Prosperity

This Bakery Is Helping Ex-Gang Members Thrive After Prison

December 11, 2020 By Danielli Marzouca

If you are on the Internet at all, you’ve probably consumed cholo content. From the mitú cholos segment to viral sensation Nathan Apodaca (@420dogface on TikTok), cholo culture has only recently entered the zeitgeist as something to be celebrated. 

Apodaca, 37, went viral after posting a selfie video while longboarding to work, drinking cranberry juice while vibing to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. “I’m Native-Mexican,” the Idaho resident told The Los Angeles Times. “I’ve always embraced both sides of my dad’s heritage, my mom’s heritage. Cholo all the way. I live it. I love it. It don’t matter.”

It’s refreshing to see a proud cholo lionized by the masses. For far too long, Chicanos have been stigmatized in the media, scapegoated by entire administrations, and even feared by passersby. Los Angeles is home to the largest Mexican-American population (6 million people) in the country and the second-largest in the world, right after Mexico City. Like many marginalized communities, the lack of funding for community resources like education, job development, even infrastructure, made Los Angeles home to the worst gang activity in the country. Leaders responded by enacting criminal justice policies that fostered law enforcement abuse and mass incarceration, ripping the community apart even more. 

Homeboy Industries has been doing the work to repair what the system has destroyed since 1986.

The Birth of Homeboy Industries

Credit: Homeboy Industries

Homeboy Industries’ founder, Gregory Boyle, is a Jesuit priest and member of the most highly educated order of priesthood in the Catholic church. He witnessed the “decade of death,” which peaked with 1,000 gang-related murders in 1992. He comforted members of his parish as they went in and out of prison. In his own words, Boyle decided to take a radical approach and “treat gang members as human beings.”

Boyle decided to reenvision community safety and offer care and re-entry services to help previous gang members get hired, housed, and flourish. He opened the doors of Homeboy Industries, committed to bear witness as “individuals heal from trauma, allowing them to contribute fully to their family and community.” 

At the very core of Homeboy’s inception was the mission to celebrate instead of vilifying Black and Latino people. It can be impossible for ex-gang members to find jobs given their criminal record, face tattoos, and lack of job experience. Boyle saw a simple solution of compassion: create job training programs, offer therapy, offer a community. 

What Public Safety Reimagined Looks Like

In 2019 alone, Homeboy Industries offered 11,602 tattoo removal treatments to its hundreds of clients. It supported 571 former gang members or previously incarcerated community members through an 18-month long job training program. If you’ve ever been to a Los Angeles farmer’s market, you’ve likely met cholos selling Homeboy Industry’s bread. That’s right—the original job training program was a bread bakery. Today, Homeboy also offers solar panel installation training courses to 80 graduates with an exam pass rate 175% higher than the national average. Meanwhile, Homegirl Café offers trainees skills in gardening, catering and café work to serve up Latin food back to the community.

Credit: Homeboy Industries

“I’m going to be working in the Painters Union and starting college,” full-time trainee Michael Alvarez shared in a social media post. “I’ve been on this spiritual journey here to find my inner peace. I now have more empathy for others and have learned to enjoy life as it comes. I’m thankful that Homeboys opened the door for me to make my family proud.”

Homeboy is the first of its kind. Since its inception, the field of re-entry services has exploded. Gang activity in Los Angeles has substantially decreased since Homeboy’s early years. Today, Homeboy Industries is the largest re-entry program in the world.

The Next Frontier

Thirty years ago, Fr. Greg Boyle reimagined public safety and revolutionized how we treat gang violence. Today, he’s supporting Black Lives Matter’s vision “to re-imagine policing, and how public funding for law enforcement can be better aligned with the needs of those on the margins. On this point, we support all efforts to re-prioritize public budgets to shift resources to the poor and protect them in real ways.”

Credit: Homeboy Industries

Boyle has worked with Black victims of the War on Drugs, with cholos who wanted out of gangs. He’s also buried well over 200 young people who were killed in the street for no reason. “In all these years, I’ve buried over 30 young lives, killed by law enforcement,” Boyle said in a statement. “We are wide-eyed about the fact of our ‘original sin,'” the priest continued, “…that this country was founded on genocide and slavery and has perpetuated this sin through Jim Crow, redlining, police brutality that criminalizes poor communities of color and in the intense militarization of law enforcement to keep these same people down.”

Boyle has done his part to address what effectively is the criminalization of poverty. Are you celebrating cholo culture yet still stigmatize the most pressing problems of Chicano communities? Hear Father Boyle tell the story himself by reading his book, Tattoos on the Heart. 

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