The Miami Herald
March 12, 1992
By Olympia Duhart
Wynwood, December 1990: Young people, mostly teenagers, run through the streets — burning buildings, looting stores and throwing rocks at police.
A little more than a year later, many of those same teenagers are directing their energy in more positive ways: Talking in rap sessions, playing weekly football games, attending after-school programs, taking field trips together and joining youth groups.
“Right now, the alternative to being with a group like this in Wynwood is running with a gang,” said Xavier Cortada, who heads a youth group dubbed the Wynwood Warriors. “The kids here need to feel that they have more choices.”
Giving Wynwood’s teens more choices are the goals of the city of Miami Youth Task Force, which sponsors the Wynwood Warriors, and ASPIRA, a community-based youth service organization that opened an alternative school in the neighborhood last fall.
ASPIRA and the youth group are trying to provide kids with positive role models, give them an alternative to life on the streets and boost their self-esteem.
“Sometimes, people try to pull you in the hole with them,” said Angel Magdaleno, 16, who lives in Wynwood. “It’s better here with the youth group. You learn more there than you do hanging out on the streets.”
Cortada leads a group of Wynwood kids in rap sessions Monday through Wednesday at La Mission San Juan Bautista, a former shoe store-turned-chapel. The informal group talks about everything from life on the streets to God, drugs and AIDS.
Maria Pena, 17, is a regular at the rap sessions. The meetings give her something to think about, and it beats staying at home.
“I get to spend a little time out of the house,” said the junior at Jackson High. “It gets boring at home.”
Maria has even more fun on the Saturday field trips sponsored by the youth group, which received a $5,000 grant from the Dade Community Foundation to pay for outings. They have visited other neighborhoods, gone roller skating, attended musical presentations and driven go-carts.
“The whole purpose of these field trips is to just get them to start doing things that most kids do,” said Cortada, who took 29 kids to a skating rink last Saturday. “It integrates them. Wynwood is so inclusive. The kids sometimes get used to living in their own little world.”
For a long time, that world was marked by gangs, drugs and poor relations with police officers. Slowly, the scene is starting to change. The most obvious example is evident on the football field most Saturday afternoons.
There, police officers from the Miami Gang Unit coach the Wynwood Warriors. The team of 30 plays against teams from other parks and youth organizations. Boys wear blue and black jerseys, and the girls have a cheerleading squad.
“It (develops) trust between police officers and the kids,” said William Alvarez, a detective in the Miami police gang unit who coaches the football team. “What they need is attention and guidance.”
Added Steven Caceres, another member of the gang unit who coaches: “Many of their parents have two jobs and they need somebody to help them.”
William Ramos, deputy director for ASPIRA, said the lack of adequate adult supervision also leads to problems in the classroom. ASPIRA tries to address these problems through the educational programs it runs out of its Wynwood offices. Interest in the programs has increased.
“Since the disturbances, we have had more students from the neighborhood walk in for services,” he said.
ASPIRA sponsors a science club, student newsletter, tutoring program and SAT preparation program. Its most expansive effort so far has been the alternative middle school, which opened this year.
The Accolade school, housed in ASPIRA’s offices at 3650 N. Miami Ave., is a Dade County public school geared to students who had a hard time in other schools.
Many of the students rarely attended classes. One student had not set foot in school for two years before joining Accolade.
At Accolade, the students are in classrooms with 15 to 20 other students, smaller than most classrooms, which sometimes have up to 35 students. The students say it’s a welcome change that makes a big difference.
“I like this place much better because they treat you right,” said Carmen Isabel de Jesus, 17, an eighth-grader. “They help you with your work and if you don’t know how to read, they help you with that, and if you have trouble at home, the counselors help you work it out.”
People agree that paying attention to the kids is crucial to the future of Wynwood. “We have to keep them motivated,” said Raul Martinez, ASPIRA’s executive director. “We have to give them positive reinforcement.”
That’s one thing they are getting. First lady Barbara Bush has visited children at ASPIRA. CNN filmed the youth group at La Mission San Juan Bautista last week, and PBS and Channel 51’s television show Ocurrio Asi are planning segments on the group.
“This is all a big deal for these kids,” said Cortada. “The last time they got noticed, they had to burn Wynwood down.”