On November 2, 1995, 15 Latino teenage boys walked into Bienvenidos Family Services, a non-profit agency in East Los Angeles, and sat in a large circle facing each other. Some were gang members, some were skaters, some were taggers. From the way they looked at each other, it was obvious they came from warring neighborhoods in East Los Angeles.
But they had two things in common: They were all high school dropouts, and they were all young fathers.
This was the first gathering of the Con Los Padres teenage fathers program, which I helped co-found. After they were welcomed to the circle, they were asked their names, ages, their children’s ages and why they came.
The meeting was based on talking circles many cultures have used for hundreds of years. Each individual is allowed to share as much as he feels comfortable doing.
Sharing feelings among other men is not easy. The first two young men simply shared their name, their age, their child’s name and said something to the effect of, “I’m here because I want to be a better father.” But one young man looked at the others with great interest as he patiently waited his turn.
“My name is Angel. And like the ‘vatos’ (homeboys) who spoke before me, I am here tonight looking for help to be a better father. But I need you to know more than just my name.
I am 16 years old and I have a 4-year-old daughter. Yes, I became a father at the age of 12! In those four years I have been allowed to hold her in my arms twice. My baby’s mama’s family tells me if I can’t support her, I cannot see my daughter.
Do you know how hard it is for a 12- or 16-year-old to find a job? I am here because I need your help!”
In 1995, there were no programs for Latino teen fathers in East Los Angeles. There were few support programs for them anywhere in the country. Although teen pregnancy has been a challenging issue in the Latino community for years, the only programs that assisted teen parents were available for custodial mothers only, such as the Pregnant Minor Program and Cal Learn Program. Most young parents were forced to drop out of school to provide support for their children.
Hundreds of young fathers were helped to become better fathers and more responsible parts of their families through the Con Los Padres Program. It continued to run at full capacity and even expanded its services to the larger Los Angeles Unified School District and a neighboring community hospital’s neonatal care facilities.
But the program all but disappeared after September 11, 2001. Many funding sources shifted their attention from social services to national security. And the healing process for our country, and its social service infrastructure, has been a slow one.
That is why I am pleased and excited to announce that there will be a fatherhood conference in East Los Angeles and Con Los Padres will resume serving young fathers. The conference will take place on October 17 at East Los Angeles Community College.
Two of the program graduates, Osvaldo Cruz and Richard Pacheco, are now youth counselors and will join us at the conference. After 20 years, we can see how we’ve made a difference in the lives of these men and even more important, their children.