There Goes the Child ‘Hood

A mother sweeps the front porch and hoses down her yard. Two young girls about the age of six or seven, one of them with pink bows tied around her bouncy pigtails, skip their way next door to play with their friends. A boy about the age of four runs outside with his Nintendo DS and his mother steps outside to call him back. Two young men drive up to bring their family McDonald’s for lunch.

This is the scene of a Saturday afternoon on Cypress Street in Orange, Calif. There is a light breeze as birds are chirping. Passersby would think it’s like any other working-class neighborhood in Orange County.

However, law enforcement perceives a tree-shaded area near a local mural as a hangout for gang members.

On April 12, 2009, 17-year-old Sergio Vasquez was sitting on the park bench in front of the mural waiting for his mother to pick him up when he was arrested by authorities. The mural is painted on the apartment adjacent to his home.

Vasquez is like any other teenager about to graduate from high school. He studies hard, hangs out with his friends, and has dreams of going to college. However, a permanent record, court dates and an apprehension towards authority have derailed his plans for a better future.

It was Easter Sunday and he was dressed up in a Ben Davis suit, a brand of zoot suits that are currently trendy among Latino young men.

He said police took a picture of him in front of the mural and proceeded to arrest him.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “I was just sitting there like everyone else does.”

He said he was in jail for three days. He said when he was detained police fingerprinted him and made him take off his clothes.

Vasquez was held at Orange County Juvenile Hall for three days and was released to his mother. He is waiting to appear in court.

Vasquez’s mother, Maria Gonzalez, said officers had changed their reasons for her son’s arrest.

At first, was because he was in front of the mural that is part of the gang injunction, she said. Then they told her it was because he was wearing a color that was part of the injunction: beige.

Gonzalez said she bought that suit for her son and it was tan, not beige.

She said the injunctions include wearing certain colors like orange or brand of clothing like blue Dickies shorts.

“I think it is stupid,” she said. “My son is going to be wearing an orange cap and gown for graduation. Are they going to arrest him for wearing a color that is supposedly ‘gang related’ on what is supposed to be one of the most memorable days of his life?”

She said she was outraged when she was notified that her pride and joy was locked up in jail.

“They treated my son like a criminal,” she said. “He has no record. He is ten units ahead in school and has good grades – I have report cards and progress reports to prove it.”

Gonzalez said other Latinos living in the neighborhood are often harassed by police on her street.

She said she hasn’t been bothered until now.

“We have been living here for 21 years,” Gonzalez said. “Why now? Why here? We don’t live here because we are part of a gang. We live here because we have a low income. We have nowhere else to go.”

orange pic

Sergio (far left, bottom) with his family and community activist Yvonne Elizondo outside of the mural

According to a May 15th article in the OC Register, the injunction in Orange is effective in “a ‘safety zone’ of 3.78 square miles that is in three chunks – two largely in Old Towne and a third in west Orange.”

Injunctions exist in other Orange County cities, such as San Juan Capistrano.

The OC Register said charges in some of the gang injunctions ”forbids those allegedly connected with the gang from associating with one another, intimidating others, carrying guns or dangerous weapons, blocking free passage, using gang hand signs, wearing gang-affiliated clothes, carrying burglary tools, acting as lookouts or breaking a 10 p.m. curfew, even if they are adults.”

The immediate area surrounding a mural has been targeted in the low-income neighborhood of Cypress Street.

Officials believe the mural promotes a gang lifestyle. It’s painted on the back of a garage of a one-story apartment complex. Famed Orange County mural artist Emigdio Vasquez – whose work includes the Lemon Street murals, among other famous paintings in Orange County cities – painted the mural.

“Tribute to the Chicano Working Class” was painted in 1979 for his Master’s thesis at Cal State Fullerton. According to an article in OC Weekly on April 9, Orange Police Detective Joel Nigro “asserted in an expert declaration included in the injunction that Vasquez glamorized his home barrio’s gang.”

The Weekly wrote that Nigro’s report included that “[Emigdio] Vasquez is a muralist who grew up in the Cypress Street neighborhood and portrays rebellion against a perceived oppressive government through art.” Nigro claimed the mural on Cypress Street was the “flag” for gang members, who frequently pose for photos with the mural as a backdrop.

The mural mostly shows Hispanic laborers, including a miner, which is a tribute to the artist’s father. The painting shows strikers waving flags, Latino men in a Chevy, a convenience store, a small image of Che Guevara with two teens standing next to it, among many other representations of Chicano culture.

According to The Weekly, he also criticized the inclusion of the strikers and Guevara, whom the detective wrote was “a politician, Marxist, revolutionary and guerrilla leader” whose image “became a ubiquitous symbol of rebellion worldwide.”

Yvonne Elizondo, a community activist who contacted ACLU about the gang injunctions around Orange County, grew up on Cypress Street.

She recalls the days when everyone in the neighborhood would just hang outside, when people would have parties with food and music out on the street on the weekends.

She said all of that has changed now. People are scared of getting harassed by police.

A strong neighborhood bond is often mistaken for a gang, she said.

“We need to eliminate the word ‘gang’ from our vocabulary,” she said. “Neighborhoods are not gangs. This neighborhood is not a gang. We are people. We are a community.”

She said there is not a gang problem but rather a substance abuse and violence problem.

“Drugs and violence are our enemies,” she said. “If we want to stop the so-called ‘gang problem,’ then we need to educate our youth about those issues, not arrest them for hanging out in their own neighborhoods.”

Many other juveniles have been detained in the gang injunctions around Orange County, she said. Locations of the injunctions include parks, malls, certain parts of low-income neighborhoods, and even gas stations, Elizondo said.

On May 15, the Orange County District Attorney’s office dismissed the charges of 62 named defendants in the gang injunction. However, they can still be charged with gang activity if it is proven they are a part of a gang, according to the OC Register.

There are still 44 who can be charged with violating the injunction. Out of the 62 whose cases were dismissed, 30 of them were juveniles, according to a May 15th blog on the OC Weekly website.

As Elizondo works as a counselor for at-risk youth, she says when most juveniles get into the jail system it’s hard to get them out.

“It’s like a revolving door,” she said. “It’s like we’re preparing them for prison instead of how to be good citizens.”

Elizondo says community effort, like the one on Cypress Street, is needed to make progress.

“The war is not won,” she said. “We had a victorious battle with the charges being dismissed. But we still have 44 more to help. Overall, there is still more work to do.”

Elizondo hopes with her work, among many others, justice will prevail.

“We need to show young people that this is not a land to be afraid of or to hate – it’s a land of opportunity.”

Luckily, she said, there are still good people willing to fight for this generation and the ones to come.

Amber Stephens