Barrios Unidos isn’t what most people would think of when they hear the phrase “faith-based organization.” Even though it’s not aligned with any church or traditional religious group, as Frank de Jesús Acosta demonstrates in his excellent The History of Barrios Unidos, that’s exactly what it is.
Based in Santa Cruz, California, Barrios Unidos—which means “united neighborhoods”—works to stop gang violence and redeem the lives of young people lost in the madness of the streets. A large part of the organization’s spirit work focuses on the concept of cultura es cura, or “culture cures,” to help Latinos find wholeness through the recovery of indigenous elements of their heritage that mainstream society has stripped from them.
“Returning ceremony and prayer into its proper place in the life of the community is so critically important to everything we do,” says Barrios Unidos founder Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez. “We are not about selling religion or proselytizing people, but about embracing the power of spirituality that traditionally has healed and bound our families, communities, and civilizations together as indigenous people.”
The History of Barrios Unidos charts the path of the organization, which grew out of the trunk of Alejandrez’ 1964 Chevy to become a national model for a holistic approach to healing lives fractured by violence, building self-determination, and advocating for civil rights. Acosta looks at how the group responded to events such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots by strengthening their structure and legal status—all without selling out their ideals. This evolution made innovative new partnerships possible, including a highly effective relationship with the California Wellness Foundation, which had recently embraced youth violence as a public health issue.
Another compelling aspect of the book is its stories of transformation of its founders, including Nane Alejandrez.
Alejandrez spent his childhood in the violent, squalid migrant farm-worker camps and the drug-infested barrio of Fresno’s west side, Acosta writes. He was drafted in the late ’60s and fought in Vietnam, returning to the U.S.—like many young soldiers—addicted to heroin. As Alejandrez struggled with addiction and the impact of gang warfare in the years that followed, more than 30 of his family members were incarcerated. Others, including several of his brothers, died.
But sparked by the work of United Farm Worker leader César Chávez, a nascent desire for change arose in Alejandrez. Organizing, spiritual practice, and the work of peace gradually replaced his earlier life, and he emerged as one of the most influential social justice and community peace activists in the country. As poet Luis J. Rodriguez writes in his introduction to the book, “Nane Alejandrez is proof that you can never write anyone off, no matter how lost they may seem.”
The History of Barrios Unidos demonstrates that the most effective resources to stop gang violence are found among those many consider part of the problem. The solution to gang violence needs to first come from the community, not from some outside agency, and the involvement of gang members and former gang members in the effort is essential. The success of this group—and others like it—is proof that police intervention and law enforcement aren’t the only options. Community organizations also can turn lives around through early, holistic intervention in the lives of young people at risk for gang involvement.
With the globalization of gangs, increases in the prison population where gangs breed, and the further alienation of Latino families because of anti-immigrant rhetoric, groups such as Barrios Unidos know they have a long road before them. But Barrios Unidos is in the struggle for the long run. Alejandrez once told me that peacemaking “is a marathon, not a sprint.” After reading The History of Barrios Unidos—which should be required reading for anyone involved in a street-level, faith-based organization—all I can say is “Keep on running, friends. Run like lives depend on it, because they truly do.”
Aaron McCaroll Gallegos is producer for The United Church of Canada’s Emerging Spirit campaign and the WonderCafe.ca Web site. Check out the interview with Nane Alejandrez in the August 2006 Sojourners.