Mom, Apple Pie, and the Homies

An American Dream emerges from a culture of violence in our own backyard

At the Claremont Colleges, the prospect of gang violence seems, quite simply, out of place. Many, especially those not from Southern California, would never suspect that the city of Claremont is nestled not only at the base of the beautiful Mt. Baldy but also amid several cities whose gang cultures have plagued their recent pasts and have only recently been brought under uneasy control. Deep ethnic divisions and lower-class neighborhoods continue to promote a thriving gang culture right in Claremont’s backyard.

In the early 1960s, when Rancho Cucamonga was only Cucamonga and Los Angeles County was still covered with orange groves, my father entered this world of gang violence. Born to a Hispanic father and a German immigrant mother, he soon moved from his farm-like home in the fringe areas of the then-emerging city to the neighborhoods, or barrios, of Corona. There, in the now infamous-among-locals community of Home Gardens, my father grew up learning a single rule that would shape the next two decades of his life: do anything to survive.

The barrios of Corona, along with many similar neighborhoods throughout the Inland Empire, were culturally separate from the rest of the communities. The combination of low-income families and a lack of opportunities for the youth bred a gang culture in which education was not valued. Most simply accepted that they would be killed soon regardless.

My father quickly succumbed to this lifestyle. For him, it was the only way to survive in a world where he could be shot for going into Pomona or Chino since he was a cholo, a Mexican gangster, from a Corona gang known as the Banditos. From Corona Junior High to Kimble Continuation School to Corona High School, my father saw the worst of the gang culture, though never quite completely falling into the culture himself.

My father was in numerous fights and was shot at several times. In one instance, a drive-by shooting missed him and hit his cousin instead, the bullet tearing off part of her foot. He also saw the gangs’ sheer power, once witnessing the shooting down of a police helicopter as it circled Fourth Street Park, the local rendezvous point for the eight gangs in Corona.

As my father got older and dropped out of school, his life seemed doomed to the vicious cycle of lawlessness. A single event, however, would soon cause him to leave the cycle altogether.

One of my father’s best friends, a young man named Eddie, had seemingly escaped the violent culture of his hometown by joining the military. While on leave and visiting his family and friends, he decided to attend a local party. He stopped by my father’s house to ask if he were going. My father, working on his car, told him that he would go later – and then watched Eddie leave for the last time in his life.

At the party, a small group of cholos began to harass and beat one of Eddie’s friends. As Eddie tried to help his friend up from where the gang had left him lying, a cholo in Home Gardens shot him twice in the back.

This mindless death shook my father, who sought revenge. Luckily for me and my siblings, one of his other friends got to the cholos first, shooting Eddie’s murderer multiple times at point-blank range.

My father then made perhaps the most important choice of his life: to leave this place. Not wanting to raise his family in the same environment where the weak were preyed upon and those who escaped were still subject to the culture’s brutality, he moved our family away from the Inland Empire to the desert town of Hesperia.

There, he did what most men of his background could not, and still cannot, do. He raised four children in a place where they never had to worry about getting shot, where they could receive an education and not fear being beaten for being different, where they did not have to survive but only had to live.

Two of his children hold doctorate degrees. One is on her way to culinary school. The last, his only son, is not part of a gang or in prison; he is here at Claremont McKenna, baffled by how such a place of learning and culture can exist in the bosom of cities that were not just plagued by the violence of his father’s stories, but still suffer from the violence of groups like Pomona’s “12th Street” gang and Chino’s “Sinners.” What has him more confused is how a young cholo from Corona rose from an existence of this pure, mostly forgotten violence and achieved an American Dream simply by choosing to leave.

Though violent crimes in the entire Inland Empire are below the national average, they still exist in some areas. According to the FBI, the average rate of violent crime per capita in the city of Pomona is higher than the national average. And, according to law enforcement statistics, Pomona has 200 different gangs. Again, while this does not necessarily mean that Pomona is a dangerous city, it does reveal something that many people often overlook, regardless of where they are: violence.

The tales of my father’s experiences in the Inland Empire, including many more that were not revealed here, occurred a mere 25 years ago. While many of his past battlegrounds are now silent, gangs still boldly defy law enforcement, claim territory, and kill many. In the end, we must acknowledge their existence and attempt to mend the structural problems these communities face. As college students, we are the nation’s future leaders. We can help many more underprivileged individuals, like my father, make the fateful decision to leave the cycle of violence and the hopelessness that surrounds it.

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

Copyright © 2015 Claremont Port Side.