A blue background with silhouettes of buildings that simulate the financial district of Los Angeles and the classic palm trees. In the center a figure kneeling with arms raised. Montserrat and I cannot conclude if he/she is praying, thanking or if he/she surrenders before the brutal Angelian police. A shirt with a Ché Guevara and a Los Angeles Dodgers cap end up wearing the figure with a great oxymoronic touch. With the powerful symbology of that painting, Ana Minauri and Álex Sánchez, Program Director and Executive Director of Homies Unidos, an organization founded in El Salvador in 1996 and operating in Los Angeles since 1997 welcome us.
Homies Unidos began in El Salvador in 1996, when Magdaleno ("Leno") Rose-Ávila and a group of young people from different neighborhoods, ex-gang members among them, met in San Salvador to discuss methods and means to reduce the violence that affected their lives and communities. The office in El Salvador has closed after the death of director Luis Romero in 2016, along with threats to their work by the Salvadoran state. In Los Angeles, the organization has programs that include education, job training and community liaison. The local office is mainly composed of young Central Americans and other Latinxs who have renounced violence in their lives. Working in the areas of Koreatown and Pico-Union, members have dedicated their lives to creating alternatives to crime, drugs, and violence.
Ana and Álex cut to the chase and begin to talk about the current immigration situation and the consequences on Central American youth in Los Angeles. According to them, one of the main problems is the criminalization of young Central Americans, Trump's speeches, but also the reactions of the Mexican population during the caravans, illustrate the image that has been built of Central America since the civil wars in the year 80 and that has been reinforced during the 1990s with mass deportations and gang formation in El Salvador first and then in Honduras. "The strategy was always to criminalize," says Álex. They continue and affirm that the support of the conservative sector does not come from the facts, but from criminalization. Tattoos, news about violence in Central America, poverty, language, traditions, everything is used to create a criminal image of Central Americans and particularly young people.
The social construction of Central America as a space of violence finds resonance in neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The precarious situation, say Ana and Alex, general weakness and division among populations - the struggle for survival causes fights between Central Americans, between Central Americans and Mexicans, and among other hyper marginalized populations, such as the African-American population. The gang in that context is a form of survival, says Álex. To understand gangs, you must understand the context of marginalization and inequality that precedes them. Ana illustrates the situation of schools in Los Angeles that receive an immigrant population, where segregation, poor management of the English language, identity struggles and structural racism of the school system will border Mexicans, Central Americans or Afro-Romans to take refuge in a gang, which finds in the schools one of its main seedbeds of members. Although the cycle is clear and obvious, they say, the white population in the United States refuses to recognize the structural failure - if it can be called a failure - that forces gang reproduction and the reproduction of particular criminalization against of the young Central American population. Ana and Álex also tell us that criminalization also includes those who defend the rights of this population, as in the case of Álex and his long trial in the United States since 2009 in which he has been arrested and accused of being a gang member even when he was already Executive Director of Homies Unidos. The charges against Álex were dropped in 2012, but his criminalization continues.
Violence and migration are complicated issues separately, and even more complicated when linked. Homies Unidos knows a lot about that. They tell us the discomfort that their work has often caused, in a context of renewed struggle for the rights of migrants in the United States in the face of Trump's racist and xenophobic discourse, mentioning the systematic marginalization, exclusion, and racism faced by young people wanting to get out of gangs has sometimes been a problem. The image of violence in El Salvador and Central America requires subjects that represent that violence. It is difficult to fight for the human rights of people who are considered little-less than human, especially in the midst of many organizations that, when talking about migration, base their campaigns on the classic image of helpless, dirty, sad children. It's not that it's not true, they say, but it's not the whole picture.
The main work of Homies Unidos is to fight for the re-humanization and social re-construction of Salvadoran and Central American youth, pointing out its complexities. Montserrat and I think that they are not doing a favor by idealizing and sanitizing former gang members and ex-gang members, when they do not respond to that image, the structural violence exerted towards them is justified and the struggles to re-humanize take a step back.
The current situation in El Salvador is also one of their concerns. Ana and Álex know that the transnational condition of violence influences the outcome of their programs in Los Angeles, and that the social and political context of El Salvador and Central America in general will continue to expel their people for a long time. They reflect on the change of government and what is coming for El Salvador, "the state must regain its legitimacy and re-establish its power," says Álex. He thinks that the gangs proliferated because the state abandoned those places and that the centralized state assumes that it avoids marginalization and raises the country's quality of life when the country's capital has clean streets and more fast food franchises. They tell us that one of the main problems has been the inefficiency of the security forces, corrupted, and unable to contain the power of the gangs. They hope that the presence of the national police and the army can control and re-establish the legitimate power of the state, meanwhile they think the situation will take a long time to resolve. At this point they do not forget to mention the role of the United States and its political interventions in the region. If the Salvadoran state forgot its people, the United States did not do so and its presence is equally harmful. Alex mentions a sad irony: his people want to reach the United States, a land of opportunity and freedom, while they want to flee from the place that the same country has exploited and violated. "We're screwed," Alex says.
Not everything is screwed. Homies Unidos has several projects to help young Salvadorans and Central Americans in Los Angeles - they also have representation in Denver and timely collaborations in various parts of the United States. The RISE project is one of them. From July 19 to August 1, the goal is to re-learn to socialize, Ana and Alex tell us that this is one of the main problems: ways of relating physically and emotionally have responded to the spaces where you are young they have been. Violence has been the main language, RISE seeks to include others and re-build the community fabric that has sustained them in the struggle but that needs to be transformed.