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December 29, 2002

Uneasy times in Somerville

From: Boston Globe, MA - 29 Dec 2002

A divided community takes steps to tackle increased violence, gangs, and racial tension

By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 12/29/2002

SOMERVILLE - Night had fallen, and Joan Guarino's niece stood in the doorway, poised to dart to a corner store. ''Real quick,'' the girl called as she left. These days, she doesn't like to walk in the dark. In the kitchen, Guarino planted a plate of ham and cheese calzones in front of Lieutenant Detective Charles Femino and four of her friends.

''I'm Italian,'' Guarino joked. ''We feed.''

In fact, everyone around the table is like her. They are white, they speak English, and they fear the changes in the city. They have come together to talk about how two deaf girls - one of them in a wheelchair and suffering from cerebral palsy - had allegedly been raped in October by members of the Salvadoran gang known as MS-13. After the rapes, Guarino spoke up at a public meeting in favor of a plan to ban suspected gang members from loitering in public places - which would be the first such law anywhere on the East Coast. Now, Guarino, head of the East Somerville Neighborhood Association, wants to work with police to reach out to Latino leaders.

''We're meeting with these residents in small groups and then we're going to meet with Latino residents in small groups, and eventually we want to bring the two groups together,'' Femino said.

That may prove a difficult task.

The rapes and the proposed ordinance that followed have ignited racial tensions that were years in the making. For those in the traditionally Irish- and Italian-American community who worry about how the neighborhood has changed, the rapes have become a rallying cry for tougher laws. For Latinos who feel ignored by the city, they have become a flashpoint for demanding more support for youth and a greater political voice for the Latino community.

Just days before Guarino's meeting, Latino parents led their children out of Mass at St. Benedict Church and into a meeting room, where many spoke into a microphone about fears and confusion surrounding the proposed ordinance.

One woman said that since the rapes, Somerville police have been asking law-abiding Latinos to leave public places, including a mother and her sons who were waiting for a bus. Another said she had been keeping her children indoors because she mistakenly thought a curfew had been imposed. Still others lamented that ''El Salvador'' had become a dirty word in their children's schools.

''None of the Latinos want to have gangs ... or have kids on the street raping young women,'' said Sylvia Saavedra-Keber of Concilio Hispano Inc., one of the meeting's organizers. ''The issue is how we are going to go about it.''

The meeting - called by a newly formed coalition of Latino leaders - attracted around 100 people, making it the largest gathering of Latinos that the city has seen in years.

''Something is happening in Somerville that didn't happen before,'' said Maria Madrid, another community leader. ''The Latino community never got organized. Now they are getting organized.''

A changing landscape

The attacks happened down at the gritty end of Broadway, where the highway pours out, where the Italian bakeries and Irish businesses begin to fade, where Amigo's Market advertises rice, beans, and money orders, and where cooks at San Vincent serve up corn tortillas.

This hardscrabble 10-block square hugging Interstate 93 is the place behind US Census numbers that show Somerville's known Hispanic population jumping from 2 to 9 percent of city residents in the past 20 years. The number of undocumented immigrants is thought to be much higher.

Built on the grounds of an old nunnery burned down by anti-Irish bigotry in 1834, the neighborhood was once almost solely Irish and Italian. Now, at St. Benedict, the church that rose after the nunnery fire, the first prayer of the day is in Spanish and the person who unlocks the doors each morning is originally from El Salvador.

Despite the demographic changes, no Latino has ever been elected to the Board of Aldermen or the School Committee. None has ever run, as far as city officials can recall. There are no Latinos on Somerville's police force. A city official said that's because few apply.

But something changed on Oct. 28. That night, East Somerville made big news with reports that two deaf girls, ages 14 and 17, had been raped in a park, allegedly by Carlos Escobar, 18, Jesus Pleitez, 19, and Jose Ortiz, 20, Salvadoran men police linked to MS-13, a gang that sprung up among young Salvadorans in Los Angeles.

The news report came after a summer of less serious crimes blamed on MS-13 - a girl was kicked, allegedly for wearing a rival gang's color; a woman was kidnapped, then released unharmed.

After the 5 p.m. newscast, behind the door of a screened-in porch, the cordless telephone next to William Roche's couch would not stop ringing. A grandfather at 49, he remembers the days when you could walk home from Vinny's Superette at any hour of the night.

''Did you see the news?'' callers asked Roche, an alderman representing East Somerville. After a dozen calls - from the mayor, angry neighbors, and Guarino - Roche walked upstairs to his computer and typed ''MS-13'' into a search. He read that ''MS'' stands for Mara Salvatruchas - a slang term for guerilla fighters - and 13 is for 13th Street in Los Angeles.

What he read led him to propose an ordinance that would give police sweeping powers to arrest gang members for loitering on public property. If the ordinance is approved by the state Legislature, those arrested for violating it would face a minimum of five days in jail, and a fine of up to $500. A similar ordinance has been enacted in Chicago.

''The message we want to send gangs is that we're not going to tolerate them in the city of Somerville,'' Roche said at the time. ''If they want to remain here, they'll be arrested, so they should get out of the city of Somerville.''

