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By Louie Flores

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the summer of 1973, I was one of the kids who painted the mural in the Estrada Courts housing project in honor of the gang I belonged to, Varrio Nueva Estrada.

That was my last summer in the varrio before my enlistment.

Varrio Nueva Estrada had formed thirty years before by guys who lived in the project in the 1940s. By the 1970s, VNE was very large, one of the largest gangs in East L.A. It included several cliques. Mine was the Dukes. I was 18 years old and the first gang member in my family. I never knew my father. My oldest brother was my father figure. He painted furniture at a factory and was fifteen years older than I was. He was an alcoholic and a very prideful man. His pridefulness must have rubbed off on me. Anyway, my mother used to worry a lot about me. There was a lot to worry about. The gang was like my family. I felt I needed to protect my family at all costs. At the time, the varrio was something I would die for.

The mural that summer was funded by the county, which wanted to beautify the East L.A. area. The fire department donated the paint and the Kiwanis Club lent us the scaffolds. A mural was better than graffiti, they figured, and the neighborhood artist proposed a mural that no one would deface with graffiti. It turned out to be a mural showing how long VNE had been there and how long we were planning on staying. It was pride in the neighborhood, meaning the varrio, the gang.

People who didn’t belong to the neighborhood didn’t have any business in the projects – that’s how we felt. We viewed the mural as a statement to other gangs to stay out; that this is VNE headquarters – all of it funded by the county.

About a hundred homeboys worked on that summer youth program, and the VNE wall mural was the first one approved. After it was finished, other murals were painted. Murals went up in the Maravilla projects, the Hazard projects, in Primera Flats – all on county property with county funding. They all did the same thing we did, which was to glorify our neighborhood, our gang.

The mural takes me back to that summer of 1973. I was drinking a lot and I used to get high on reds and whites. I smoked marijuana a lot, too. I was a follower and I needed to fit in. I got picked at random to help out on a crew of five painters. None of us were artists, but it made a lot of us feel good for a change. The artist, Danny Martinez, directed us, telling us which colors to paint where. He had the whole mural outlined in chalk.

The mural is of two hands growing from a tree stump and holding up the letters V-N-E, atop which stands an eagle with a ribbon proclaiming “In memory of a Home Boy. 1973” – all against a royal blue background.

Back then, gang killings were much less common than they became a couple decades later, and we rarely used guns. One night in 1973, though, we got invited to a party in the Florencia area. One of our homeboys was a kid named Noely who lived a few blocks from Estrada Courts. His parents were Russian immigrants, but he spoke Spanish, grew up with us – a white guy and a member of our gang. He was shot and killed at the party. That set off big problems between us and Florencia for many years.

The mural was painted in Noely’s honor. There’s a banner below that reads, in Spanish: “Que Rifan Todo Las Cliqas del Varrio Nueva Estrada, Que Vivan.” (May the Cliques of Varrio Nueva Estrada Rule. Long May They Live.)

For a month I worked on the mural, painting its blue background and the ribbon across the top. I painted with great care, thinking that it had to be perfect so that the rest of the mural could look nice.

Many years later, I talked to Danny Martinez. He explained that the tree stump represented the years that the varrio had been in the projects. Like a tree, the varrio had grown. The hand represented how we were holding up the varrio to glorify it. The eagle was showing the Chicano struggles in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the ribbon was dedicated to Noely.

Many younger homeboys were on crews that painted those murals. One who became infamous was Ernie “Chuco” Castro. He was about 13 years old at that time, getting high on reds and whites.

The year before the mural, I was arrested for possession and suspicion of sales, so I was on probation when I turned 18. That year, I was beating up a kid in a park and cops arrested me. I was facing my first felony and my probation officer recommended me to the military. So a few months after helping paint the VNE mural, I enlisted in the Army, which turned me around. When I came back in 1977 I was military minded. I moved out of the varrio with my wife.

Later, after I moved away, I remember meeting Chuco’s ex-wife, Jackie. She told me that Chuco was doing some time and they had kids already. He’d been doing heroin by then. Heroin was an epidemic in East L.A. at the time. A lot of guys into heroin were doing a lot of robberies. I think Chuco got caught up in that.

But I missed it. I was working, driving trucks in the 48 states. So I lost contact with many homeboys. I was no angel. I’d drink heavily for a while. I smoked PCP for a couple years, and gambled.

Then 27 years ago, I just stopped it all. The blackouts got to be too much. I’d come home from the racetrack with nothing. I lost a wife over it. Since then, I’ve been clean, driving trucks, and working on older cars. My second son is getting a PhD in English in New Mexico, so I’m happy about that.

