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'Under Construction': La Plazita Institute - Albuquerque, New Mexico

March 18, 2014

Under-construction-logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

As in the desert that surrounds this city, it seems almost all living happens at dusk. The sun throws rose-colored light on the Sandia Mountains, the pale houses empty, and the sidewalks fill. Above, the skies look brush-stroked and extravagant, and a breeze comes, as if it had been hiding, too. When you endure in the desert, this hour is your reward.

And if you are a boy here, this is the hour when someone will show you a crooked path to manhood. You'll follow an older brother or cousin down to the Rio Grande to receive an initiation of blows and beatings. There, under the Cottonwoods, you'll try not to cry when they say you need to go beat up that kid you used to play with. In just a little while they'll call you carnalito (little brother, little dude).

Like many of the Chicano and Native American youth in Albuquerque who take guidance from La Plazita Institute, Raymond Maestas was brought into gang life before he got out of middle school. He learned to go at life with a gun on his waist and to get away from it all by taking a hit. But one day when he was fifteen a man invited him to earn respect a different way, by talking about his feelings, by serving his neighborhood, and by beginning to honor a heritage he had never been taught. The man was Albino Garcia, and the place was called La Plazita. The other guys in the room, the ones he was supposed to open up to? They were the ones he'd been conditioned to hate.

"I was stuck in the life, gang style life, I grew up here in the South Valley, you know," Maestas remembers. (South Valley is a neighborhood in the city's Southeast District.) "The words of Albino made me think. I was fifteen and I had a son.

That was ten years ago, soon after La Plazita began trying to help one of the most underserved populations in the country with programs like organic gardening, ceramics, and screen printing, along with traditional Native American rituals like a sweat lodge and "Warrior Circles." Here Maestas, who is twenty-five now and is covered neck to waist in tattoos, will tell younger teens how he learned to talk about his feelings, and, perhaps for the first time, those mentees will know someone who has dared to walk a different path.

It takes time for a leader to emerge, but Garcia believes guys like Maestas will eventually help redefine manhood in neighborhoods like the South Valley. Perhaps the greatest challenge is just how rooted gang culture is, both from a societal standpoint and physiologically, in the neurological pathways of young men often initiated into gangs before adolescence. High school freshmen at La Plazita talk about jail as if it was an exchange semester. Drug use is rampant, too — meth and heroin, mostly. Along Bridge Boulevard SW, a young teenage boy walks into El Paisa Restaurante looking for some tacos and tells you it's crazy, he hasn't slept in seven days. Every time an ambulance goes by folks say nonchalantly, "Probably some Vato OD'd at the service station." By the time you're Maestas' age of twenty-five, you can think of yourself as an old survivor.

And beyond La Plazita's entrance, it is easy to think that the neighborhood will never change. "Just because I get out of that lifestyle doesn't mean my enemies do," Maestas says.

Or, as in his case, someone else's enemies become ones to reckon with. Last April, Maestas drove up on a group of guys who thought he was someone else, or perhaps someone he used to be. "I saw a nine millimeter in my face. Every shot that went off, I got hit. Seven shots went off."

That’s Why I Wear Boots

With deep ties to Mexico and to a Native American past, Albuquerque is proud of its complex racial and cultural identity. Much of the residents self-identify as Chicano, a moniker that generally refers to Mexican-Americans who were born in the United States, although the definition is not always clear. In almost 30 percent of city households, English is not the first language spoken, although language, like identity, often defies classification. Speaking to a stranger, Marcos, a fifteen-year-old gang member and new recruit to La Plazita, shifts between Spanish and English. "Me and my mom, we are doing the best we can. Poniendonos mas adelante, you know," he says.

Albino Garcia describes youth here as "being from two worlds" — not quite American, not quite Mexican. Add to the fact that almost 20 percent of Albuquerque's youth live below the poverty line, and you have a feeding ground for gangs. According to city leaders, there are a hundred and thirteen gangs here, and many of the guys interviewed at La Plazita say they didn't have a male family member who was not gang affiliated.

Located right in the heart of South Valley, La Plazita is a place to rest from the pressures of having to be what you are not, and a place to own up to the responsibilities of being what you are. It is a small mission of cinderblock buildings, and a staff of people like Tomas Martinez, director of outreach, a man who has done more than you and has done hard time for it. To him you will tell your story, and make your excuses, and he will look at you with a face like the face of a cliff. In the presence of a man like this, it seems you can hear your echo before you speak.

Says Martinez, who was a kid here in the 1960s when heroin hit, who survived the 1980 Santa Fe Prison riot, whose older brother was strangled to death in a county jail, and whose father never got to see him turn his life around, "I tell them, 'That’s why I wear boots. Because sometimes the shit gets thick. So don't try to play me'."

