Monday, September 13, 2010

Saving one homie at a time: Hope, despair compete in memoir by Homeboy Industries founder

Book review by Daniel A. Olivas

Gregory Boyle's memoir, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, $25 hardcover), is one of those remarkable achievements in literature that can arouse despair and hope simultaneously. Hope prevails in the end, despite unremitting challenges to our faith and patience.

In 1986, Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which eventually became the largest gang intervention program in the country. Homeboy Industries offers tattoo removal and employment opportunities. It serves a staggering 8,000 gang members from 700 different, and usually enemy, gangs.

Recently, Homeboy Industries has suffered severe financial setbacks that required laying off the bulk of its staff. But core services remain intact: a bakery and café; silkscreen and embroidery services, a press that publishes a literary journal, The Homeboy Review; job development; counseling; and the all-important tattoo removal.

Boyle, a bear-sized man with a white beard and receding hairline, admittedly is an unlikely candidate for this type of calling. He grew up in a very comfortable middle-class family in Los Angeles. Yet he eventually decided that his place was with the "homies" who affectionately refer to Boyle as Father Greg or just plain "G."

In story after story of violence, redemption and compassion, Boyle describes the heartbreaking obstacles these young people face on a daily basis.

One day several years ago at an anniversary Mass for a gang member Boyle had buried the previous year, a young man named Omar asks: "How many homies have you buried?" Seventy-five, Boyle tells him. Omar says: "Damn, G, seventy-five?" And then he asks: "When's it gonna end?"

Boyle's answer: "Mijo, it will end the minute you decide."

In other words, Boyle views his mission as a partnership, one that requires a conversation regarding choices, responsibility and community. Indeed, his use of the affectionate mijo ("my son") speaks volumes about the role Boyle plays in the lives of the homies.

While the reader will certainly shed more than a few tears as Boyle recounts the suffering of so many young men and women, there is a great deal of humor included here as well. The anecdotes are too long to recount here, but they demonstrate that the homies are part of Boyle's extended family, people with whom he can freely laugh and cry.

Though Boyle is a priest, he draws guidance not only from the Bible, but also from such diverse figures as Robert Frost ("How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?"), Emily Dickinson ("Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul"), and Friedrich Nietzsche ("The weight of all things needs to be measured anew").

While Roman Catholicism is certainly the driving force in Boyle's life and work, this book is not a religious tract. When it comes to wisdom and solace, Boyle is an omnivore.

This is an indispensable book, one that may change one's heart, but only if it is open to change.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]


WHEN: Wednesday, September 15 through Friday, September 17, 2010

WHERE: University Park Campus (University of Southern California), Doheny Memorial Library (DML), Friends Lecture Hall, Room 240

COST: Admission is free

DESCRIPTION: In 1973, USC hosted the Flor y Canto literary festival, a three-day event that featured dozens of emerging Mexican American poets and writers in the nascent Chicano movement. One of the recurring themes was the contrast between great Mesoamerican civilizations of the past and the indignities suffered by those chasing the elusive “American Dream.” This year, which marks the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of Mexican independence, the university will reprise the event, inviting prominent participants from the previous festival—including Alurista, Juan Felipe Herrera, Rolando Hinojosa, José Montoya and Ron Arias—to share the stage with a new generation of Chicano and Latino writers.

For a complete schedule of this three-day event as well as campus maps and parking information, visit here.

No comments: