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Wynwood teenagers fight labels

By Olympia Duhart
Staff Writer
--Published April 4, 1993, in the Miami Herald


"You can't judge a book by its cover," says Yessenia "Jessie" Abreu, 14, a member of the neighborhood youth group. "That's what people do to us. They never try to talk to us to see what we're about."

Other members of the Wynwood Youth Group echo Jessie's complaint. The mostly-Puerto Rican group of teenagers say they are in a constant battle against stereotypes that portray them as drug dealers and gang leaders.

"This ain't no gang," said Marlon Santiago, 17, a sophomore at Jackson High. "We're just a couple of guys who like to look out for each other."

These teenagers say they really aren't much different from most kids their age. They want a place to hang out. They want to chill out with their friends and have some fun.

Problem is, they don't have many resources or role models, says Xavier Cortada, who has sponsored the youth group since its inception. He says the group is aimed at giving the neighborhood kids a positive outlet, a way to build self-esteem.

So every week since the fall of 1991, they've been meeting to try to work out life's problems with talk about the streets, God and ways to turn things around.

On many evenings, it's a lesson in discipline.

The rules are simple enough: no smoking, no vandalism, no graffiti, no weapons and no cursing. Every meeting ends with a prayer -- they're in a chapel.

"Whatever comes up, we talk about it," said Luis Deleon, 17. "You can talk about your personal problems, and maybe somebody can tell you something to help. I come here to chill out and to have a good time."

The meetings, which run from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday, have been shuffled from place to place since the group started getting together. The youth group has been kicked out of a park, a community center and a church.

Now, they meet inside the future home of La Mission San Juan Bautista, a Wynwood church under construction on Northwest Second Avenue. Members file in one-by-one and sit on folding chairs inside the church, which is now just a frame of gray cinder blocks.

Wooden crosses dot the sanctuary, and a large cross supporting a miniature Jesus Christ stands in one corner of the room. Some days, workmen labor to complete the construction on the chapel, a satellite center for Corpus Christi Catholic Church.

In the middle of sanctuary, the Wynwood youth groups sits and talks. Clad in oversized jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps, the teens talk about a little of everything -- what happened over the weekend, the Dade County Youth Fair, how to diffuse an argument.

Some days, the kids have a hard time leaving the streets outside church walls. Profanity. Walkman radios. One guy was asked to leave the meeting last week because he scrawled markings on some church literature.

"We don't look for trouble, trouble finds us," said Abbie Silva, 17.

Cortada, who is known as "X" to the youth members, has seen the group at its best and worst. He tries to talk them through their feelings and encourages them to use their heads to handle tough situations.

"I remember doing the exact same stuff you're doing when I was a kid," he told them at last week's meeting. "When you talk to someone, that normally settles it. You don't have to curse and threaten them."

The kids listen. Sometimes they talk back. Sometimes they take his advice.


  all content © 1993 THE MIAMI HERALD and may not be republished without permission.