Editor’s Note: This article originally incorrectly stated that the film screening was hosted by Hermanos Unidos. In fact, Homies Unidos, a non-profit gang violence and prevention oganization, presented the film, and the event was hosted by UCSB’s Salvadoran Student Union (USEU). Hermanos Unidos had nothing to do with the screening.
MS-13 is not an updated version of MSN Messenger; its Mara Salvatrucha, a gang that began in El Salvador. Yet the short acronym stands for more than a group of misfits, outcasts, and rebels in a society. Put a few guns in the hands of a group of ruffians and you still only have a minute idea of the gang. MS-13 soon penetrated the American border, taking root in Los Angeles and spreading all over the country.
UCSB’s Salvadoran Student Union (USEU) organized a screening of “Hijos de la Guerra” on Wednesday, April 22 in the MultiCultural Center by Homies Unidos, a non-profit gang violence and prevention oganization, to inform the public of gang culture. A large crowd showed up for the film and stayed for the discussion panel afterward. Both the effort put into organizing the event and the turnout it generated were immense; and likewise the movement to stop gang violence will have to be tremendous. It will take more than what is being done now by the government, by society at large and by individuals to combat MS-13. But education through the screening and the discussion panel are a start.
The gang problem is more than just bored kids causing chaos in the streets. Nor is the issue is simply about cleaning up our streets; it’s a war against gangs and Homies Unidos is taking up arms by providing after school activities for kids that are susceptible to joining gangs. In some situations with immigrant families, the parents are struggling just to make ends meet, and thus usually have to work more than one job taking valuable time away from being spent with their kids. Without attention and affection in the house, the kids look for it elsewhere, and unfortunately find it in gangs. This is where Homies Unidos comes into play. They provide an atmopshere of acceptance and emotional support that may otherwise be absent in other aspects of these childrens’ lives.
Guns and gangs might make a Hollywood thriller, but put that same camera in the real world, and the violence becomes a tragedy. Guest speaker Alex Sanchez, Executive Director of Homies Unidos was frank, yet completely correct, when he advised prior to the showing to be prepared for a “roller coaster of emotions.” The makers of the film were not hesitant to show violence and gore. Sanchez commented on the graphic quality of the documentary, saying that its function is to make us think and ask why; “Why do we let this happen?” Asking this convicting question is unavoidable when watching this documentary, because the battleground against violence and gangs is in our very own backyards.
The filmmakers also documented the measures the government took in attempts to quell the situation. For example, the Mano Duro approach featured in the film, was a situation in which the police were authorized to make arrests on the basis of stereotypes: baggy clothes, gathering in groups, shaved heads, tattoos, etc. This method proved to be counter productive and even worsened the gang problem. It all seems so hopeless.
After asking “Why?” viewers are prompted to ask “How can it be fixed, even though nothing seems to work?” One of the interviewees in the film was an ex-gang member who had been rehabilitated, and was heading in the direction of improving himself and his community, but was shot in front of his house two months after filming had wrapped. Everyone in the audience gasped in shock, reflecting the impact of the film. “What is there to live for?” the interviewees repeatedly ask the camera. All seems lost.
Homies Unidos, however, thinks differently. Something can be done, such as educating the public. Just watching this film and becoming more aware may be a minuscule step, but still a step. The gang problem is more than we think it is, and the repercussions are greater than we imagine. As the film concludes, the screen turns black and the problem seems to get darker, but the viewer is also left in a state of reflection asking, “What am I going to do about it?”