Angie Reyes has been a community activist in southwest Detroit since she was a teenager, when she began working with at-risk kids. In 1997, she started the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC) from her living room in what became a successful effort to negotiate a truce amongst rival gangs. More than 20 years later, DHDC boasts more than 30 staff and served more than 5,000 people last year. Here’s her story about preventing violence, creating culturally competent programs, and educating the community about Latino issues.
IFF: You famously negotiated a truce amongst rival gangs in the late 90s. Would you mind taking us back to that origin story?
Reyes: I’ve been living in southwest Detroit and working with various youth programs since I was a teenager. I had begun to see some of the rise of gang activity in our neighborhood in the late 80s. By the 90s, it had grown really rapidly. We had a really high level of violence happening in the community – maybe 15% of the kids were involved, and all the kids were affected because the violence was so prevalent. At that point, I was going to funerals all the time – several a month – for young people that I knew. Not all of them were involved in gangs; some of them were just caught in the cross-fire while they were sleeping in their bed or walking down their street. It was pretty traumatic for everybody living in the community, including me – I was a parent with teenagers at the time and saw all the trauma they were going through.
Around 1997, there were probably about 15 different gangs, split into three nations. I had gotten to know a lot of the leaders through my work over the years. Many of them had lost a lot of their friends, and they were now young parents themselves, and they were pretty tired of the violence. Plus, the federal government had just started prosecuting gang members using the RICO Act for the first time. There was probably some sense of fear around that. So we decided to meet to see if we could negotiate something to stop the level of violence.
The truce meeting was held at St. Ann’s Church with the help of their leader at the time, Father Bob. Inside the church, we had the leaders of several gangs; outside, they had a lot of their soldiers monitoring the situation. The police had heard of it so they were also outside the church. We decided to have a second meeting and brought in Mayor Archer and Police Chief McKinnon to try to negotiate a truce. It was just before Devil’s Night in the city. The first thing we asked them to do was have a truce over that weekend, and we also asked them to help us watch over the community to keep it from burning to the ground. And they said, “So you want us to be angels for the weekend instead of devils?” So they don’t always get credit for this, but that’s kind of how the name changed from Devil’s Night to Angel’s Night.
One of the other things we asked them was what it would take for them to leave the gang, and they said, “We need jobs that will pay us a decent wage so we can leave this life behind.” At that point, there were four tier-one suppliers to the automotive industry that were Hispanic-owned businesses out in the suburbs. They had agreed to move in together in one of the old Cadillac buildings owned by GM in the middle of southwest Detroit, calling themselves the Hispanic Manufacturing Center. These four Hispanic manufacturing businesses agreed to hire the young men and women who were coming through our program, the Grace Program. These guys who were enemies became co-workers within a very short period of time. They were literally firing at each other one day and working side-by-side the next. It took some courage on the part of the owners to hire them.
This had a significant impact because then these young people became friends with each other. It decreased the level of violence. And since the leadership became friends, it trickled down to the younger membership. You’ll still see them in the neighborhood bars today – still wearing their colors, but with their arms around each other drinking together.
IFF: Your organization emphasizes the ‘cultural competency’ of its work. This is something many nonprofits are thinking through. How do you achieve cultural competency?
Reyes: Probably the number-one way is that the majority of my staff are from the same community that we serve. Many of them actually came through our program. We believe in the indigenous leadership model. And we talk about having a balance of “roots and suits” – people who are rooted in the community and people who have professional training. The ideal staff person is someone who has both. We also invest a lot in the professional development of our staff.
Also, a lot of our approach to the work that we do is rooted in cultural practices. For instance, our youth work uses a curriculum that is both trauma-informed as well as based in indigenous Mexican tradition. Healing circles, medicine wheels, meditation, rites of passage, and drumming are all practices that are embedded in our programs. We also use smudging, an indigenous practice of burning four kinds of sacred herbs – sweetgrass, tobacco, sage, and cedar – which is kind of like what churches use for incense to help people be centered. It helps take out the negative energy and bring in the positive energy.
We also embed culturally significant art into our spaces – you’ll see old-school murals of our history as well as newer-style graffiti art. It’s a way of combining antient indigenous practices with cutting-edge technology in the things that we do.
IFF: Do you think it’s true that when people think of “people of color in Detroit,” they’re much more likely to picture an African American or Arab American person than a Latinx person? If so, is it a struggle to get attention to your issues and get a seat at the table? How do you overcome that?
