Mexican GangbangingWritten by Piers Hernu
Jesse Acosta (Hair and black joker T-Shirt)
Gangbanging? “My three older brothers are gangbangers and I saw what damage that caused.”
Acting work: Ali G in the house, The Fast and the Furious
Age: 20 something
Gangbanging? “Let’s just say I’ve done some bad things”
Acting work: Bruce Almighty, Vengeance, SWAT
Philosphy: Stay on the positive path
Caesar (bald small - twinkly eyes)
Gangbanging? “A whole loada bad things”
Acting work: Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty” video, Charlies Angels, SWAT, The Shield
Noel Guglielmi (beige T shirt)
Gangbanging? “Been in and out of jail for most of my life”
Acting Work: Training Day, The Fast and The Furious, Bruce Almighty, Employee Of The Month
Philosophy: Live right, do right, don’t shortcut people
Daniel Venegas (youngest)
Gangbanging? “I just did seven years for voluntary manslaughter – that’s a lot of sex I missed out on.”
Acting Work: 13 music videos, five commercials, SWAT, Charlies Angels, America’s Most Wanted (dramatisation)
Frank Alvarez (white vest)
Gangbanging? “I’m familiar with the county jail”
Acting work: Too many to mention
Edward Meza (Black joker tank top)
Gangbanging? “I’ve done time for various felonies”
Acting Work: SWAT, Snoop Dogg and 50 cents videos
Luis Moncada (Honduran)
Gangbanging? “I’ve done a lot of really bad stuff and got out of prison last year.”
Acting work: SWAT, vengeance, Latin Driving
Philosophy: Be free, make money and do positive things
“Downtown?” the taxi driver at LA Airport couldn’t look more surprised if I’d just asked for his hand in marriage. I hand him a scrap of paper with the address of my hotel on and he shrugs as if to say “well it’s your life.” Thirty minutes later, the streets have become grimmer and more menacing with each passing block as we finally pull up outside. When Billy Joel sang about being a “Downtown guy” in “Uptown Girl” we were treated to the image of a jaunty, white mechanic in overalls but I can’t help but notice that nobody looks even vaguely like that round here. “This really is one fucked up neighbourhood,” says taxi boy counting the money, “whatever you do, don’t walk around here at night.”
With my plans of a lengthy midnight ramble in tatters, I decide to hit the sack and wake up the next morning in a strange place with a strange mission. I have one name, one mobile phone number and 24 hours to hook up with a bunch of gang members whose survival so far has depended on them being elusive, suspicious and wary of strangers. There’s no answer so I leave a message. And another. And another. Finally, the phone in my room rings: “We’ll meet you at four thirty at ……..” says a gruff Hispanic voice, “but don’t be telling people where or why or putting that address in your article or nuttin!’”
As I am to discover later, the threat of drive-bys in this part of LA is very real indeed and there are plenty of people with plenty of reasons to see this particular bunch of homeboys dead. Revenge is probably top of the list but, in the last year, jealousy is making a very strong challenge. Jealousy because these guys are doing very nicely indeed. FHM have flown out to L.A. to discover how the hell in such a short space of time, a bunch of gang-banging hoodlums have swapped Downtown for Hollywood, guns for scripts and are making it big on the silver screen.
The taxi pulls up outside a small, heavily fortified green building on a street where iron grilles and razor wire are very much the order of the day. Having rung the bell, the inner door finally opens to reveal a mass of tatooed muscle staring at me through the bars. “Umm good afternoon,” I squeak in the most English accent I can muster, “I’m from FHM magazine in England and…”
“Come in,” he growls. We walk straight through to the yard outside where ten similar looking characters are standing next to a car that looks like it should have “Drive” and “By” where we might put “Kevin” and “Tracy”. Manny, the voice on the phone and the brains behind the braun, steps forward and introduces each one in turn. Despite appearances they soon turn out to be a surprisingly friendly and relaxed bunch and it is particularly heartening to discover that like any bunch of mates the world over, accusations of gayness are a primary and constant source of humour.
“I guess Suspect Entertainment has been in business for just over a year now,” explains Manny having restored a bit of order, “what started the ball rolling was when somebody told me that this company needed a load of Mexican gangsters for a Cypress Hill video. I organised some guys I knew and we got to be in the video and then it was Jesse who suggested we turn it into a business. All the other ethnic groups had their casting agencies so we decided to start our own.”
And you’re all from the same gang?“No we’re actually all from rival gangs and different neighbourhoods,” explains Noel, easily identifiable as the one with the bald head and the goatee, “until recently we’d have been sworn enemies but we’ve all separated ourselves from those grudges and turned our back on the gangbanging lifestyle. It looks like we’ve picked the best time ever to change our lives cos Hollywood wants to use us in lots of movies.”
