Latino/a Social Work Caucus, USC Latino Graduate Student Association and El Centro Chicano jointly hosted a traditional Latino Dia de los Muertos ceremony that involved a discussion of gang violence on Thursday morning.
At 10:50 a.m. Thursday morning, 10 performers in traditional Mexican garb and carrying traditional Mexican instruments arrived at Tommy Trojan. As a crowd gathered, the performers began a ceremonial cleansing with smoke, as they started to dance, play drums and blow into a conch shell.
After a few songs, the performers and audience proceeded to El Centro located in the Student Union, where the dialogue on gang violence began.
Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 that honors family members who have passed away. The Dia de los Muertos altar at the front of the El Centro stage was a sobering reminder of the dangers of gang violence.
Though this is an annual event for El Centro, Thursday marked the first time it was not held in the United University Church because of the recent administrative decision to move El Centro to the Student Union. William Vela, director of El Centro, said the change forced minor adjustments to the program to accommodate the smaller space of the new location.
Chicano activists Alex Aldana, William “Blinky” Rodriguez and Joseph Sanchez all spoke at the event.
Aldana opened the discussion with a testimony on his upbringing in gang violence.
“For me it all started in October of 1988. There was a series of shootings in my community. I was a firsthand witness. The first happened across the street from where I lived. All because of a gang war between Santa Monica and Culver City,” Aldana said. “I was only 13 years old at the time, but I had to do something about it.”
Aldana’s nonprofit, the Pico Youth and Family Center, specializes in hosting youth events in order to instill cultural history in the Latino community. He believes that the answer to issues of violence is the arts. He argued that the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona has led to increased gang violence.
“Don’t teach them about Columbus, teach them about the cultura. We don’t know our history,” Aldana said.
Rodriguez spoke next. His involvement in the fight against gang violence began on February of 1990, when he received a call from the hospital.
“‘Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez, we have a body in room two with no identification.’ That’s where I see my son’s feet hanging out from under a white sheet, and I know my son’s feet,” he said.
Since his son’s death, Rodriguez has been passionate about solving the issue of gang violence. He said he believes that the problem doesn’t come from the system, but from “the homies.”
“There are good ‘homies,’ and there are bad ‘homies,’” Rodriguez said, adding that he hopes that through sports outings designed to unite rival gangs, the “bad homies” will become “good homies.”
The third speaker, Sanchez, said he believes the issue of gang violence stems from broken home life.
“We don’t have a youth problem. We have an adult problem,” Sanchez said.
He showed a picture of a boy he has worked with and explained that kids give him his purpose.
“This generation is key for executing this change,” Sanchez said.
Rodriguez echoed the need for the next generation to join the effort to eliminate violence.
“We need your heart and your mind. If it’s just an intellectual premise, you’re gonna run out of gas,” he said.
Despite the seriousness of this issue, the event ended on an optimistic note. Rodriguez will continue to host inter-gang rallies, Sanchez’s juvenile hall program will be funded by Katy Perry this year and Aldana has forged an alliance with Santa Monica College’s film program.
Students echoed the optimism of the speakers.
“I think that humanity should help each other more,” said Juan Cruz, a first-year master’s student studying social work. “I don’t care if you’re Latino, black, white, whatever skin color you are. We should be helping each other out.”
Vela said that part of the motive behind the caucus was to connect students with each other.
“Our main goal is to support them in their progress and in their growth at USC, ultimately to graduate,” Vela said of the event’s mission. “This event is important to the Centro because of the cultural significance, but also for the undergraduates to become more connected to the graduate students.”
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