Reyes: Yes, that’s definitely true. It has historically been a struggle because many people, even those who’ve lived in Detroit for a long time, don’t realize that our community is here and has been here a long time. My family has actually been here for 100 years now. The Latino community started here in Corktown since the turn of the century in the late 1800s, when we experienced the start of the railroad industry and then automotive industry.
It cuts both ways – there’s good and bad. We’re a relatively small community compared to other Latino communities in other large cities throughout the country, but we’re also a very diverse Latino community. There’s not a separate Mexican, Puerto Rican, Central American, Dominican, or Cuban community like in other cities; we’re all mixed in together. That creates rich diversity in our community, and it also brings us together. Since we are isolated both demographically and physically from the rest of the city, we know that nobody is coming to save us, so we have created systems to take care of ourselves. As a result, southwest Detroit’s Latino community has more nonprofit social service agencies than any other part of the city. We also have one of the most vibrant business districts, and we are a walkable neighborhood where you can get pretty much everything you need – fresh food, clothes, auto parts, family-owned restaurants – right in our community. For that, it’s been an advantage.
The disadvantage is when it comes to policy issues like education and workforce development. It has been a struggle to make sure that we have representation, to make sure that we’re at the table, to make sure that our issues are being addressed. If we bring up an issue like immigration or bilingual education, a lot of time the room would just go silent and people would just continue the conversation as if we hadn’t said anything. That still can happen sometimes, and we have to push a lot to make sure those issues that are important to our community get heard. Sometimes we deal with what I refer to as “token fatigue” – where people do ask you to the table, but if you don’t have enough people there, then you’re trying to be at too many tables at the same time, and you get split in different directions. So now if one of us gets invited to the table, we try to bring at least one other person with us so we’re not the only one. Token fatigue is a real thing.
IFF: Another misconception about Detroit might be that immigration isn’t a big issue for you as a northern city. What would you say to that?
Reyes: There are a lot of misconceptions out there.
First, immigration is a really critical issue for our community because we’re a border town. We’re on the busiest northern border crossing in the country. And that border crossing, which is the international bridge, is right smack in the middle of the Latino community. So border control and ICE have a really big presence in our community, and immigration enforcement is pretty high – they are rounding up a lot of people in our community.
I think for a lot of people who are not in the Latino community, all they know about immigration is what they see on TV – we’re all cartel, we’re all murders, violent, rapists. It’s a constant thing. I watch some of these shows and think: “No wonder people hate us; they think we’re all like that.” We need to do a lot of education to help people understand that those are just media stereotypes, that we have a very rich history, and that the overwhelming majority of people who come from Latin America are hard-working, law-abiding people.
Another part of the narrative that people don’t understand is that many of the people coming from Mexico and Central America are indigenous people – a lot of them are Mayans or other indigenous people who don’t even speak Spanish. They have been on this continent for tens of thousands of years, so they’re really not immigrants!
Another thing people don’t understand is the history of immigration law in this country. People say: “Why don’t people just sign up? Why don’t they get in line like everybody else? Why don’t they just fill out the paperwork?” They don’t understand that there is no line. And that it takes 20-30 years for you to get in even after you apply. A lot of people tend to think of their own family history of immigration and compare it to what’s happening today to people from Latin America – but it’s not the same thing. When immigrants showed up at Ellis Island, they essentially started out doing the same thing immigrants do at the border today – they just showed up and gave their name and waited. But back then you waited maybe a few days or weeks, and then you were in. You didn’t have to do background checks, you didn’t have a 20-year waiting period, you didn’t have to prove that you were worthy in any way. The only thing they screened for back then was communicable diseases. So we have a continuous process of educating people to really understand immigration policy and how rooted it is in racism – how for a long part of our history in the U.S., you couldn’t even be a citizen if you weren’t white. So it’s a lot of education and changing the narrative – reclaiming it.
IFF: You’re known in circles as abuela – you have your own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as kids in the community who look up to you. So what do you do to relax?
Reyes: I try to spend a lot of time with my family – that’s the thing that I do the most. We feel fortunate that Michigan as so many nice places on the water, so we go camping a lot. I also love to read, meditate, and listen to music. I am the second-oldest of 10 kids, and our parents were musicians, so we’re all musicians. When we get together, it’s kind of a choir and a band all together!