We are interrupted by the crunch of rubber on gravel behind us and turn round to see a car sitting in the driveway. Two members of a rival gang sit there staring at us through their windscreen. This is a gang renowned for its ruthlessness and brutality whose members are always heavily armed, a gang we really don’t want to mess with: The LAPD. Manny sends an envoy over to explain that the only shooting going on this afternoon is with a camera. Satisfied with this explanation the cops reverse up and drive off.
Now where were we…okay so you’re all hispanic?“We’re all baldies with goatees,” pipes up Caesar just in case I hadn’t noticed, “we’re Spanish, we’re Mexican.”“Actually I’m from Honduras,” chips in Luis who looks like the meanest motherfucker of the lot but later on is kind enough to drive me all the way back to my hotel.” Sensing my confusion Manny intervenes “Basically we’re latino and the latino population is almost in the majority in the US nowadays but it’s not reflected on TV or in film we’re here to change that.” “S’right,” agrees Jesse, “the reason for success of Suspect is that we bring authenticity to the screen. Real is what film makers and audiences want and the success of reality TV proves it.”
“We’ve lived the research,” adds Caesar, “ and we can bring out our emotions from past gangbanging experiences and project them onto the screen. If I’m filming a scene of a drive by and my homeboy just got shot I go back into my files and say ok let me see how many of my homeboys got shot in drive bys and how did I react to it?” As if to prove his point he then shows me three tattoos of faces on his right arm. “That’s my best friend killed in a drive by, that’s my cousin shot dead by the cops and that’s my brother, he OD’d - I’m a living graveyard.” Standing there under the hot LA sun, it is a genuinely chilling reminder of the vicious cycle of grief, anger, and violence that these men are hoping they’ve left behind.
Estevan, also an ex-gangbanger, turns up to take the photos and whilst he’s organising various shots there’s time to grab a few minutes with some of the guys on their own.
At 25, Daniel Venegas is the youngest of the group and, having recently spent seven years inside for voluntary manslaughter, his delight at how his life has turned around is obvious. “I met Manny a year ago three weeks after I got out of prison and I never thought in a million years I’d be doing this I swear to god. He’s been like a saint to me.” He beams. “And the pay is very good especially when you land national commercials – every Friday I’m getting cheques up the butt!” Nice.
Frank Alvarez meanwhile, is busily signing autographs for a group of excited local kids. Would I have been in trouble if I’d bumped into his gang last night on a midnight ramble? “If you weren’t a gangbanger we wouldn’t have done nothing with you. We weren’t just random, violent people but some nights I’d have heavy artillery and be waiting, hoping for the right gangbanger to show up.” He gazes into the distance as he explains how in one particularly bad year six of his fellow gangbangers and a cousin were all murdered. “You never leave your gang it’s just that you’re not active any more.”
“These guys convinced me not to continue that with all that stuff,” says Luis who by the looks of it prefers being shot with a camera than a gun, “this life is so much better – we’re not harming people and we’re not getting busted.” And with that he shows me the stab wounds in his back and the bullet wound in his shoulder: “The cops shot me for no reason – they just opened the door and boom!”
Estevan calls us all back together for a group photo and I’m genuinely chuffed when they decide that I need to have FHM tattooed across my beergut in thick black marker pen. As initiation ceremonies go this must be the gentlest that L.A. has ever witnessed.
The session draws to a close and Manny, Luis and Jesse ask me if I’d like to ride with them to Beverley Hills to see a screening of one of the films they’ve recently been working on – S.W.AT. starring Colin Farrell and Samual L. Jackson? Two minutes later I’m in the front seat of the lowrider cruising through the LA streets with my homies - shades on, elbow out the window and grinning like I’ve just won the lottery. As we weave effortlessly through the traffic, it occurs to me these guys have got it right. They’ve turned their backs on the negative side of being in a gang – the crime, the violence and the grief whilst still enjoying some of the positive things – the camararderie, the loyalty and the sense of belonging.“You know what,” says Manny at the wheel, “people seeing this white boy riding with a bunch of gangbangers probably think you’ve been kidnapped!” And there was me thinking I looked the part.
Half an hour later we park up in the ultra-posh surroundings of Beverley Hills and make our way to the cinema attracting wary glances from the evening shoppers. Its not long before we’re munching popcorn and slurping coke with eyes fixed on what is soon to go straight to number one at the US Box office. Occasionally I get a dig in the ribs from Manny. “Here come’s Goonster,” he says or “check out Luis,” and sure enough, there on the big screen, some them with talking parts and some of them as extras, are the boys I’ve just spent the afternoon with.
This lot may have done some terrible things but after all these boys have been through you can’t help but wish them luck. As routes out of the ghetto go, this is a strange one but it sure beats a wooden box.
Used by Kind Permission
Originally Appeared in FHM