Another story from Father Gregory Boyle on working with gang-affiliated youth in LA, from his book “Tattoos on the Heart”:
Often after Mass at the camps, kids will line up to talk one on one. The volunteers sometimes invite the minors to confession, but usually the kids just want to talk, be heard, get a blessing. At Camp Afflerbaugh, I’m seated on a bench outside in a baseball field and one by one, the homies come over to talk briefly. This day, there’s quite a line up. The next kid approaching, I can tell, is all swagger and pose. His walk is chingon in its highest gear. His head bobs, side to side, to make sure all eyes are riveted. He sits down, we shake hands, but he seems unable to shake the scowl etched across his face.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Sniper”, he sneers.
“Okay, look (I had been down this block before), I have a feeling you didn’t pop outta your mom and she took one look at your ass and said ‘Sniper’. So come on, dog, what’s your name?”
“Gonzales.” he relents a little.
“Okay now, son. I know the staff here will call you by your last name. I’m not down with that. Tell me, mijo, what’s your mom call you?”
“Cabron” (roughly translated, “bastard”).There is not even the slightest flicker of innocence in his answer.
“Oye, no cabe duda. But son, I’m looking for a birth certificate here.
”The kid softens. I can tell it’s happening. But there is embarrassment and a newfound vulnerability.
“Napoleon,” he manages to squeak out, pronouncing it in Spanish.
“Wow,” I say. “That’s a fine, noble, historic name. But I’m almost positive that when your jefita calls you, she doesn’t use the whole nine yardas. Come on mijito, do you have an apoda? What’s your mom call you?”
Then I watch him go to some far, distant place—a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape—right before my eyes. “Sometimes,”—his voice so quiet I lean in—“Sometimes…when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”
I watch this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzales, to Cabron, to Napoleon, to Napito. We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she is not pissed off at us.