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Ex-gang members erasing signs of their former lives

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
December 22, 2005

When Cesar Altamira was in middle school, he joined a Norteno gang in Redwood City, and before long he got one of the most common tattoos: four dots, one on each finger of his hand.

He later added a tattoo of his last name on his arm, along with a mariachi player. But when he left the gang nine years ago at the age of 20, the marks of that membership remained.

“My son, who’s 9 years old, and my daughter, who’s 5, asked me what happened to my arm,” Altamira said. “I told them it was something bad, and I didn’t want them to do something like that.”

Altimira has spent the past year and a half having his tattoos burned away with a laser, a treatment available through the San Mateo County probation department. Although removing them takes longer — and hurts more — than getting them, he said it has made a huge difference.

“It completely changed my life. People look at me different. I can go and get jobs,” Altamira said. “Now I can raise my head up and not be afraid.”

Many gang members, especially men like Altamira, abandon the gang life once they start to raise families. But tattoos are lingering reminders of a past they’re trying to leave behind.

The tattoo-removal program holds sessions every six weeks and many tattoos require multiple sessions, so it takes time for the marks to go away. Patrick Ramos has spent three years getting laser treatments and watching his eight tattoos slowly vanish.

Like Altamira, Ramos had dots tattooed on his hands, plus gang names on his back and neck. He got them when he was young because it seemed like a cool thing to do, but then realized his lifestyle and his look were holding him back.

“Now I can go anywhere and not worry about people trying to start stuff with me,” Ramos said. “Sometimes, when you have these tattoos, people belittle you and look at you weird.”

The San Mateo program offers tattoo removal for free, but requires participants to donate at least 20 hours of public service, often more, according to program director John Domeniconi. Founded 10 years ago, the program usually treats 20 to 25 people per session.

Local doctors Peter Webb and David White volunteer their time for the procedure, and use of the laser removal machine is free. The program directors spend most of their budget on band-aids.

To qualify, ex-gang members “have to be committed to leaving the gang. They have to stay out of trouble, and they can’t show up wearing colors,’ Domeniconi said. In the nine years he’s been with the program, Domeniconi has only seen one fight.

Gang members most often get tattoos from each other, rather than from professional artists. Females often say they regret tattoos they got while drunk or say they hooked up with the wrong crowd. Males want them removed because they don’t want their children to see the tattoos and think about following in their fathers’ footsteps, according to Domeniconi.

He has noticed another gender divide: while women seem to handle the painful procedure well, men often come out with pale faces and shaky hands. But only one person, a boy, has passed out in 10 years.

In exchange for the treatment, Ramos volunteered with the St. Vincent De Paul Society. Once a Redwood City resident, he now lives in San Bruno and works as a delivery driver.

Altamira paid it back by visiting schools like John Gill and teaching kids why they should avoid gang life and their lingering marks. He recently moved from Redwood City to Newark, where he cleans carpets for a living.

“It wasn’t hard to leave the gang,” he said. “I joined to protect people, but it wasn’t the right thing to do. When my son was born, I wasn’t willing to endanger my family.”

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

December 22, 2005 at 9:47 PM

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