When news of the attacks broke, Silvio Almanzar's phone also rang at the city-run Youth Program. There, at the top of a brightly colored stairway, teens in baggy jeans cracked pool balls across tables and stroked the keyboards of a dozen computers. Behind the door of a small office, the interim director picked up the phone, said a few short words, and hung it back on its cradle.

Almanzar, 41, one of the few Latino city employees, was a doctor in the Dominican Republic. But his medical degree could not immigrate with him, so, here, he is the person Latino parents call when trouble brews, when the system they must negotiate overwhelms them.

News of the alleged rapes struck Almanzar in the heart. One of the men charged, Escobar, had once been in a mentoring program he ran and he knew the family well.

They moved here to escape a brutal civil war. Escobar's mother works two jobs cleaning hotel rooms, and his father is also gone all day - holding down a shift as a janitor and as a maintenance worker. Neither had time to learn English, so they often asked Almanzar for help.

It was Almanzar who took Escobar to museums and City Hall with a mentoring program for Latino youths. When Escobar got kicked out of Somerville High School last year for brandishing a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun, the family called on Almanzar to help get him readmitted, according to Maria Escobar, the youth's aunt. (The family soon decided to drop their challenge, fearing that the complaint could somehow make legal trouble for them). And in June, when the teenager came back from New Jersey, where he had been looking for work, it was Almanzar that the family called again to help him find a job.

But Almanzar already had his hands full with other tasks. Months had passed, and here was the news of Escobar's arrest.

''We lost track of him,'' Almanzar said, looking at his hands.

Last spring, when residents first started worrying about MS-13, Almanzar spent Friday afternoons with some of the city's toughest teenagers, editing resumes, lining up jobs at a local bakery, and inviting local Salvadoran leaders to talk to them about how to make the most of their new lives in America. But in May, Roche and police complained that one of the young men was thought to be a local leader of MS-13, and - at 22 - too old to attend the Youth Program. Almanzar asked him to leave, and afterward, the program fizzled out.

But Almanzar doesn't like to talk about that. In the wake of the rapes and the proposed ordinance, he chooses his words carefully, like a man who is performing a dangerous balancing act between his dreams for Latinos in Somerville and the reality of cash-strapped city budgets, between his allegiance to the city that employs him and the community he serves.

''The Latino community has the same values as other communities, related to safety, progress, the life of their children,'' he said. ''The youth need support, an opportunity to do positive things.''

Roche and Almanzar live around the corner from one another. They often stop their cars to chat with each other in the street, and once worked together to organize a meeting of Latino residents and Somerville politicians. But since the rapes and the ordinance, the two men have not spoken much.

''I don't want to put him on the spot,'' said Roche. ''And he knows how I feel.''

Climate of fear, distrust

Two months have passed now since the rapes, and the girl with the sweet smile and cerebral palsy is rarely spotted outside in her motorized wheelchair anymore. Recently, her father, who has a criminal record, allegedly beat up and robbed a Latino man on the street. Her neighbors have started complaining that ''none of the corner stores are American anymore.''

But just as the crime prompts old-timers to reminisce about simpler times when an occasional drunk was the only thing on these streets to fear, it also makes newcomers think back with nostalgia on their days in El Salvador, when parents were more equipped to guide a teenager through life's pitfalls, when neighbors would look after one another's children, when mothers could afford to stay home more.

Carlos Pleitez, the uncle of one of the men charged with the rapes, says that when his nephew arrived in America, he tried to teach the teenager what it takes to make it here: how to apply a coat of white paint with beautiful, broad brush strokes and not leave a fingerprint on the wall.

But Jesus Pleitez, who came from El Salvador without his parents, soon ran away from his uncle's paint brushes and strict rules for a life of robbery and homelessness.

''My country is very poor,'' the elder Pleitez said. ''When young people see the money they can get here, they can go crazy.''

Jesus eventually threatened to bring the wrath of MS-13 down on his uncle, but Pleitez, who comes from a place where people fear the police, did not alert authorities.

Jesus had been arrested on charges of robbing a Burger King, mugging two girls, and stealing a car before his uncle read in the newspaper about the arrest for rape.

''Let him stay in jail,'' Pleitez said, through a translator. ''I feel like a branch on my family tree has been cut.''

Ten blocks away, sitting on his own couch, Roche expressed surprise on hearing that at least two of the men arrested for the rapes came from hard-working homes in Somerville, not broken homes in Los Angeles.

He said he had wanted to go to the meeting at St. Benedict to learn more about the problems facing Latino families, but that he heard it was just for Latinos, in Spanish only.

''I didn't feel welcome,'' Roche said, rubbing his white hair, but then he paused. ''Maybe that's how they feel at meetings.''

Meanwhile, in a half-lit conference room around the corner, a dozen Latino community leaders were talking about politics and the future. They did not know that the new year would bring an invitation to Joan Guarino's kitchen. They did not know if more violence waited in the wings ahead of them. But what they did know is that this is not an ending, but a beginning.

''We need a voice,'' Almanzar said.

Cindy Rodriguez of the Globe Staff contributed to this article.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/29/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.