I don’t get over to see the mural too much any more. But when I do, I feel lucky to have gone to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division. I could have ended in prison, or been killed at the rate that I was going. I was sly, sick and wicked and got away with a lot of crimes. I got shot at a couple times, but they missed.

I still run into a few of the homeboys from time to time. One guy, name of Ciclón, was a pretty bad dude then. Now he’s got a bad back. He told me about Chuco. Chuco, he said, had been doing some work for the carnales – the Mexican Mafia. He became a made member. Then, a few years later, he was arrested and, facing life, Chuco became an informant. He testified in a famous case that sent many of the carnales to prison for life.

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

____

Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
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Uncategorized

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By Louie Flores

I’m about the 10th jumper, and we had been trained to push the guy ahead of us, so everybody is pushing and shuffling to the door and yelling. Then we all go flying out and I started counting. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. On the fourth beat I got the tug of my parachute inflating. So I looked up and there it was, fully inflated. I was floating and yelled out “Geronimo!” as my squad floated down around me.

It was 1974; I was 19 and straight out of East L.A. from the biggest varrio at the time: the Varrio Nuevo Estrada Dukes.

I had been arrested at the end of 1973 for assault and battery. I got caught beating up a kid in Montebello Park. I was loaded on reds and alcohol when the cops came around the corner and saw me fighting with the kid. I was hitting him with a branch of a tree, so I was facing a felony that I wasn’t going to beat.

On top of that, I was already on probation for under the influence, possession, and suspicion of sales of barbiturates (a.k.a. reds), so my probation officer recommended me for military service. It was looking like Uncle Sam’s army or Folsom Prison.

I went to the recruiter’s office. He told me about the 82nd Airborne and right there, suddenly, I wanted so badly to wear that famous maroon beret.

I thought I would look sharp with spit shine boots and the blue infantry rope and the French forager. It was the Vietnam era, and I was that rare thing – a volunteer. I knew when I signed up that it was like signing a death warrant. But I wanted to belong to the best airborne division, America’s guard of honor. The other division, the All-Americans, the 101st Airborne, had been wiped out in Vietnam and they were becoming an airmobile unit.

Deep down, I wondered if I had it in me to jump. I needed to know if I could go through it. I had once vowed I would die for the varrio, but unlike if I were to die for the varrio, I imagined that my family would be proud of me dying for the country. My cholo mentality was gone. I was going to serve for God, country, and honor, and I felt like a lean mean killing machine.

It took three weeks to prepare me to jump. As soon as I got off the bus the black caps were all over us, yelling at us, calling us dirty legs. I was in for three weeks of hell. I didn’t walk during the training. I ran. We ran everywhere. During the second week we ran four miles every day, and on the final week – jump week – we ran five miles to the airfield, then we climbed into the iron bird.

Inside the C-130 airplane, I was still cool, calm, and collected. But when the bird took off and we were high in the air, the green light went on and I started praying. Something like, “Heavenly father, hear my call for through the sky I will soon fall.”

The commands started.

“Stand up!”

I stood, hooked up and I shuffled to the door. I was praying hard by then. “For Your will, nothing less, nothing more.”

Then out I went. I heard the wind all around me. It was quiet. I saw the trucks and trees below, and they looked small. I was nervous but those crucial four seconds were the most important in my life up to then.

It felt great coming down. I was in God’s front yard. I steered my chute to the right, left, to the front, and back. Some guys were yelling but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I felt as if I was riding a giant swing – a natural high. I felt closer to God’s house.

Then the ground started getting bigger. It was the greatest five minutes of my life, and maybe the scariest. I readied myself as the ground approached. Then I hit it, and I flipped to the side, my chute dragged me for a bit, and I got up and collapsed it.

I had done it! And I liked it. I knew that I only had four more jumps to go to earn my wings. I ran for the rest of that day’s training.

The next three day’s were similar. On Friday, we ran five miles to our last jump, and graduated later that afternoon. I had my wings and was on our way to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Green Berets.

How I wished that my mom could have made my graduation. I received my wings on my uniform over my chest, where they seeped into my heart. It was the proudest day in my life up to that time.

I came home looking sharp in my uniform, feeling I had conquered fear. I was afraid of nothing. I wanted to go to the front lines and fight for country, honor, and duty.

I was once a proud member of one of the largest gangs in Los Angeles. Now I was a paratrooper from East L.A.

Louie Flores
Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
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