Barrios Unidos isn’t what most people would think of when they hear the phrase “faith-based organization.” Even though it’s not aligned with any church or traditional religious group, as Frank de Jesús Acosta demonstrates in his excellent The History of Barrios Unidos, that’s exactly what it is.
Based in Santa Cruz, California, Barrios Unidos—which means “united neighborhoods”—works to stop gang violence and redeem the lives of young people lost in the madness of the streets. A large part of the organization’s spirit work focuses on the concept of cultura es cura, or “culture cures,” to help Latinos find wholeness through the recovery of indigenous elements of their heritage that mainstream society has stripped from them.
“Returning ceremony and prayer into its proper place in the life of the community is so critically important to everything we do,” says Barrios Unidos founder Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez. “We are not about selling religion or proselytizing people, but about embracing the power of spirituality that traditionally has healed and bound our families, communities, and civilizations together as indigenous people.”
The History of Barrios Unidos charts the path of the organization, which grew out of the trunk of Alejandrez’ 1964 Chevy to become a national model for a holistic approach to healing lives fractured by violence, building self-determination, and advocating for civil rights. Acosta looks at how the group responded to events such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots by strengthening their structure and legal status—all without selling out their ideals. This evolution made innovative new partnerships possible, including a highly effective relationship with the California Wellness Foundation, which had recently embraced youth violence as a public health issue.