Mother's Day at Los Padrinos

by Alison Kelley | 5/9/03 5:00am

Inside the walls of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, Mother's Day is every day. In Los Padrinos, writing about mothers is a way for the incarcerated minors to remember that they are sons, daughters and most importantly, children.

I have been attending writing classes in Los Padrinos on a Tucker Fellowship. The classes are taught by professional writers in the InsideOUT Writers Program. InsideOUT, run through the Alethos Foundation, visited the 2001 Dartmouth Student Science Congress and won a 2002 Child Welfare League of America award. InsideOUT teaches creative writing in all three juvenile halls in Los Angeles. A topic that the boys bring up in every writing class is "Mothers."

The boys, ages 14 to 17, are in Los Padrinos for anything from school truancy to armed robbery to murder. Boys wait for their court dates, from which they will be sent to adult prison, California Youth Authority, probation camp or foster care. Few boys are released to home.

The boys in Los Padrinos are in serious adult situations. But when a boy in our class writes about his mother, he changes. He is no longer a murderer, a gang member, a drug addict or a thief. Instead, he is a 15-year old troubled child in need of a mother.

Last Saturday, a boy wrote a ballad saying, "Dear Mama, Place no one above ya, sweet lady, You are appreciated." The beautiful words were a quote from a Tupac Shakur song. They were borrowed, but the boy said they were "from the heart." He was using Tupac to tell me that he's not a grown man. He is still his mother's son. The student's childhood is hard to find amongst the probation officers and holding cells, but he is a child.

The boys in Los Padrinos write about the hard environments where they lived. The boys had to grow up fast. One lesson asked the boys to recall smells they hated. Responses included dumpsters, cigarettes, stopped up drains, garages, dead bodies, weed, vomit, gas and alcohol. These smells placed the boys in mature situations.

The boys returned to youthful situations when they recalled smells of their mothers that they loved. "There was one thing I use to like the way it smelled, when my mom was cooking carne asada because I knew that there was family coming home." Another boy wrote of a smell he loved as, "The smell of my mom when I hugged her." The boys lived in adult worlds, but when they write about their moms, they sound like kids again.

Mothers (or grandmothers) protected their sons. One student wrote, "You fought with grandpa for me to live with you, when I felt I didn't deserve to. You never gave up on me, even well after I gave up on myself." The boys in Los Padrinos write that their mothers worked to keep their sons as children, by keeping them out of the streets.

Boys in Los Padrinos write about the messages their mothers preached. Mothers saw their sons growing up too fast, and tried to intervene. "My mom used to try to talk to me about drugs. She used to try to tell me to never use drugs. I used to just keep walking and ignore her because I knew I was using drugs already."

The attempts of a mother to protect her son's childhood didn't always work. "My mom used to always say to find new friends. But I didn't listen, all I knew was they are the homies I grew up with, so I stuck with 'em. But she used to tell me bird of a feather flock together. Now I finally understand what that means. Because a lot of us are in jail and the rest are either on the run or dead. I kinda wish I would of listened to my mom because I probably wouldn't be in this situation."

Even though a mother couldn't protect her son's youth on the "outside," she can help her son find his youth on the "inside." A mother can accept apologies and "thank yous." This helps a boy in Los Padrinos work through his adult situation and return to being his momma's son.

"I know I caused you a lot of hurt and pain. And constantly promised, how I would change. In this lovely month of May, I ask for forgiveness as I pray. For this day is for you and only for you, because you had the strength to fill both shoes. You were more than a mother, you were a father too. And I hurt, because the heartbreak I put you through. So from 'your son' to you, Happy Mother's Day and Father's Day too."

This poet in our class, the boy who quoted Tupac, any many of the boys in Los Padrinos write to give appreciation to their mothers. The appreciation reflects many things. The boys give thanks for what their mothers have done. They also give thanks for what their mothers represent-the boy's own childhood. When writing about mothers, the boys in Juvenile Hall feel less like criminals, and more like juveniles.