In the mid 80’s I was the Youth Center Director for LaCasa (Latin Americans Against Substance Abuse) in southwest Detroit. That period in my professional life was a special one as I was able to guide the growth of a number of youth and young adults in a variety of ways. The center provided a number of !prevention” services including recreational and cultural activities as well as leadership training. Between 1985-86 a number of the young men who were participants in this youth center, decided to form a baseball team called Los Boricuas. Boricua is the indigenous term for Puerto Rican islanders.
These young men, primarily Afro Puerto Ricans, were a talented and athletic bunch who were naturals on the baseball diamond. A number of them had risen up through the ranks of the youth center, which included males and females alike, to become the organic leadership for that center. Young men like the Martinez brothers, Thomas, Wilfredo and Jose and the Encarnacion brothers Samuel and Luis. They were not only stars on the baseball field taking us to the finals in that summer’s competition but they also played key roles in bringing down the tension between area “crews” (small gangs) which were starting to increase their activity in southwest Detroit during the mid-80’s.
During the 80’s southwest Detroit was going through some rough transitions. During that decade three of the major auto plants that anchored the community, Cadillac, Fleetwood and Fisher Body either drastically cut back their operations or totally closed down within a period of less than 2 years. This had a devastating impact on our immediate neighborhood. Feeder “supplier” plants in addition to scores of small businesses suffered, many not surviving the impact and eventually closing down. Our barrio (neighborhood) would never be the same. Young adults, if they did not go to college and/or move out of town and they desired to enter the workforce, no longer could count on going into the factories as a way to make a living. This forced me to expand the scope of the youth work I was doing at the time. We had to serve not just teenagers but had to include young adults, typically 18-25 years, who were just starting on their road to becoming independent and in some cases start their own families.
The neighborhood was in dire straits. The previous decade we saw a rise in drug trafficking but that dramatically increased during the mid 80’s and was accompanied by a growth in crime as a result of this crises. True this also occurred in the other parts of the city but as I was working closely with many youth in our neighborhood, I saw the despair starting to settle into their eyes. Thus, various community activists and social workers were expanding their services and programs to meet the needs of young people in our neighborhood and hopefully provide “an alternative to the streets”, a term we used to explain our mission.
Our approach met with instant success and enjoyed multigenerational support. Often the parents of these young people were directly involved. Some women often cooking scrumptious food for program and community wide events while others actively encouraged their sons and daughters to join our and similar youth programs.
Within that setting Los Boricuas, our baseball team, became a focal point of center pride as other members and parents rallied around their achievements. They represented southwest Detroit as they competed with other teams from throughout the city and they were winning!! They were a source of community pride and representation. They were so talented they usually routed their opponents in city-wide adult league competition, falling only in the league finals in the summer of 1986.
While symbolically rallying our community many of them were also adept at community work, as they were an active part of a fledging anti-gang campaign jointly coordinated by La Casa, La Sed’s Youth Center and the Clark Park YMCA. I often referred to these young men as the “crews,” phone calls would go out to members of Los Boricudas and other young leaders who would rush to were it said “something would jump off.”
Once they arrived, they would mediate conflicts, sometimes disarming some young person. I am proud to say they were very successful in their efforts to lower temperatures among these young people. Most they personally knew and in turn these crew members admired Los Boricuas. As we use to say, “They talked sense to them.” This was years before the situation in our neighborhood took a darker turn when Chicago based gangs, like the Latin Counts and the Cobras would move into southwest Detroit, really changing the nature of what gangs meant in the early 90’s. I sincerely believe the efforts of our youth service coalition and Los Boricuas staved off a serious gang problem for a number of years before these outside forces moved in and took advantage of our community youth’s despair.
Decades later we should not forget what that extraordinary efforts by ordinary individuals do change the course of a community’s trajectory. Let’s celebrate their spirit and efforts.