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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Homegirl Café Provides Safe Haven, Hope For At-Risk Women

Danielle Tarasiuk |
February 7, 2013 | 6:05 p.m. PST

Executive Producer

Mariana Henriquez shows off her heart tattoo (Danielle Tarasiuk / Neon Tommy)
Mariana Henriquez shows off her heart tattoo (Danielle Tarasiuk / Neon Tommy)
Mariana Henriquez, 24, wears her broken heart on her sleeve... literally. 

Tattooed on Henriquez’s forearm is a cracked red heart barely being held together by a single band-aid.

“The heart represents myself and how broken it [my heart] is,” Henriquez said, "and the band-aid represents my son, holding it together.”

Today, Henriquez is a kitchen manager at Homegirl Café & Catering in Chinatown, but her past, like many of her coworkers', is intertwined with broken hearts, drugs and violence. 

Homegirl Café & Catering, a part of Homeboy Industries, is dedicated to helping at-risk and formerly gang-involved women by teaching them to become contributing members of society. Homegirl Café not only provides the women with job skills, but also provides a safe haven where they can find their self-worth through a variety of workshops and a strong support system. Homegirl Café additionally provides tattoo removal, legal services, and mental health and substance abuse services, among many others. 

A new study titled "Grow. Prep. Serve. Homegirl Café Case Study" found that the work the café does and the outcome it has is quite different from its male counterpart, Homeboy Café. 

“I literally stumbled upon the fact that the women’s journies at Homeboy Industries were not like the men’s,” said Dr. Jorja Leap, one of the authors of the study and professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Leap embedded herself at Homegirl Café for a period of two years and closely studied 50 participants. She found that every woman she studied had some form of child abuse or neglect before the age of 18. She also found that 90 percent of the women experienced substance abuse within the last five years, a vast majority had been incarcerated, and 80 percent had children before the age of 18.

For Henriquez, these numbers were very much a reality. Her father left her family when she was 3 years old, and her stepfather, who married her mother when she was 6 years old, had a violent streak.

“My stepdad used to drink a lot,” Henriquez said. “He always had a lot of men around … he would come home and beat on my mom, make her get up and cook for them.”

Henriquez said that since she did not get the support she needed at home, she began to look for it in her gang-ridden neighborhood. 

At age 12, she began to find comfort in drugs, and at 17, she was incarcerated for the first time on an assault and battery charge. 

That same year, Henriquez found out she was pregnant. 

“I found out I was pregnant a month into my pregnancy,” Henriquez said. “That same day I found out I was pregnant, I was going to go to a crack party and smoke crack, but one of the girls I used to hang out with told me that I should go check myself because I had pains in my stomach.”

The day Henriquez found out she was pregnant was also the day she found out that her son’s soon-to-be-father was sentenced to three years in prison. Thus Henriquez, who had a strained relationship with her mother, was pregnant and alone at 17 years old. 

Three years later, once Henriquez's son's father was released from prison, they decided to give their relationship another try. But since they both had felonies on their records, it was difficult for them to find work. Through his probation officer, her son’s father found a job at Homeboy Industries and introduced Henriquez to Homegirl Café. 

In her case study, Leap discovered that each woman she interviewed had a key turning point or a “moment of truth” in their gang and substance abuse recovery. And, unlike the men, most of the key turning points for women were emotional and involved their children. 

“The complex trauma that they [the women] encountered is just of a different nature than men,” Leap said. “They have a particular relationship with their children that men don’t have with their children … that’s not to say that men are not engaged with their children; it’s just in a completely different way.”

Henriquez's her turning point did revolve around her son, but it was more gradual than others. 

“I thought it was fine to still use [drugs],” Henriquez said, "as long as my son was being taken care of.” 

Mariana Henriquez and her mentor, Patricia Zarate (Danielle Tarasiuk / Neon Tommy)
Mariana Henriquez and her mentor, Patricia Zarate (Danielle Tarasiuk / Neon Tommy)
Henriquez “tested dirty” during one of her routine drug screenings at Homegirl Café and lost her job. 

It was not until a few months after losing her job and her mother kicking both Henriquez and her young son out of the house after a fight did Henriquez have her turning point. 

“I was broke,” Henriquez said. “We were staying in this little room and I couldn’t bring him [my son] up like that. I couldn’t choose between milk or drugs.”

Henriquez stopped using drugs and, with the support of her mentor and chef at Homegirl Café, Patricia Zarate, she got her old job back. 

Henriquez also cut ties with her son’s father, who is currently serving six years in prison for another felony. 

“I wanted more, and he didn’t,” said Henriquez about her son’s father. “He wanted to come to work, but still mess around … he was using drugs and selling. I didn’t want to be part of that anymore. I wanted to have a home.”

Leap concluded in her study that Henriquez’s success and that of many other women like her at Homegirl Café are due to the Café's unique approach to rehabilitation. 

“The meaning of the study is that personal transformation is anchored in social enterprise,” Leap said. 

For Henriquez, the community she found and the skills she learned at Homegirl Café exemplify Leap’s conclusion. 

“Homegirl is my home,” Henriquez said. “Nowhere else would I have been given the opportunity like I’ve had here ... opportunity to grow, to forgive.”

Email Danielle Tarasiuk here or follow her on Twitter



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