From gangs to growth: Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation changes lives

Community members pose for a photo in February 2020 at the Detroit Hispanic Development Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing healthy alternatives such as art, music and videography to help youths and young adults break the cycle of gangs, violence and drug abuse. (Photos courtesy of Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation) 

Historic 1997 truce brokered by former Ste. Anne pastor, others led to lifesaving community programs on Detroit’s southwest side

DETROIT — By 1997, southwest Detroit’s Angie Reyes had grown so weary of burying children she knew she had to do something more. 

Reyes, who for 12 years had been youth director at Latino Family Services, founded the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC) in her living room. 

“Myself and a few other folks were working with young adults who were in gangs, experiencing a lot of violence and deaths,” Reyes said. “They’d become young parents and didn’t want the same thing for their children. And they wanted to be around for their children. So they were ready to talk about something different.”

One thing few people know, Reyes said, “is that in the late ’90s, most young people involved in gangs were still going to church on a regular basis. They wore scapulars for protection all the time. Churches were considered sacred ground.”

Detroit history was made when — with Devil’s Night, 1997 approaching — the late Fr. Robert Duggan, pastor of historic Ste. Anne Parish, helped broker a truce between rival gangs. 

“We were looking for a neutral place, and Fr. Duggan agreed to host the meeting,” said Reyes, recalling Fr. Duggan, then-Detroit Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon and gang leaders gathering in the Fr. Gabriel Richard Chapel at Ste. Anne. “Fr. Duggan was very much a social justice pastor who was concerned and interested in community. He believed young people could make other choices and turn their lives around.” 

The result was the DHDC’s Gang Retirement and Continuing Education and Employment program, based at Ste. Anne. 

A Detroit News article from 1997 details the truce between rival Detroit gangs brokered by Ste. Anne pastor Fr. Robert Duggan and then-Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon. 
Angie Reyes, who founded the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation from her living room, said she was tired of watching young people succumb to a life of violence. 

“We were able to partner with the owners of the Hispanic Manufacturing Center, which had moved into the abandoned GM plant on Clark Street. A number of young people who had been enemies just before that became co-workers,” Reyes said. “It set the groundwork for significant change in our community where we no longer had the level of violence. Fr. Duggan became one of the founding board members along with others who helped get DHDC up and running.”

COVID-19 has curtailed activity at the DHDC. But to date, partnering with foundations, businesses and government, the center has served 48,000 people, creating life-changing opportunities for Latino youth and their families. Housed in a 20,000-square-foot refurbished warehouse at 1211 Trumbull in Corktown, the center offers after-school programs, chief among them the award-winning Robotics & Engineering Center of Detroit. 

The Urban Arts Academy also engages youth in their own for-profit ventures, ranging from t-shirt production and silk screening to graffiti art, music and video production. The Summer Youth Program features recreation, projects in life skills, camping trips, community service projects and more. Those aged 14-24 may apply for paid internships with Detroit employers. High school and college graduates compete for DHDC Youth Ambassador Scholarships to further their education.

Other services are designed to help citizens returning home from prison, or leaving gangs. Individuals who commit to a gang- and drug-free lifestyle have tattoos removed at DHDC. Offerings also include G.E.D. and English as a Second Language classes; child care; community organizing and advocacy; a housing counseling program and family services.  

Many of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation’s staff are former felons and gang members who’ve turned their lives around and now devote their time to helping others. 

More than 75 percent of DHDC’s staff members were born and raised in southwest Detroit, and all come from low-income communities of color. Many, as young people, participated in DHDC programming, or programs at similar organizations.

Eladio Niño, a youth specialist and DHDC outreach worker, was hired by Reyes shortly after serving 17 years in prison. 

“I don’t often do that with someone just coming out of prison, but Eladio did such intense work on himself,” Reyes said. “He was one of those rare people who was ready to jump into doing work in the community.”

“I felt connected to this place. It is very much culturally based and celebrates the ancestry of the Latino people,” said Niño, who had his gang tattoos removed at DHDC. “Since I’ve been home, my sons rejected me, and that took a toll. But me, being the optimistic person I am, I know how God works. I knew I needed to be patient. In the meantime, God has given me hundreds of sons to build with, grow with, teach and to learn from.” 

Niño loves interacting with teens in the meditation room. 

A volunteer distributes food during the pandemic outside the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation on Trumbull Avenue.

“It’s a peaceful place. I have formed great bonds with some of the youth here, and their families as well,” said Niño, who also works outside DHDC representing the organization. Remarkably, Niño progressed from “holding gang meetings in my mom’s garage to having meetings downtown with (Detroit) Mayor (Mike) Duggan pertaining to gang violence.”

While he’s eager for things to return to normal at DHDC, Niño didn’t slow down during the pandemic.  

“I distribute food to the community and also distribute funds from grants to help immigrant families and families in need. It’s given me new opportunities to connect with youth,” he said. During election season, Nino helped people register to vote and worked as a poll watcher. He also has his own podcast.

‘A vessel of God’s work’

In heaven, Msgr. Clement Kern of Most Holy Trinity Parish must be smiling. In 1947, he needed an organist. 

“Fr. Kern used to vacation in Mexico City, and my grandfather was the organist at the church he attended in Mexico City,” Reyes said. “Fr. Kern brought my dad, who was 19 years old, to Detroit to be the organist at Holy Trinity. Back then, women weren’t allowed to be the organist, but my mom, who’s Maltese, had been substituting as the organist at Holy Trinity since she was 12. That is how my parents met.”  

