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Working It Out

Barrios Unidos
Robert Scheer

'T' for Two: Joaquin Alegandrez and Luis Bracamontes display cultural pride at BU Productions' new silkscreen shop.

Barrios Unidos' new silk-screening shop gives at-risk Latino kids skills, a job and a reason to stay in school

By Traci Hukill

A HANDFUL of local muckity-mucks attended the recent opening of Barrios Unidos' print shop on Frederick Street: Cynthia Mathews, Art Danner, John Rhodes, Sam Farr. Well, Farr sent an envoy in his place, a well-spoken young woman who commended BU Productions for a fine job on the congressmember's campaign shirts, and who seemed fond of the cookies on the buffet line.

The cookies, like the rest of the food at the opening, were fabulous. So was the music pouring out of the speakers onto the parking lot--Santana and Tag Team--and definitely so were the Izcalli Aztec Dancers, who led the crowd, at least the kids and the haoles, in a Friendship Dance.

That was on Friday. When Monday rolled around, the chairs and tables and dignitaries were gone, and what remained was the stuff that doesn't usually make the papers: a cluster of teenagers in baggy pants and shirts, a few tired-looking adults, and a cavernous room full of silk-screening equipment.

Sixteen-year-old Luis Bracamontes, a stocky kid with a cherubic face, gracefully fielded questions in a quiet voice. He started working last June at the old facility on Front Street, where Barrios Unidos' main offices and the Cesar Chavez School for Social Change still reside. He attends The Ark, a city-run alternative school for marginalized youth. He doesn't seem too excited about academics.

Would he bother with school if it weren't a condition of his employment? He answers with a sober negative shake of the head.

When asked what his job at the silk-screening shop has done for him, Bracamontes answers without missing a beat: "It helped me stay out of trouble."

Luis and other local Latino kids face a treacherous journey to adulthood. Hispanics account for 69 percent of Santa Cruz County's juvenile detainees, although they comprise only 24 percent of the county's population. They are twice as likely as their caucasian counterparts to drop out of high school. More than 70 percent of teen births in Santa Cruz County in 1995 were to Hispanic mothers.

The people at Barrios Unidos believe their community outreach, leadership and economic development programs can turn the tide of poverty and violence wreaking havoc with the Latino community.

The Santa Cruz chapter of Barrios Unidos serves several hundred Latino youngsters in Beach Flats and around Neary Lagoon and Villa San Carlos. The local chapter, which serves as national headquarters, is one of 13 statewide and 27 in the country.

The organization's leaders suffer from few illusions. The process of strengthening the Latino community one kid at a time is slow, but it's thorough.

Otilio Quintero, Barrios Unidos' assistant director, says he and his organization are in it for the long haul.

"The end product is an individual that's been empowered, educated and given the confidence that they can do something," Quintero says. "When you do that, that's when change is created. And it doesn't happen in three months or six months. It takes years."

Two-Job Family

LIKE LUIS, CARLA SAN JOSE started working at BU last June. She's petite, striking, nose-pierced and self-possessed. She says she prefers running the press to office work, which she did when she first came to BU Productions. "It's more exciting here," she smiles. Then she questions her interviewer.

"And what are you doing?" she asks with the slightest tinge of skepticism. A straight enough question, but not one many 16-year-olds would be bold enough to ask.

Manuel Martinez, tour guide and prime mover behind BU Productions, breaks in. "What about Victor?" he prods.

"I have a son. He just turned 2," Carla says evenly.

"I really admire Carla a lot," Martinez says. "She's not flaking out."

San Jose holds down another job at Straw Hat Pizza. In September, she says, she's going to study cosmetology at Wayne's Beauty College.

Five kids work at BU Production every afternoon. They must be in school in order to work there, and most attend The Ark or Star School, another alternative campus.

The program's purpose, according to Martinez, is to teach the kids a work ethic--to show up on time and to keep busy.

They also learn cultural pride. A number of the brilliantly silk-screened designs on display are Aztec-inspired, and more than a bit political in the tradition of Diego Rivera's murals.

Two years ago, Barrios Unidos purchased its first press--a single-color contraption no bigger than a paper cutter. Immediately orders started flowing in.

BU Productions printed shirts for Odwalla, TCI Cable and DASCOM, a local software company that donated the sign out front. This year it will print 500 shirts for the Downtown Association's Art, Wine and Jazz Festival, as well as 1,700 for Mt. Cross Lutheran Camp in Felton.

In the meantime, the new six-color silk-screen press at Barrios Unidos Productions keeps turning, and life keeps happening for the kids working there.

Luis Bracamontes is a brand new father and has to leave at 4pm these days to go to his second job. Martinez works around his schedule.

"I want him to have the second job because he doesn't want to go on welfare," Martinez says with expansive satisfaction. "He wants to do it on his own."

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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