"This is like Chicano Park, only nobody gets shot."
  • "This is like Chicano Park, only nobody gets shot."
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Just as the people who live along the ocean shore are affected by the tides and the pull of the moon, the children of the street in 5- inner territories like Shell Town and Logan Heights must be charged with energy when the heat, smog, fumes, and noise drive them into the cool night, seeking rifamo—a ghetto communion.

Fights do happen, but result in nothing much more serious than a black eye.

Fights do happen, but result in nothing much more serious than a black eye.

On separate but similar nights 16-year-old Danny stole a Mercury in Logan Heights and zigzagged down the street, ricocheting off parked cars; Jimmy, 17, beat up “some white cat,” robbed him, and rode off on his ten-speed bike into Shell Town in Encanto; “whiteboy” Randy Evans whipped his nunchaku— an oriental weapon—down on a black stranger’s head; and in Escondido a Diegeno Indian broke into a house to steal a load of M1’s and M16’s, stayed long enough to drink the house vodka, and staggered away under the weight of the guns, singing off-key to the moon.

They all got caught. They all ended up at the Rancho del Campo prison camp, located in the dry foothills past Julian, for a 15-week work program for juvenile delinquents.

Danny, Jimmy, Randy, and the Indian all carried handguns before they were caught, and they all plan to carry “pieces” when they’re released. They have to protect themselves, they say matter-of-fact!y; a “piece” is as necessary as wheels to live in the city.

Talking to these young felons is unsettling. Violence and fear are as integral to their lives as Donny Osmond and slumber parties are to suburban children. Probation Assistant Rick Quinata, a counselor at, Del Campo who grew up in Logan Heights, says, “I hear counselors here say, ‘Why can’t that kid be normal?’ I laugh when I hear that. Then I’m sad. The kid was acting normal — normal for his own barrio, his neighborhood.”

There is a fairly good racial balance at Del Campo, but the very nature of that balance is indicative of areas in which crime is a way of life. There are times when two-thirds of the inmates of Del Campo are black or brown; the opposite ratio of the city as a whole.

When the Del Campo counselors start to tick off the family backgrounds and the intense, inestimable peer pressures in which their wards were raised, they describe something that those who have not been raised into crime cannot understand. The violence, the fear, the joblessness, the hopelessness. And to that kind of background will return Danny, Jimmy, Randy, and the Indian.

As Superintendant Bob Skidmore tells it, the bureaucrats come out from the city with their clip boards and they cluck at the condition of the World War II army barracks of Del Campo and Del Rio, while back in the city the conditions of violence spread.

Del Campo, which holds up to 78 inmates, ages 15 to 17; Del Rio with a capacity of 40, ages 13 to 14; and a third section called the Lightning Unit, with a capacity of 22, are a group of barrack buildings not far from an historic store, the site of a famous bandit raid in 1875. The land there is rugged, western, and prone to flash fires. The buildings are surrounded by rocky hills. On one side of the compound is a three-mile motorbike path hum by the inmates, which serves to release frustration while instilling safety habits. Now that the path is finished, though, the bikes are breaking down. The program is short on funds for such recreation, and the bikes may have to wait for donated parts. Another program, a survival training effort, has pot survived the funding pinch.

Del Campo and Del Rio are thought to be better alternatives for what the court considers salvageable youths than the California Youth Authority. The closest CYA facility is in Los Angeles, and is considered a holding tank for the more disturbed, hard-core delinquents. The way to avoid ending up in the CYA, according to Del Campo slang, is “CYA,” which translates “Cover Your Ass.”

Del Campo and Del Rio are also thought by the inmates to be better than San Diego’s Juvenile Hall. Danny says, “You come out of Juvenile Hall talking to yourself and playing with your ears.”

On the other side of camp from Del Campo and Del Rio a hillside is being moved by the Lightning Unit, a group of boys who are racing up and down the hill behind wheelbarrows. They line up and one at a time call out to the counselor, “Number Three here, coach.” The counselor, who sits in a wooden shelter, marks down the number and waves the boy on. The counselors have the hillside operation calculated by time and cubic feet of dirt, and the work is clocked accordingly.

The Lightning Unit is made up of youths who, the judges have decided, need a strong, sudden jolt—and this means 10 to 30 days of hard, unremitting labor, no matter how meaningless. The rest of the camp, however, enjoys less of an emphasis on physical labor. Time away from labor is spent in school; every resident of Del Campo and Del Rio has to have 240 minutes of school each day. Some boys are able to finish two semesters of high school and later receive their diplomas. While Del Rio’s school uses behavior modification techniques, Del Campo uses more traditional techniques.

The dormitories still seem like army barracks. One of the dormitories was recently remodeled to remove a number of partitions between rooms which meant too much privacy with corresponding problems. The counselors say there is no homosexual rape in the camps, but plenty of masturbation. The inmates are kept on the move all day. They never have time alone. The point is to immerse them in work and study and never give them the chance to get into trouble.

