As a sixth grader, Hazel Gonzalez was constantly in trouble. A member of two gangs, she was in the principal’s office daily. Known for shooting off her mouth, she was headed toward a future of shooting off guns. “I was always rebelling because I was mad at the world,” Gonzalez explains. “I didn’t come from a ‘Betty Crocker’ family home.”
Gonzalez embodied the kind of kid Betty Alvarez Ham wanted to reach when she walked into a public school in Oxnard, California, in 1992 seeking to be a liaison between the city’s churches and schools. She asked the principal at Ventura High School who the “pain-in-the-ass kids” were, and suggested he let her meet with them weekly for group rap sessions. Having grown up in east L.A., Ham knew the realities many urban Latino kids face: poverty, drugs, violence, parents—like Gonzalez’s—in and out of jail. Skeptical but open to anything that might be helpful, the principal agreed. So the first Latina Leadership Group was born.