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Photograph by Troy Kooper

Life Lessons: According to Homies lore, Willie G. is an ex-gangster who works as a handicapped-youth counselor. "Willie rolls on a customized Lowrider wheelchair that the Homies chipped in and bought for him," explains www.homies.tv.

Where the Heart Is

With Homies, gangsta is in the eye of the beholder

By Sara Bir

The vending machine to the left is full of gumballs in the shape of watermelons; the one to the right hawks grape jawbreakers. The candy in these machines is bright, monochromatic, and simple. You suck it and it's gone.

The vending machine in the middle holds G'd out B-boys, scantily-clad fly girls, pit bulls wearing sunglasses, and policemen eating donuts, all piled up on top of each other, encased in plastic bubbles. Some of the characters are grimacing and beefy, like linebackers; others are grinning, thin, and wily. Zoot suits, trench coats, baggy pants, basketball jerseys, leather jackets--their attire is as varied as their facial expressions. There's a whole barrio in there, and one by one, they funnel out of the vending machine's opening at the drop of two quarters.

Since their arrival in 1998, Homies--plastic figurines under two inches tall--have drawn criticism for their decidedly urban, inner-city Latino look. Detractors see Homies as itsy-bitsy toys that glamorize gang lifestyle. What parent, after all, would want his or her child playing with Payday, who wears a gold dollar-sign medallion, smokes a cigar, and has cash sticking out of his pockets? Or Wino, a rumpled Homie in a stocking cap who clutches a bottle of cheap wine in a paper bag?

The playful 3D thumbnail sketches of Chicano lowrider culture have become quite a presence since their debut. Homies can be spotted on eBay, in Snoop Dogg's video for "From tha Chuuuch to da Palace," and in vending machines across the country. People tend to love them or hate them, or not be aware that they exist.

Homies have a curious position in the toy industry. Hipster adults in their 20s have taken to collecting Homies just as much as kids have. They've become an underground phenomenon--and a gigantic cash cow--selling millions of figurines and spawning a whole family of tie-ins. But unlike the blatant fantasy element implicit in most toy figurine series, Homies take their cue from reality and depict a cultural identity in a manner that's both vibrant and controversial.

We have artist and Homies creator David Gonzales, a Richmond native, to thank. Gonzales' company, Gonzales Graphics, has been producing lowrider-, Aztec-, and religious-inspired stickers and T-shirts for well over a decade and is widely recognized as a pioneer business in the lowrider industry.

Homies can be traced to Gonzales' in-class high school doodles, where he drew a cartoon version of himself in the comic strip "The Adventures of Chico Loco," later renamed "The Adventures of Hollywood," after Gonzales' nickname. Hollywood and his friends Smiley, Pelon, and Bobby Loco starred in what became the original Homies comic strip, which ran as a regular feature in Lowrider magazine.

In 1998 the first series of Homies figurines--Eight Ball, Smiley, Big Loco, Droopy, Sapo, and Mr. Raza--went on the market. A million Homies sold in four short months. Four series of Homies have come out since, totaling over 100 characters. They are sold not just in California and New York, but Utah, Washington, North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio, a state about as Latino as Scandinavia. There are even a few Homies collectors in Scandinavia.

Back in 1999, when Homies were new on the scene, the Los Angeles Police Department was afraid that children were the ones buying the toys, and claimed that the Homies were clearly designed to glorify gang members. Some schools banned Homies, and a few retailers, including Vallarta Supermarkets in Los Angeles County, stopped carrying the toys. All of the publicity that came along with the controversy pushed Homies and Gonzales into the spotlight, and the Homies' infamy grew. Eventually, all of the media fuss died down--and Homies sales went up, up, up.

With some of the Homies' vato outfits and tough-guy stances, the figurines can be startling on first sight. But once the shock wears off, Homies reveal a great deal of charm, and it's that offbeat combination of shock and charm that keeps collectors coming back to vending machines to fish for the newest releases.

To know the Homies is to know their website, www.homies.tv. Purchased loose from a store or a vending machine, Homies don't come with packaging to put them in a context--which can work against them, since an offering of the more thuggish Homies mugging their standoffish poses does pack some shock value. But through the Homies website, Gonzales has been able to give the Homies a redemptive voice, crafting a complete mythology for the characters, who live and hang out together in the imaginary East L.A. barrio of Quien Sabe.

