There’s different ways to connect with the different kids. What I used with Jose the other day was to let him know that he had a big twig plastered on his forehead by his freshly applied hair gel. He became suddenly self-conscious and wiped frantically at his face. He was also very surprised that I had said something to him I think, as we hadn’t talked in like two weeks, and his group of guys was in the process of trying to strong-arm the Open School kids off the soccer court. But he managed to get out “gracias Burrich”, something I don’t think I had ever heard from him… the gracias part that is.
Jose used to come to the Open School (our violence prevention program at Maria Madre de los Pobres in La Chacra, San Salvador) all the time, but in the days when you could get away with screwing around, not paying attention, disrespecting the coordinators and then still go play soccer at the end of the day. He had always been one of the kids who I really wanted to come. Since I ever remember seeing him, he had the gang member plante: the arrogant look, the baggy clothes, the go-to-hell attitude to match the go-to-hell vocabulary, and no plans for the future beyond the next bag of chips. I used to see him playing soccer with some of the other street-tough kids in the alleyway next to the parish entrance, and I would try to strike up a conversation that might lead to inviting him to come to the Open School. He would mainly ignore me or kick the soccer ball at me if I was getting in the way too much. His uncle is the number two gang member in our local click, and Jose, at 13, was seemingly sprinting down the same path.
So I felt like it was a miracle when he started showing up to the Open School with his cousin Delia, an equally street-wise 13 year old girl who got in the alarming habit of jabbing a pen in my side like she was robbing me when she wanted a new piece of paper or a drink of water. They would invariably show up late, eating some type of drippy or crumby snack, and would make a disruptive scene of getting their plastic chairs and finding a place in the circle.
Jose is brilliant, but he was always too cool to answer any question or participate in any discussions. He preferred to spend his time throwing small objects at people, trying to flirt with girls by hitting them, talking back to the coordinators, and making vulgar gestures to the shocked amusement of the other kids. But he loved to make crafts with his hands. He made the best popsicle stick vases and nylon bracelets out of all the kids.
But it wasn’t enough to keep him around. Even before we overhauled the Open School to crack down on bad behavior through stricter rules and an even busier schedule of activities, Jose was coming less and less. One day in September he got expelled from 6th grade at the local Catholic school because he told one of the nuns to eat bodily waste (apparently that was the last straw). I think that’s when he started to feel convinced that he was malo, and that in the long run, no one was going to care what he did. And in that type of mindset, crafts, small group discussions about cooperation, soccer, and lots of other cool activities just aren’t enough to keep a kid from thinking that being a gang member might be his best option.
Now, it’s not like Jose has been brincado (initiated into the gang) yet… far from it, but he’s on the fringes, he’s a postero. He walks the walk and talks the talk, and chills on the corners looking out for the soldiers so that he can make the most subtle of gestures to let the actual gang members know to go and hide. You can see him being groomed by his uncle, and by the others close to the head gangster. He’s already just waiting for the call to the big leagues, and the call might not come for years.
To be sure, there’s more little kids that will one day want in the gang than the pandilla could ever accept. I would say that in La Chacra, it’s a myth that gangs “recruit” little kids. It’s the poverty, the family disintegration, the lack of a support structure, the lack of education, the lack of opportunities, the lack of somebody to care, the lack of love that recruits little kids. It’s the fact that the gang members are the coolest and most powerful people in the neighborhood. They take you in and accept you, they protect you, and they get you money. So kids want in, but they don’t understand the implications. I recently heard a teacher lamenting that these days in El Salvador, there aren’t any young people who are willing to dedicate their lives to their convictions. But the truth is that the kids in the gangs sacrifice everything and live everyday willing to kill and die and go to jail for their convictions. But I don’t think that’s what the teacher was referring to.
Looking back, it was on one of Jose’s last days at the Open School that I got closest to him. We had commandeered a laptop so that we could show the kids a movie. While we were waiting for the projector to arrive, I showed a couple of the kids the wonders of Microsoft Word. I could see Jose’s fascination as he noticed that I could type almost as fast as they could tell me what to write. And so I told Jose to tell me a story and I would type it out for him. “I don’t know any stories,” he said.
“Sure you do”, I told him, “you know your own, tell me your story.”
“Nombre, I don’t have a story.”
“ When was your birthday” I asked him.
“De veras?” I said. “And you know what happened on the date?”
“Simon, they took down the twin towers.”
“ Yeah,” I told him. “your birthday is a big day. That day changed the course of history, and not because of the twin towers.”
We went on and managed to determine that he had a huge dysfunctional family, he had always been great at soccer, and that he wanted to be an architect when he grew up. He was astounded that he was looking at an entire paragraph all about himself. Then the projector showed up and we had to start putting the movie together. “Hey we’ll finish this tomorrow though man. Your story isn’t over.”
“Va,” he nodded.
But he didn’t come the next day, or the one after that, and well, I didn’t get to finish typing out his story. He’s still writing it though, and it’s far from over. We have no idea how it will end, and I have no concrete idea of what we at the Open School and the parish could do to help him. I mean, we have to reach out to him, we have to embrace him somehow, show him some compassion, but how? We haven’t invited him to start coming to the Open School again, and I don’t think we will. We know he still loves bitching out adults and bothering other kids, especially girls. And would we be willing to risk other kids getting into the fringes of the gang by trying to have him around? Our guideline is to work with kids who are not yet involved in gangs, so does the fringe count? At this point it’s not like Jose would come anyway. He’s too busy dreaming and posturing for the day when everyone in the barrio respects him, whether out of love or fear. But he still needs some attention. He needs our attention, and to know that we haven’t given up on him. That’s all that any of these kids need.
Lots of people find the gang situation in El Salvador, and other issues of senseless violence and desperation to be completely irrational and incomprehensible. How can such perversity exist? How can a kid like Jose be so close to throwing his life away at 13 years old? But what is more incomprehensible and perverse: Jose’s situation, or a system which produces millions of Joses all over the world?
Jose’s crisis is all of ours. Our future rests on our ability to help kids like Jose write different endings to their stories. In my personal case, embracing kids like him has been one of the greatest challenges of my life; a challenge that brings so much frustration that just helping them with twigs on their forehead and to hear them say gracias, is a great joy.
Jose certainly isn’t his real name by the way. I would’ve loved to have had a picture of him too, but he doesn’t take kindly to cameras.
One day soon, I’ll put up the other “first blog-entry” I had going.