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The first thing that catches your eye when you walk into Bajito Onda is the prison art. A four-panel screen near the front entrance is covered in it, as are most of the nearby walls. More boards and canvases lean against the baseboard, stacked three deep. The painstakingly crafted images run the gamut of inmate aspirations, from the Virgen de Guadalupe to a garish study of Al Pacino as Scarface. Rap stars and voluptuous women mingle with prison bars and tombstones.
The rest of Bajito Onda's new home is just as impressive. The main room, occupying the upper floor of an industrial complex just south of Interstate 30 on Grand Avenue, is spacious and clean. A group of comfortable couches near the door tempers the presence of the commercial printing equipment and worktables against the wall. Samples of Bajito Onda's work--T-shirts, banners and mugs emblazoned with the company's motto, "Peace not prison," are displayed in abundance.
But if Del Hendrixson is in the room you might not notice anything else. The 53-year-old Bajito Onda founder and gang expert certainly doesn't have to worry about getting sent back to prison in a case of mistaken identity. It's hard to say what stands out more: her thick, tattooed arms protruding from a sleeveless black T-shirt or her spectacular graying mullet, conscientiously shorn in the front and flowing halfway down her broad back. Hendrixson resembles nothing so much as a female Dog the Bounty Hunter as she surveys her domain.
Hendrixson is on a mission from God, a mission she outlines in her trademark stream-of-consciousness style: "I'm about rescuing lost and violent persons from themselves, prison and from society and cleansing them and sending them out to live normal, healthy, productive, happy lives with love and hope in their hearts instead of anger and violence. The reason I know? I used to be one of them."
The last claim is both the key to Hendrixson's appeal and her biggest stumbling block. Instead of a degree in social work, Hendrixson's most obvious qualification is her year in federal prison for a forgery conviction, poor preparation for soliciting grants from wealthy foundations or filing the tax paperwork required of a 501(c)(3) charity. Her dedication has inspired followers to start Bajito Onda chapters in Mexico and Africa, but her unorthodox style has cost her the cooperation of the very government agencies that Bajito Onda needs to survive in Dallas.
Hendrixson's rhetoric is usually about as subtle as her haircut. "I'm the most high-tech person in the 'hood," she'll announce one day. On another, she declares, "I will never sell out and act white. My skin is white, but I'm all races." Hendrixson manages to deliver these dictums without a trace of irony. She learned long ago that if she doesn't blow her own horn, no one else is going to. Only through years of dogged effort to spread her message of nonviolence, universal acceptance and redemption for gang members has she transformed herself from a near-suicidal convicted forger to the driving force behind Bajito Onda Community Development Foundation, Inc.
"Bajito Onda is all about accepting people as they are," Hendrixson says. "It's been a social club for societal dropouts." The name, roughly translated from Spanish, suggests exactly that: "Underground Scene." It is also a fully equipped print shop that has served clients such as Baylor University and the Dallas Mavericks. Hendrixson and her small staff can teach program participants marketable skills like graphic design and silk-screen printing. At the same time, she instills the lessons of her own troubled past in a style even the coldest of stone-cold gangsters could love. "When I was ready to go out and kill people to go back to prison, God spoke to me and said, 'Go help young people,'" Hendrixson says. "I was like 'Wow, that's pretty heavy. I don't even like young people.'"
Hendrixson has spent most of the 20 years since then befriending gang members and ex-cons--Latino, black and white--and training them in graphics and printing. Bajito Onda's former Oak Cliff location sat in the territory of the East Side Locos, reportedly Dallas' largest gang. Hendrixson allowed gang artists to decorate her shop with graffiti and printed their designs on T-shirts that she handed out by the dozens. The shop gave the aspiring artists an alternative to the violence on the street outside, while they returned the favor by educating Hendrixson in the subtleties of gang culture.
"I have helped 10,000 people turn their lives around," she frequently boasts, an accurate reflection of the size of her commitment if not her operation. Hendrixson can produce reams of effusive thank-you letters from former Bajito Onda participants and has been cited as a gang expert in The New York Times and Newsweek. "She understands the culture and the subculture," says Gary Ivory, Southwest president of Youth Advocate Programs, a national youth mentoring organization.
But hang around Bajito Onda's new location northeast of Fair Park long enough and you begin to wonder if Hendrixson told anybody she was moving. There are no classes in computer design going on, no groups of ex-gang members lining up to take a turn at screen printing. In fact, Bajito Onda's full-time staff of four, including Hendrixson, often seems hard-pressed just to keep up with the modest flow of incoming orders.