Every Homie has a bio, and through reading these you discover, for example, that the intimidating Big Loco, a muscle-bound vato in baggy pants and suspenders, no shirt, and a wide bandanna, is an ex-gang member who got his degree in social work while at Folsom, and now he's a youth gang counselor. Willie G., commonly known as the "wheelchair Homie," is likewise an ex-gangster who turned his life around and is now a handicapped-youth counselor. Paralyzed from the waste down, Willie works with the Homie Outreach program run by Big Loco.

Most of the bios, however, are lighthearted and goofy. Sapo (Spanish for "frog") is a short, droopy Homie who eats a lot of Mexican food and farts uncontrollably.

Gonzales, who has avoided interviews and generally kept himself out of the public eye ever since the LAPD's Homie crack-down (he did not respond to inquiries for this story), seems to be constantly drawing new Homies for his own whimsy. Which would explain why each series of Homies has gotten progressively more playful and outlandish. Series five features a bionic break dancer with titanium limbs and a DJ in super-baggy jeans and clown face paint.

There has also been a proliferation of less flashy, more realistic Homies, such as Schoolboy--in a cap and gown, proudly displaying a diploma--and El Profe, an unassuming high school teacher who comes with a podium.

In past interviews and on the Homies website, Gonzales has stated his commitment to keeping Homies violence- and drug-free; the overall spirit of the Homies is positive and fun-loving. But Gonzales also keeps the Homies true to real life, and he has said that his inspiration comes from years spent working in the Chicano community, being immersed in the '70s and '80s barrio culture he grew up in, a time Gonzales maintains was more innocent. Some of the Homies are loosely based on friends from back in those days, just regular neighborhood guys. The Homies' binding force is their support system, which lets them rise above inner-city violence and focus on enjoying themselves and getting along.

Homies even respond to current events: a link on www.homies.tv takes you to www.elpadrecito.com, where Homie El Padrecito himself (who, Gonzales says, is based on his real brother, a Catholic priest) solicits prayers for "our homeboys and homegirls in the service."

The Latino community's reaction to Homies has ranged from enthusiasm to disgust to indifference. "I usually see them at the little corner store here in the Mission, but I don't even think that I have a reaction to them," says Pedro Tuyub, who works at Accion Latina, a San Francisco organization that promotes social change and cultural pride in the Latino community; Tuyub is the editor of their newspaper, El Tecolote.

"It's just a waste of money for whoever buys them," Tuyub adds, "because I don't think they represent anything, not even in a bad way or a positive way. The people who see it as bad are the people who think that these little guys promote gangster life, that it's cool to be a gangster, that [Homies] can actually show this to children. But focusing on that instead of focusing more on education would be a bad idea. People would say that it's bad to have the little toys. To me, I'd say it doesn't matter."

Tuyub's own kids haven't asked for Homies. "They're not interested," he says. "Probably my thinking would have been different if one of them would want to buy them.

"I take a look at them, and they way they dress, the usual T-shirts, jeans, dark glasses--they portray how the people who have belonged to a gang or have been in jail really dress. I have friends that used to be gangsters; I have a lot of friends that work with them. You can see that they kind of look alike."

Latinos are not the only people noticing and collecting Homies. Zach Martin, 17, a self-professed "probation kid," lives in Santa Rosa and hangs out at the Abraxas Transition Program. He says he has a few Homies at home and says that they remind him of his friends. "I think they portray what it is," he says of Homie's image. "They don't try to sugarcoat."

Martin believes they are marketed to "urban cultures about our age, for youngsters all the way to grown folks. They're not toys," he says, although his cousins have some. "They play with them; they mount them up like G.I. Joes.

"I don't think it glamorizes nothing," he says of Homies' image. "It's just a different style that a lot of folks don't like. They're not used to it, and they don't know nothing about it--not to say it's bad or not."

Gonzales' figurine empire is growing in myriad directions (he has toy, film, and music rights to the Homies name). A few years after Homies figurines debuted, the decidedly more kid-friendly and cartoony Mijos debuted. There's also a series of HoodRats, which are what Homies would be if they all turned into giant rats.