Msgr. Clement Kern, late former pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish in Detroit, is pictured with Fernando Reyes, Angie Reyes’ father. Fernando Reyes was the organist at a Mexico City church Msgr. Kern attended when he would vacation to Mexico City, and the priest brought the 19-year-old Reyes to Detroit to serve in that role for Most Holy Trinity. (Courtesy of Angie Reyes)

Fernando Reyes and Mary Galea Reyes had 10 children. “I have four siblings who are music ministers,” said Reyes, who was baptized and married at Holy Trinity and holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan.

Two of Reyes’ four children work at the DHDC. Son Alexis Zavala is director of development and operations. He treasures his family’s legacy. 

“Without my grandfather, we wouldn’t be here,” he said, adding that the DHDC’s mission is near and dear to his heart. “By the time I was 17, I knew over 30 people — young men and some women who were close to me — who had been killed. I had to stop counting. A lot of these were kids who lived with us. They slept on our couch. They considered us family. My Mom went to their parent-teacher conferences,” Zavala said. 

Zavala earned degrees in graphic design and video production and is skilled in youth development, housing counseling, community organizing and leadership development. A self-taught media artist, he uses hip-hop as a tool to engage youth. He can take pride in the work he did converting the DHDC from a “20,000-square-foot dirty, dusty, ugly space” to a state-of-the-art facility replete with a robotics center and colorful murals painted by local graffiti artists. 

The 20,000-square-foot facility houses graphic design, videography, music, counseling services and meeting space for a variety of community building and development programs. 

“We were able to turn that space into a safe haven for youth,” he said. “People in the community helped us install heating and build the walls,” a kitchen, meeting rooms and restrooms.

“On Sunday, we go to church to praise God for His blessings. Monday through Friday when we come to work, we’re in this temple, a vessel of God’s work where kids can learn and grow,” Zavala said. “They can feel God’s light shining on them through this multi-generational work. Literally, we’re taking in grandchildren from when my mom first started helping youth in southwest Detroit.”

Countless success stories

Reyes’ daughter Anita Zavala joined the staff as project manager. 

“Right now, I’m responsible for getting our ‘Fantazma Market’ off the ground,” she said. “The idea is to take the ghost kitchen concept and make it a ghost market” for southwest Detroit restaurants, food trucks, new local businesses, performing artists and musicians, gift shops, cottage industries and vendors. “Ultimately, it will be inside and outside of our building, utilizing our large parking lot and 5,200 square feet of lawn space. We’re looking at getting permitting for the Dean Savage Park across the street and activating that as well.”

Kick-off is scheduled for July 16 (note: an earlier version of this story reported the kickoff would be June 17-18)

“We’ll start off on weekends, and we plan to eventually operate Monday through Thursday from 5-10 p.m.,” Zavala said. “We want to help get as many different businesses incubated as possible, giving the southwest Detroit community visibility.” 

A bus carrying members of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation participates in a Cinco de Mayo parade in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood in 2013.  

Zavala enjoys assisting entrepreneurs “who want to take their businesses to the next level. I’d like to bring my skills to the community where I grew up and help as many people get on the path of self-employment as possible.”

Cristian Gutierrez, 20, is one of the DHDC’s countless success stories. He first came to the center as a Cesar Chavez Academy ninth grader. 

“I saw a pamphlet about it at school. I went, and it was just an interesting spot. Everybody in there was coming together, having fun. There was no hate going around; nobody was trying to fight,” he said. Gutierrez got involved in worldwide robotics competition and 3D design, and was later hired to man the DHDC’s front desk on the night shift. He’d been promoted to the youth department when a need arose for a cook. 

“Growing up, my parents had to be at work all the time, so I learned how to cook by myself,” Gutierrez said. When COVID restrictions end, he’ll resume feeding 120-plus each evening and working as a youth specialist, teaching life skills and robotics. “Honestly, if not for DHDC, I would probably be in a bad place. I wouldn’t know where to go or what to do.”

“My mother has a wall full of awards,” Lex Zavala said, “probably bigger than many actors and singers do. We’re seeing the multi-generational impact we’re having over 40 years developing youth in southwest Detroit. But it’s not about awards.

A display case houses some of the community achievement awards earned by the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation for its two decades of work in southwest Detroit. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“We’ve sent more kids to college than anyone with a trust fund,” Zavala said. “We’ve helped more kids than anybody who has a million dollars in their bank account. And me and my family are just poor people from southwest Detroit. 

“The other day, Eladio and I happened to be here in the office, still closed down from COVID. We heard a knock on the door. It was a young man who in middle school and high school was a little pipsqueak with no facial hair, sleeping on my couch. Now, he’s almost 6 feet tall, with a 7-year-old daughter, driving a new Challenger and doing well. He said he was in town and just needed to stop in to say hi, and thanks,” Zavala added.

“You work with thousands of kids. When some of them come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, showing you pictures of their family and telling you how well they’re doing, that is my reward,” Zavala said. “I love being part of this and keeping the legacy going.”

Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation

To learn more about the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, visit the organization’s website or Facebook page. 

The DHDC has need of volunteers willing to mentor and/or tutor youth; help adult English language learners practice their English; or support returning citizens in their search for employment. The center also needs occasional volunteers for food or diaper distribution, to help prepare meals for youth and to assist with events. Volunteers can be any age, but adults who volunteer with youth must pass a background check.