By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Usually, though, it comes down to the question of opportunity. The military is often criticized for targeting young people in poor minority neighborhoods where dropout rates for blacks are almost twice those of whites, and dropout rates for Hispanics are more than double those of blacks, at nearly 25 percent for American-born Latinos and a whopping 38 percent for the foreign-born from Mexico and Latin America. But recruiters respond that as debates over urban renewal and education reform drone on, they're at least giving young people a rare chance at education and employment, discipline and travel, an opportunity, as they see it, to lend some order to their lives and count for something.
Felicia Martinez greets Leal with a smile and ushers him over to one of the salon's roomy black chairs. The place looks like one big Valentine's Day card: The mirrors are festooned with chains of paper angels and heart-shaped doilies, and a dozen red roses sit on the counter. "I have to give the muchachos the best," she says, draping a robe over Leal's shoulders. Then she grabs her clippers and launches into a sing-song stream of friendly chatter in Spanish. "I've known most of them since they were boys, this tall, and they come in every week. Sometimes I don't charge them—I don't want them robbing the taqueria for a haircut."
The kids she's talking about attend Turner, Newman Smith and Jefferson high schools, which, like Hillcrest, are in affluent areas. But the majority of the children who live in the spacious homes with rolling lawns attend private schools, and the public schools are filled mostly with middle- and low-income Latinos and blacks.
Along with trims, Martinez doles out motherly lectures about staying in school and avoiding gangs. You sureños are getting into fights with the norteños? You should think about the Army. You're fighting with your stepdad again? Consider the Marines; get yourself on a straight path.
"I've had this place for 11 years, and in those years I've had 13 kids killed," she says. They haven't lost their lives in the military but in gang violence. On the wall above the soda machine is a tribute. The photos of teens whose lives were cut short are framed with the words "rest in peace" and "in loving memory." She points to the picture of a 17-year-old who was gunned down two years ago. "Robert Castillo, I knew him since he was little. He was a good boy. He was shot leaving a nightclub. And to think his father was killed when he was the same age."
Leal looks up. "The same age?"
Martinez nods and uses her hand, long fingernails painted bright red, to steady his head while she buzzes the back. "They didn't have anything to do but go to the streets, and on the streets are gangs. People say the Army's bad, that they'll go to Iraq and get killed. But they get killed here too."
Martinez often schedules appointments based on gang allegiance, keeping rivals separate whenever possible. Most of the kids respect her and sit through her clucking and admonitions, nodding and saying, "Yes, ma'am, I know." But as she puts the finishing touches on Leal's round-top cut, she tells of how two guys once brawled in the salon and hit her 9-year-old in the face. Her oldest son is 18 and considering the military. "I'd rather him be in Iraq doing something for people than doing nothing on the street here," she says.
As Leal pays her for the haircut, she can't let him go without a piece of advice. "I think you guys should go to Turner [High School] and up the ante," she says. "Really hit them hard in ninth through 11th grade; that's when they're getting into gangs."
He nods, a little half-heartedly. What's frustrating about recruiting kids from depressed, gang-ridden neighborhoods is that often the ones who want to join can't pass the entrance test or already have a rap sheet, and many parents are reluctant to allow their 17-year-olds to enlist.
"The hardest is getting the parents to sign the papers," he tells Martinez. "Hispanic families are so attached to their kids that they want them here so they can watch them, but they're watching them and they're running around in gangs. We're offering them a better future."