By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
—Jane Hirshfield, "The Weighing"
His was a true hero story. In the Pico-Aliso housing projects where he grew up, Roman Gonzalez was a symbol of redemption, a countersign against the rest of the city’s assumptions about which kids of the urban poor are salvageable, and which should be tossed away. There was no question that Roman did a whole lot wrong as a kid. It was equally clear, a decade later, that he’d transformed himself into a man who did nearly everything right.
At 14, Roman Gonzalez was a drug-selling gangster with the nickname of Trigger. He joined a gang for the usual unhappy reasons: no dad, a mom who barely noticed his existence, a horrific calamity that ruined what family remained — his older sister, Patti, and her toddler son both drowned on the same day, the Fourth of July, 1986. Roman also joined a gang because it was the mid-’80s, and the drugs and violence that had exploded in South Los Angeles were bleeding to the Eastside. Most adolescent males in the projects felt they had to affiliate themselves with some neighborhood or other. In truth, Roman didn’t join a gang. He formed one, together with his best childhood friends. It was called The Mob Crew — TMC for short. TMC started as a breakdancing group made up of Pico-Aliso boys who performed wherever and whenever folks would have them — at the Hollenbeck Youth Center, in Little Tokyo, in front of Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. By the end of 1986, however, Roman and the other TMCs had stopped dancing, and had started carrying guns.
Despite his flamboyant sobriquet, Roman had never been known as a real shooter — although once an enemy shot his hat right off his head. Mostly he was an adviser for his TMC homeboys, a teenage consigliere. "Trigger was like our neighborhood counselor," says Fulgencio Estrada. "He was the one the other guys would go to with their problems." And, like the other TMCs, Roman Gonzalez hawked crack cocaine on the street.
After 10 years, the drug sales and shootouts wearied him. The trick was finding another way to make money. Roman had dropped out of school in the eighth grade and was nobody’s ideal candidate for employment. So when he was offered a job at the Homeboy Bakery in the summer of 1997, he took it. Homeboy was the flagship of the Jobs for a Future program started by Father Greg Boyle to help at-risk young men and women. "I hired Roman," says Boyle, "because he always struck me as the most intelligent homeboy I’d ever met."
The idea behind the bakery was simple: Young men who used to try to kill each other would work side by side baking bread. "Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job" was the program’s motto, and Roman gradually became its shining star. Within a year, he was not just baking, he was supervising. When Boyle gave talks at fund-raising events around the state of California, he always talked about Roman. "It’s one thing to work with your enemies," Boyle would say. "Giving your enemies orders is a whole different level." After a while, the other bakers seemed actually to go out of their way to talk to Roman, to confide in him about their lives. "They’d find an excuse to work next to him," says Boyle. "Roman had this kind of genius in terms of human relations."
Of course, Roman Gonzalez was hardly the only L.A. gangster ever to turn his life around. At any given time in Los Angeles County, there are approximately 112,000 young men and women listed as gang members or gang "associates" in the computer database created by state and local law-enforcement officials. This population, higher than that of the city of Burbank, is continually in flux. Homeboys and homegirls typically join gangs in the hormonal rush of their early teens. By their mid-20s, many are looking for a door out. Some, like Roman, find it. Others die, go to prison, disappear into drugs, alcohol or some equivalent chasm of despair.
For Roman, the passage came in stages. "At first his attitude was ‘I like my job, but it isn’t going to change me,’" says Cara Gould, the operations director of Homeboy Industries under Father Boyle, and Roman’s immediate boss. "He did the work well, but he was leading a double life, supplementing his income with less legal means."
As the months went by, Roman began taking the work at Homeboy seriously. "All of a sudden, he was concerned about every step of the operation," says Gould. "He would be the one who stayed extra hours if he didn’t think things were being done right. Plus, he would come in on his day off and call me ä on the weekends with ideas about how to make the bakery run more smoothly. It became his bakery."
The Homeboy job led to other changes as Roman discovered that he had genuine talents. "For example," says Gould, "one day he told me, ‘I’m smart. I want to go back to school.’" Roman started reading the L.A. Times every day, corralling anyone who might discuss the op-ed page with him. Then he started on Mexican history and, after that, psychology. "Roman knew I was getting a master’s in psychology," says Gould, "so he started bugging me to discuss Freud and Jung with him." Before long, the former gangster was studying to get his real estate license. Gould frowns. "It’s hard to explain why Roman was so unique. He started out as a gang member and became this big, wise, advice-giving sage. I’ve never met anyone like him."