Oscar Meza desperately wants a job, any job -- so long as it isn't in what he calls the "family business." Meza's mother and father are in prison for selling drugs, and the 16-year-old from Texas already has served time in a juvenile detention facility. He came to Oklahoma City to live with his stepmother, find a legal job and turn his life around. "I'm trying to change," said the teen who dropped out of high school but already has a General Educational Development high school equivalency certificate. "I'm trying to better myself and get a job." It has been harder than he expected. Meza filled out eight applications and got eight rejections in one week. Most of the time, he didn't even get an interview. The one time he did, the employer wanted someone older. Meza's chin sank into his chest as he slumped in a straight-backed chair at the Latino Community Development Agency, recalling the humiliation. "Sometimes, I feel like just giving up," Meza said. "It's easy for me to go to selling drugs. All my family did." Finding jobs for former gang members like Meza is the single hardest chore for Jose Viloria, a youth counselor who works in gang intervention programs at the Latino agency. The teens Viloria sends out job-hunting know how to fill out applications and how to dress appropriately, but often that makes no difference, especially if they are sporting gang tattoos. Meza has two small ones, neither much bigger than a blemish, one near each eye. A few miles away, Chris Williams, 18, sits in his living room, describing the job he lost at a fast-food restaurant when the weather got warm and he came to work in short sleeves, revealing gang tattoos on his arms. "They started tripping," Williams said of his employers. Sometimes Hispanic gang members can't get jobs because they lack the documents that make it legal for them to work in the United States. Viloria describes one young gang member who had to make restitution as part of his probation. The family had no money, so the boy took a job that paid him "under the table" -- usually cash payments that are not reported to the government. He made less than minimum wage. "We have to find the mechanism, another way, to hire those kids," Viloria said. Viloria knows he is asking employers to take a risk. "You hire one of these kids, you have to be willing to buy a lottery" ticket, Viloria said. "You don't know if he's going to be good or bad. You have to take a chance." However, experts say getting gang members jobs is the single best way to curb their gang activity, because most come from low-income homes. "I'm lucky," Viloria said. "I have a good job. I have my own bed. I got air conditioning and a heater. The main kids of the gang don't have that." He looks at Meza slumped in the chair. "I prefer he work like a dog all day, but on Friday, he will go to the house all sweaty and brown but with a check," Viloria said. "That is what gives him self-esteem."
NewsOK.com has disabled the comments for this article.