La Plazita works closely with schools, trying to stem the so-called schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline. Schools reach out to the organization when a fight breaks out. And La Plazita is there to invite kids like Marcos — who sees the nearly 2,500-student Atrisco Heritage High School as a battleground with a few classes mixed in — to sit in a "Warrior Circle" with ten to twelve other guys, most of whom he is supposed to hate.

They keep their heads down at first, trying not to practice the art of giving threatening looks (the guys call it "mad-dogging"). They listen to stories about people of their race, heroes like Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata, and are told of tribal customs of honor and bravery.

Then they are asked to answer two simple questions: What was the hardest part of your week? And the best? For guys who have been conditioned to be tough, letting down their guard in this manner is a new kind of bravery. "It's pretty cool, you know," says Marcos, who is fifteen. "People spending time with us, taking us to games, and talking to us as if we were actually people, and not just delinquents."

"We take the worst of the worst," says Martinez. "The ones society wants to lock up and throw away the key.  If they put in work, I'll go in front of the judge and say, 'Let me have my chance with him'."

And La Plazita, Martinez says, has the ear of the juvenile courts. A kid that could be facing two or three years of correctional time is instead brought out to La Plazita gardens to plant vegetables. In a town where many teenagers say they deal drugs to feed their siblings, the gardens and their bounty offer another way to fulfill a young man's wish to become a provider.

La Cultura Cura

Early in the evening it is common to see young children wandering the South Valley sidewalks alone. They look lost, while teenagers strut around looking self-assured. It is undeniable that gang life promises a young man what he wants desperately. To belong, and to be wanted.

Albino Garcia is the first to tell you that La Plazita offers the same promise, but with a set of rules that is not destructive, and with a rootedness that may last a lifetime. "La Cultura Cura," he says. Culture Cures.

Garcia has deep ties to Lakhota tribal traditions, and all of La Plazita’s programs aim to connect youth to broader, more historical notions, of cultural identity. Here most people will not know what tribe their ancestors came from, or what percentage of their blood is indigenous. But in a program called TMAC, Thugs Making a Change, traditional sage is burned as each person ceremonially cleanses their eyes, ears, mouth, mind, and heart with smoke before he is asked to open up to his rivals.

There is a small building here with a ceramics studio where Aztec calendars and Catholic symbols are fired together in the same kiln. In an adjacent screen-printing shop, a few hundred West Coast Choppers T-shirts are being readied, the biker affiliation just one of several accounts that help La Plazita support itself. Recently a service project saw another building added, a ten-foot-by-ten-foot house for a Curandera, or traditional healer, who practices massage and acupressure to help heal addiction and stress. The service is funded by donation only, and anyone from the community may come. Guys in TMAC often bring their moms. In fact they sometimes refer to TMAC by another name: The Mothers Are Crying.

Of all the programs, people here speak the most passionately about the sweat lodge. They tell you that's where the change really started. Not in talking or doing but in sitting and reflecting. In that dark dome with coals burning on the floor, the body releases toxins, and, they say, the mind too knows release. This is where Tomas Martinez finally knew that his life had changed. "All this dirt and all this poison that I had put in my body for thirty-seven years, it was gone," he says.

Garcia's son, Junior, 28, lives in a small adobe-style house at the back of La Plazita's grounds, next to the sweat lodge. He teaches the Lakhota language to middle and high school kids in public schools. He is also a traditional medicine man. That means there is no door to his house. Anyone can show up at any time of night, desperate or just sleepless, and the four-hour sweat lodge ceremony will commence, often lasting till dawn.

The work here takes that kind of middle-of-the-night commitment, and is a test of endurance. Backsliding is talked about more as an inevitability than a risk. "We are who we serve," Martinez says. “Change is not an easy thing to do. It really isn't. You might fall a hundred and fifty-eight times. I'm gonna be there a hundred and fifty-nine times, because I know, one day, you're going to get it."

As Albino Garcia considers the future of the South Valley and other neighborhoods like it, he above all sees the need for community leaders like Raymond Maestas. When Maestas, one of the first to come to La Plazita, was laying in the hospital recovering from his gunshot wounds this spring, Garcia was there reflecting on how close they'd come to losing him. He'd brought him a medicine bag to wear on a leather necklace, meant to protect him against the desire to retaliate, which Maestas has not taken off. If the funds were available, Maestas would be more than a volunteer on Garcia's staff. "I need him here to help save lives," Garcia says. "I need that dude here, but they gotta eat. I want them here," he says. Maestas concurs. "It's where I wanna be, man."

Every day Maestas remembers one particular moment after the shooting, when he was standing outside the car with blood pouring out of his body and his girlfriend was screaming for help. It was dusk, and the sidewalks were full of people. But he was on the wrong block. The scene haunts him; maybe two hundred people, cell phones out, videotaping him, and no one coming to help. "I still drive around in the vehicle I got shot in," he says. "There's still blood in the vehicle that I can't wash out."

But he will not drive around looking for the ones who almost killed him. Instead, he has his eye out for younger guys, for the ones who he can help.

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