And there's also Homie Clowns, which look like small versions of the Insane Clown Posse with red and purple hair and Emmet-Kelly-gone-mad face makeup. There are Homies stickers, T-shirts, candy, bobbleheads, and stuffed toys. Recently, Lindberg Model Company put out two Homie Hopper lowrider model car kits.

Like any commercial venture that has met some success, Homies have spawned a throng of knockoff figurines with hip, urban, multicultural appeal: Lil' Locsters, the Puerto Ricans, Hood Hounds, Hip Chicks, SoFly Divas, and Playaz. Gonzales obviously hit a nerve--there was not previously a multitude of toys or collectibles designed to reflect the backgrounds of America's growing ethnic populations. There are Homies characters of Puerto Rican, African-American, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, and Italian backgrounds, too. There's even a white Homie, Angry White Boy, who looks very similar to a certain rap star turned movie star.

Kitsch-embracing hipsters in their 20s didn't take long to attach themselves to Homies. Profiles of the figurines could be found in Spin and a slew of skate magazines. There was even a story, told in captioned digital photos of Homies, that circulated widely on the Internet.

One such Homies fan is Elizabeth Matthews, who lives in Mill Valley and works in San Francisco's financial district. She thinks that it's mostly adults who buy Homies. "I think I first saw them in the toy department at Super Long's in the East Bay," she says. "I bought them in a package of six, which I still have, unopened. I think of them as my little ghetto people, and I love the stories behind them."

The phenomenon of adults collecting toys is nothing new. Lots of collectibles are not toys per se and are marketed directly for adults; think of those ultradetailed Matrix action figures, or Ozzy Osbourne dolls. Homies, which appeal to kids and adults, have broken down barriers in the toy world by carving an underground niche for themselves. Collectible toys are often cute, cuddly, innocent-looking, or based in fantasy. Homies (with a few exceptions, like the bionic break dancer) are supposed to echo the guys on the corner.

There's also the thrill of having all of something, and this goes for everything from Homies to Hummel figurines. Collecting Homies is attractive because they are not terribly easy to find; there's an element of chase, and yet they are both small and cheap. Even hard-to-find Homies on eBay go for only a few dollars, at most.

Matthews, who has about 60 Homies, found that her co-workers were more than happy to do the collecting for her. "I started with one sitting on my desk and the group began to form quickly after that. A woman in my department brings them to me every Monday after she has gone to the 99-cent store over the weekend."

Matthews admits to playing with her Homies sometimes. "I have a Mijo, Spooky, and he rides this little skateboard on my computer." That is, until recently, when the forces that be asked her to remove the Homies from her desk. "The facilities department asked me to take them down since half of my desk was covered in them. I think they just thought they were offensive."

Are Homies too offensive for work? Or school? There's no easy answer, and perhaps that's the strongest element of Homies' popularity. In any case, Homies don't look to be going the way of Garbage Pail Kids or pet rocks for a long while yet--and there probably won't be rabid parents grabbing for them at the start of the holiday season.



Homies Buying Guide

In the minds of Homie aficionados, there is a subliminal Rolodex of reliable spots to find Homies--grocery stores, toy shops, mall courtyards, and truck stops. Though this list is by no means all-inclusive, here are a few spots where you can find the little guys if you are willing, in the words of David Gonzales, to "open your mind and leave the hate behind":

Coddingtown Center and Santa Rosa Plaza malls, Santa Rosa (in Cable Car Candy vending cart)
Very dependable locations with up-to-date Homies. In the Santa Rosa Plaza, there are also Homies in the food court on the second floor.

Sebastopol Flea Market
Sometimes you can get loose Homies from random vendors here, i.e., Homies à la carte and not in a bubble-gum machine. Highway 116, Sebastopol.

The Toy Trader
Small selection of used Homies and Mijos, as well as Homies-like figurines. 462 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.

Safeway
Not all Safeways have Homies, and some of the vending machines at Safeway sell Homies for 75 cents instead of the more standard 50 cents.

G&G Market
1121 West College Ave., Santa Rosa.

Fiesta Market
550 Hwy. 116, Sebastopol.

Roxy on the Square
Big chain movie theaters are always a good bet for Homies. 620 Third St., Santa Rosa.

Frank's Freeze
7764 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati.

Sausalito Gift Ferry Gift Co.
A complete selection of the smaller Homies bobbleheads. 688 Bridgeway, Sausalito.

--S.B.

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From the April 10-16, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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