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story.lead_photo.caption Yanet Rodriguez, 33, wears a T-shirt with words of encouragement while working at Homegirl Cafe.

LOS ANGELES -- In a different time, at another place, and under other circumstances, you might have run away from Latisha Valenzuela and Glenda Alvarenga. But at Homegirl Cafe, a Los Angeles breakfast and lunch spot with a Hispanic twist, the two waitresses welcome you with smiles and friendship.

"You alone?" Valenzuela asked. "Don't worry. We'll keep you company." After seating me, she says, "you'll want our cinnamon coffee. We make it ourselves." She says it as if we've been friends since middle school.

Homegirl Cafe offers a unique dining experience with food prepared by former gang members gaining new skills. The popular cafe in the city's Chinatown is a special place for visitors, providing carefully crafted meals along with inspiration from former inmates who willingly tell stories about how they are seeking a better life.

The hip cafe is part of the Homeboy Industries social enterprises founded by Jesuit priest Greg Boyle. After working in one of the city's poorest and most gang-plagued areas, he found out that businesses wouldn't hire ex-gang members and inmates, even if they had marketable skills. So, he formed Homeboy tortillas, Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Cafe, nonprofit businesses aimed at giving jobs and training to the "least of these," as the poor and vulnerable are described in the Bible.

Trainees learn culinary arts while developing social skills. In addition to job training, former gang members can take advantage of tattoo removal, anger management classes and drug treatment.

Former enemies become friends. Instead of trading gunshots, they shoot playful texts to each other. That tenderness is passed along to customers, who include writers, lawyers, actors and teachers.

Plates like the chilaquiles -- fresh crisp tortilla chips tossed with warm tomatillo salsa, egg, crema fresca, and queso cotija -- are made from ingredients that come from urban farms. The Manoy's, a sandwich made of braised shredded chicken prepared Central American-style with pickled cabbage, onions and mayonnaise, is another unique option. The homegirls can tell you exactly how it's prepared.

In addition to the food are the stories.

Boyle has told this one in speeches, interviews and his latest book: Actress Diane Keaton once came in for brunch with a guest. A waitress, a former gang member who'd spent time in prison, went to serve her. Keaton asked for advice on platos and the waitress gave her suggestions. Then, it hit the waitress. "Wait, I feel like I know you," she reportedly said. "You so look familiar."

"Oh I don't know," Keaton said. "I must have that face."

"No. Now I know," the waitress said. "We were locked up together!"

The story always gets a laugh, but Boyle retells it to highlight the power of kinship, and how a former gang member and an Oscar winner connected in a most unlikely place.

Boyle has authored two books, and his inspirational quotes are on T-shirts and fliers around the cafe. To some of the homies, he's the first person who ever showed them unconditional love without judgment.

At the gift shop, visitors can buy an array of Homeboy Industries or Homegirl Cafe shirts, hoodies, hats and bags. The clothing is designed by former gang members who are being taught new job skills.

Homegirl Cafe, 130 W. Bruno St., Los Angeles; homeboyindustries.org

Travel on 07/29/2018

Print Headline: LA eatery retraining ex-convicts

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