuries happened on nearly a daily basis. During a particularly violent period, the women began a dialogue in their study group, seeking a solution.
The street warfare was terrifying. The only solution that seemed to work for these mothers was to withdraw behind locked doors. Safety lay in getting securely out of the line of fire. Yet even then they could not guarantee the security of their families. They were all too aware that, any day now, one of them—or their young children!—could be killed by a spray of misdirected gunfire striking their homes. Some morning they might be shot walking to the market. The women felt paralyzed and afraid. So they began a dialogue, studying the Scriptures and praying for guidance.
One night a woman in their prayer group made an announcement. Jesus, she announced, had called their study group to do something drastic. It was time to put aside fear and intervene, to walk together into the heart of the gang’s war zone. The other women looked at her as if she were crazy. Yet after a long discussion that night, seventy women and a few men began a peregrinacion or pilgrimage—from one gang turf to the next throughout the barrio.
The gang members had not expected this. They were startled to see these mothers walking through their thirteen war zones on their pilgrimage. It’s hard to arm yourselves against marching mothers. Whenever they encountered the young men, they would start a dialogue, praying with them and offering them chips, salsa and soda. At one point they all joined in song about their homeland in Mexico. Throughout the night, in thirteen war zones, they interrupted the conflict. Each night that week, the mothers walked. Within a week there was a dramatic drop in gang-related violence. The mothers formed Comite Pro Paz En El Barrio, the Committee for Peace in the Barrio.
By entering this zone of danger, they had created a momentary space for peace. In that space, all the parties were able to glimpse their humanness. The gang-members were able to see, many for the first time, other human beings caring about them. At the same time, the women were able to let go of their paralyzing fear and anger long enough to see the human face of members of the gangs.
By now the dialogue had gone beyond the circle of mothers and included the young men. In their discussions, gang members complained about the lack of jobs and about police brutality. To address the lack of jobs, the Committee for Peace in the Barrio developed a tortilla factory, a bakery, and child-care center, creating jobs and giving gang-members the chance to acquire job skills. To address police abuse they began monitoring and reporting abusive police behavior, while also teaching conflict resolution skills to gang members.
In terms of constructive possibility, dialogue trumps violence every time.
 Edward Orozco Flores, God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity,, and Gang Recovery, New York: New York University Press, 2014, 2,12.
 Ken Butigan, “The Love Walks.” from 100 Days of Nonviolence, found at http://choosenonviolence.org/node/225.
Photo: “Tortilla Chips and Salsa” by Stu Spivack. April 29, 2014. Flickr Creative Commons.