Fights do happen, but result in nothing much more serious than a black eye. Skidmore thinks most of the fights are conducted for the benefit of the counselors themselves, to get attention. One .night someone tried to bum down a dorm, but all that burned was the guard station. AWOL’s are fairly common, but most are caught immediately.

While the location of the camps in the country is controversial (some experts contend that trying to reform an urban delinquent in a rural environment is unrealistic), the staff—and most of the inmates—believe the distance from the city is important.

Skidmore says that when he drives to work from San Diego he passes the long trailer homes and campers headed for the mountains and wonders what they’re trying to get away from. “What do the people with money do,” he asks, “when the city starts to move in on them, when they start to feel crazy and trapped? They go to the country. They get away from the pressure that’s causing the problems. These kids in here come out of terrifically pressurized situations. A lot of times, the worst thing we could do is keep the boy close to his family.”

One boy missed his mother so much that he held his hand down on a table and convinced a friend to smash it with a plank, breaking the bones. The mother finally came out when the camp had a barbeque in the visitors’ park, but she barely said a word to her son and showed no warmth toward him at all.

“That kid needed another environment. As harsh as this one is, it’s better than a lot of homes these boys come from,” Skidmore asserts. Some inmates even ask to sign on for another 15 weeks, because they are afraid to go home

and because they see more hope for themselves in prison than “on the outs.” The requests are denied.

Rick Quinata, who is 25, was raised in Logan Heights and was the first member of the family to go to college, receiving a degree in social welfare from San Diego State. “I know what it is to have to be a part of the group. We had a Chicano gang leader here a few months ago. This guy had the name of his barrio tattooed on his back in giant letters. On the outs he was a real leader, a real tough guy, and when he came here he tried to extend that image. But something changed when he got here. Because he didn’t have to express his leadership abilities through violence, his facade started coming down. Behind the violent facade was this kid who was terrified; he was scared of his followers, scared of his barrio, scared of being weak. If he had been weak on his turf, the violence would have been directed at him.

“One time we were down at the park in Pine Valley and there was a Chicano family at the other end of the park. I saw our guy with the tattoo walk near the family and stand there for a while watching them. Then he came over to me and said very cautiously, ‘This is like Chicano Park, only nobody gets shot.’ The way he said it frightened me. Here was this 16-year-old kid who had never been to a park in which there wasn’t violence.”

Quinata checks up periodically on the graduates of Del Campo. He said the Chicano leader is back in his old neighborhood now, still wearing his “brim” (Iris hat), and is working as a janitor in one of the elementary schools. “He got this job through one of the government youth employment programs. He told me that if he didn’t have a job he’d be back at the park with his buddies, back casing stores and looking for money where he could find it.” Sometimes the language within the compound takes on the nature of CB talk, with institutional words mixing with ethnic or ghetto words. “Homeboy” is the Chicano term for peer. “Cuz” or “bro” is the black word for peer. “Brim” to a Chicano is a narrow-brimmed businessman’s hat, while “brim” to a black is a wide-brimmed Superfly hat. Whites are called “whiteboys." Inmates who are arrested and sent back to the camp for the second time are called “retreads.” If you lie or try to get out of something, you “talk a lot of smack.” A “dead week” is a punishment week added on to your term.

When Danny, Jimmy, Randy, and the Indian sat down together they talked about Crips, a black crime organization in Los Angeles patterned after the Mafia. Jimmy said a lot of his friends at Del Campo talked about Crips, and how they wanted to become part of it. As for Jimmy, he said Crips stands for “Cowards who Run in Packs,” and he wanted nothing to do with them. The four boys also talked about Pirou, a Chicano gang, and the Bounty Hunters, a legendary Los Angeles interracial club that murders its enemies by hanging them in the park.

All of the four agreed that they had about a 50-50 chance of staying out of jail when they leave Del Campo. All of them but the Indian are going back to their neighborhoods. The Indian wants to follow his cousin into the Job Corps and go to Montana. He wants to become a custodian. The rest will return to the place from which they came, where jobs are getting to be as rare as college degrees.

Superintendant Skidmore likes to tell Earl Nightingale stories. His favorite Earl Nightingale story is about a man who had a diamond in the rough that he wanted to sell. The man sent his salesman to a diamond buyer but the buyer was unimpressed. So the man himself went to the diamond buyer and held the diamond in the rough up to the light and described its beauty, its potential. The buyer told the man. ‘I could almost buy that diamond from you. even though I don't want it, because of the way you've described it. Tell me. why couldn’t your best salesman convince me to buy that diamond, but you almost did?’ The man with the diamond said, 'My salesman knows about diamonds, but 1 love them.’

“All of these kids are like diamonds in the rough,” says Skidmore. “and I love them.”

The Indian has his own favorite story. “While on a work team my second day at Del Campo, I saw a rattlesnake ready to bite this Chicano dude. So I reached down and grabbed it by the head and took it up to the coach. I stuck it in his face and said, ‘Here! Look at this!’ The coach jumped back and screamed. I almost got a dead week for that.”

The Indian laughed. Everyone laughed. And then they went back to talking about the Bounty Hunters.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment