Northeast Los Angeles or NELA as we call it—stretches from Eagle Rock to Lincoln Heights and from El Sereno to Atwater Village—our area isn’t quite like Boyle Heights, loaded with the rows of project apartments. But, some of L.A.’s most established gangs were formed in our region back in the forties and fifties.
Regardless of its infamy, NELA was only a backdrop to East L.A. with its cluster of neighborhood gangs. Maybe it was the hills surrounding us: Montecito Heights, Mount Washington, Monterey Hills, even South Pasadena. Down on the flat land, however, we were not as privileged as our affluent neighbors above. So whether the hills, around our impoverished streets, had wealth it meant little to us. We lived our lives and they lived theirs. They didn’t visit our stores below or attend our public schools. Interactions were brief, nothing more than glances from their shinny cars heading up the hills. Two segregated worlds with merely a pile of dirt separating us.
I lived on the border that separated Highland Park and Lincoln Heights. Avenue forty, the street I lived on, stretches from Figueroa Street to the Pasadena Freeway. It was misleading though, perfectly lined with craftsman homes, a few apartments, and spotted fruit trees. But you could see another lifestyle bursting from the seams: public buildings, residential walls, street signs, billboards, moving buses, even human beings—all marked with gang writing. Most importantly, if you looked close enough, you could see it beyond the gang banging; it was in the shards of broken families, worried mothers, and empty iceboxes.
Across from my apartment building was the most dilapidated house on our block. In-between two craftsman homes, the wood house looked like a box of water-damaged matches. The sixteen year-old who lived there was the oldest of us twelve kids living on the same block and he was having a New Years party. The year 1989 was a year of many changes for me. That night was the first time I was around the neighborhood gang.
The small house was congested with homeboys and homegirls from the Avenues. In no time, a large gathering poured onto the front and back yard. The girls had thick red paint around their lips like a warrior and deep black lines across their eyes. The vato’s all had shaved heads and most wore large white tees. Some wore Dickies others sported Levis, but all of their pants were oversized. Just like the lives they lived.
There were just four of us, who were preteens. One of them was new to our block. We were half the size of our idols, unified without conscious thought. We were drawn to one another. It was an exciting time. The four of us ran below armpits of crowded gangsters scouring for half-emptied drinks. It was over two deserted beers that the new kid and I spoke for the first time.
“Com on, I dare you,” he prodded with his dark eyes. “Lets down them together?” He handed me one of the beers. He was bold and it was enticing. Even though he was small he looked older in the way he moved. His skin was dark and his face no longer had child-like features.
“You do it first.” I said.
He lifted his bottle without any more convincing and I followed his lead. I had always been taller than most kids my age but I still had baby cheeks and my nose and ears grew faster than the rest of my face. But I felt grown up at the party.