Monday, July 31, 2006
West Coast Trip, Los Angeles, California (Day 5)
Leo Vasquez, 22, acknowledges that he lives in two worlds.
"I do kind of feel I go back and forth," said Leo, a
young Latino man, his head shaved, his body plentiful with tattoos,
his smile engaging. As he stood in the gated front yard of his
in-laws' small stucco house in the Watts section of Los Angeles,
Vasquez talked about joining the Playboys, the third largest gang
in L.A., when he was 8 or 9 years old.
"My parents didn't know [I joined the Playboys] until I'd
been in jail a few times." His mother cleans homes for "rich
people" in Beverly Hills; she and his father have always
worked long hours and provided well for their children, but often
left them unsupervised.
Leo said he joined the gang not because he wanted anything (his
parents were very supportive, after all), but because most of
his brothers, cousins and "homies" had joined -- even
his father was involved. When Leo was younger, from sixth grade
on, he was usually in trouble. "A lot of fights," he
said, without elaborating. This led to his spending virtually
all his life -- from age 13 to 20 -- behind bars.
Leo has been keeping himself straight, thanks to his marriage
to Angie one week after his last time in jail, and then the birth
of his daughter Emily one year later. Even the murder of his protective
older brother Renferic last November didn't draw Leo back in.
Though he admitted that he was tempted: He went looking for the
shooter, but in the end he decided to have his brother's nickname,
Blast, tattooed across his arm. And now, every week, he visits
the cemetery where his brother is buried.
Leo holds two jobs: He installs low-flush toilets for the city
Department of Water and Power, and he does home construction and
renovation. He gives Angie every paycheck he earns because he
says he likes to "waste money" on things like his car.
But he's also set up a bank account for 1-year-old Emily.
Leo explained, "Once a gang member, you're always in the
gang." He said that his tattoos mark him for life. "Cops
pull a gun when they see these." But he clarifies -- and
Angie confirms -- that he's no longer a "gang banger,"
someone who "hangs out with the gang."
"I don't do things with them any more." He said he
wants to keep working and earn enough money to retire while he's
Even so, last year, his 13-year-old brother was stabbed in the
abdomen while in his own front yard, and Leo was drawn into the
fight. "We beat them, we broke their hands," he told
me. "I try to stay out of it," Leo said, when I ask
about the chances of getting back into a gang. "But it's
all around me," he added. "I know some day I could get
pulled in again and that could be it."
-- Judy Woodruff