Homies Unidos... Will Never be Defeated

A special Los Angeles screening of Sin Nombre shows how cinema and community activism can join forces.

On April 9, Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre screened in Los Angeles as a benefit for the community advocacy group Homies Unidos. After the film, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles branch of Homies Unidos Alex Sanchez moderated a panel that included Cary Fukunaga, Beatriz Cortez (Central American Studies, CSUN), and Luis Rodriguez (Author, Mi Vida Loca). The event, which identified the mutual ways that filmmakers and political activists can work together to curb gang violence, was the culmination of a relationship begun over a year before.

Sanchez remembers meeting the film’s producer Amy Kaufman when they were still in production: “She came to our office, and told me about the project. I thought it sounded like a good project, but I was suspicious. So often with these films by the time you get it to the theater, you had the same gang members and stories in every other film. But I admit she seemed different.”

For Sanchez, getting the right message out is fundamental to the mission of Homies Unidos, an international organization dedicating to reducing gang violence. “We’re not anti-gang; we’re about providing alternatives,” explains Sanchez. Homies Unidos began in 1996 in San Salvador, El Salvador, when different gangs came together to find a way out of the violence. The next year, Sanchez planted an offshoot in Los Angeles, after he learned about the group from his friend (and Homies Unidos president) Hector Pineda when he came north to attend a conference in Santa Cruz.

Sanchez understands firsthand the complicated link between gang violence in El Salvador and in the US. For years the deportation of Central Americans who were in US gangs helped to harden the El Salvador gangs, and as those members immigrated to the US, the cycle was complete. Sanchez had come to the US from El Salvador, after he spent five years separated from his parents who’d traveled ahead to establish a home and make enough money to bring Alex and his little brother. But once in LA the boys were alienated from everything. “We hadn’t seen our parents for years,” remembers Sanchez, “they were strangers to us. And everything was different. We’d never lived in apartments––we’d had fields to run in. We were poor, but we didn’t know that until people here told us we were.”

For Sanchez, the gang offered safety for a stranger in a strange land: “I got away form all the pressure of being here; I felt that I could be free in the gang.” In 1994, Sanchez was arrested and deported back to El Salvador, sneaking back into America a year later, where he was starting his own family and moving away from the gangs.

For the last ten years, he’s been fighting to get the word out (and to keep himself in the country). In 2002, members of the Los Angeles Police Department targeted him, fearing that his organizing was really part of some gang recruitment strategy. It took a team of community groups, teachers and Senator Tom Hayden to get him political asylum and keep him from being deported again.

The organization now works at all levels of community outreach and education––providing legal clinics, tattoo removals, violence prevention workshops, among other resources. When Sanchez saw that Sin Nombre was coming to theaters, he decided to see how the story he’d heard about a year before turned out. He quickly became reconnected to the filmmakers, who wanted to use the film as a fundraiser for Homies Unidos. But soon Sanchez felt the screening should also serve as a platform for discussing gang issues. “Once I started sending out invitations,” explains Sanchez, “I got calls from people in the community and those working on youth and immigration issues.” They were worried that this film would only continue the same stereotypes of gangs and violence.

“The film was beautifully made and the characters were amazing in the way they were brought together,” thought Sanchez, but there was something else. The more he thought about it, the more he had “mixed feelings. What was the message of this film? What was it trying to say? And when I realized that it had a message, and it was a message of transformation, I felt people needed to see the film and talk about it.”