The Vietnam War lifted these former gang members out of one of the West Side’s most notorious neighborhoods and gave them a new perspective on the world.

In the late 1960s, Hector Caldera, a member of the notorious former gang known as Ghost Town, walked to the Cassiano Homes with a .22 Magnum in his hand. Caldera was in search of the person who murdered his friend, Adan Torres, on the corner of Saltillo and 19th streets — across from the Good Samaritan Center.

“I remember going to his funeral, and I was so angry,” Caldera, 70, recalled. “I went to school and I just couldn’t stop crying. I got in [my] ’54 Chevy, grabbed my .22 and I left.”

Cassiano residents sprinted into their concrete homes in fear, and the sounds of slammed metal screen doors echoed in the barrio. Caldera stopped himself, and asked, “What the hell am I doing?”

On a recent Saturday, Caldera strolled through Cassiano gripping his umbrella in the pouring rain. What for? He was helping his childhood friends distribute 423 Christmas gifts to 47 underprivileged West Side children. This is the work of the Ghost Town Survivors (GTS) — a group of 34 former gang members and Vietnam War veterans.

The group nourishes the West Side, a barrio they once menaced.

Last Saturday, Hailey Villarreal, 19, receives gifts for the children in her household from the Ghost Town Survivors. Jose Arredondo / Folo Media

Hailey Villarreal, 19, heads a household of seven children. Last Saturday, Villarreal’s house was the first on GTS’ delivery list, and they brought huge bags stuffed with presents.

Last year, Villarreal said, her family didn’t have a true Christmas. But on this day, her living room was packed with 40-plus volunteers and the 11 residents of the home. The children stacked their gifts along the hallway to make room for everyone navigating around the packed space.

“I’m very thankful … This is probably the best year that we’ve ever had,” Villarreal said. “I really hope that they do keep this up because a lot of people need this.”

“I wish we could write letters to thank them because my kids won’t stop talking about the gifts, and it has almost been a week.” — Bonnie Reyes, Cassiano resident

As rain kept pouring last weekend, the Ghost Town Survivors continued delivering gifts. The voice of Robert Cantu, one of two Santa Clauses, rang out, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!”

The other Saint Nick, Al Lopez , took photos with Cassiano residents and handed out bags of candy to children.

“Rain or shine, man, we are going to do our bests to put a smile on these children’s faces,” Cantu said.

Bonnie Reyes, 38, a Cassiano resident and mother of 13, gave birth to a boy, James, two months ago. She said the Ghost Town Survivors took a huge load off of her shoulders because she lost her job in March and didn’t think she could afford gifts for her family.

“I’m glad they (GTS) gave my kids a Christmas we can remember for a long time,” Reyes said a few days after GTS members delivered the gifts. “I wish we could write letters to thank them because my kids won’t stop talking about the gifts, and it has almost been a week.”

GTS members are in their late 60s and early 70s, and often wear pachuco hats and baseball caps, to honor their service in the Vietnam War. The hats complement two customized shirts they wear — one burgundy and the other black, stitched with their group name “Ghost Town Survivors” and “GTS.”

They are usually helped by another group called “The Barrio Girls,” which is composed of wives and former classmates. The Barrio Girls has 25 members, and like GTS, they outlasted the violence and drugs on the West Side. Aside from helping GTS — who are in their seventh year delivering gifts — the Girls assist young women recovering from substance abuse.

“We know how tough it is living on the West Side,” said Linda Cortina, who is legally blind. “So now we are trying to give back.”

Ghost Town was a neighborhood gang on the West Side. Its territory was sandwiched between Saltillo and Guadalupe streets, and went from Barclay Street to South Hamilton Avenue, which includes the Cassiano Homes.

Leonardo “Lalo” Mendez, 71, and 13 other children were raised by his grandmother in the Cassiano Homes. His mother died when he was a baby, and his father abandoned him, but he had his Ghost Town barrio. Caldera lived in the same complex as Lalo, on Hamilton and San Carlos Street.

Young men in the Ghost Town area had two options: join the gang or be their victims. Mendez and Caldera are not proud of the shootings and beatings they inflicted on others, but it was the norm back in the day.

“No matter how bad we were, this place never closed its doors on us. That is why we must pay it all back.” — Leonardo “Lalo” Mendez on Good Sam

The gang warfare prepared Ghost Town members for what lay ahead in the Vietnam War. To avoid jail time, many troubled young men chose to join the military, or they were drafted, like Mendez and Caldera.

“I wasn’t afraid to fight in Vietnam because I already got used to being shot at,” Caldera said with a smirk. “I did two tours of Vietnam and it changed my perspective.”

Many GTS members credit the Vietnam War with taking them out of the barrio and allowing them to interact with people from other parts of the United States. Lalo believes children in the West Side need to be exposed to life beyond the barrio.

“You emulate what you see, you covet what you see, so if you see this lifestyle you will covet that,” Mendez said of the drugs, poverty and single-parent households that exist in 78207, the near West Side. “You need to change the culture, and that is hard to. You have to dig down deep, and go to the lion’s den and make slow painful progress.”

Mendez wants public officials to be in the lion’s den with GTS, and other organizations aiming to spark change on the West Side. He doesn’t believe public officials when they promise to enhance the barrio because progress doesn’t happen.

He pointed to the direction of Cassiano from Good Sam and explained how the housing projects haven’t changed since he was a teen.

“The interior still looks the same, and I don’t know if you noticed, the Cassiano’s do not have AC or central heating. It’s really hot in the summertime and freezing cold in the winter time,” Mendez said, tapping the table with force, “and they don’t even know that, that’s not normal.”

Caldera nodded in agreement.

When Caldera returned from war, he pursued a higher education and obtained his Master of Social Work from Our Lady of the Lake University. He serves on the Board of Directors at Good Samaritan Center and provides insight on the surrounding area.

In the ’60s, GTS members viewed the Good Samaritan Center as a second home, but today members utilize the community center as a resource. The West Side community center helps the group find families and children in need of gifts and scholarships.

“No matter how bad we were, this place never closed its doors on us,” Lalo said. “That is why we must pay it all back.”

On the first Tuesday of every month, GTS members spend 4-5 hours sorting out food into bags for the senior citizens at Good Sam. They also host fundraisers to generate money for scholarships, and this year they raised about $4,500 — another $10,000 was donated from an anonymous GTS member. The group spent $3,782 on Christmas presents and plans to spend more next year.

Leonardo “Lalo” Mendez (left) and Hector Caldera, members of Ghost Town Survivors, help a resident of Cassiano Homes pay their electric bill. Jose Arredondo / Folo Media

How does GTS want to be remembered? When asked this in an interview, a phone call interrupted before they could answer. Mendez pulled out his phone and exited the conference room at Good Sam.

“Hello, I can’t hear you,” Lalo said, outside the room, to the person on the other end of the line. Then a pause. “I’m going to see what I can do, OK? I’ll call you back.”

“Hector,” Mendez said with worry in his voice.

He explained to Caldera that one of the families from the gift distribution had their power cut off. The bill was $507. The group had to vote: If six core members approved, then Mendez or Caldera could take the money out of GTS’ account and use it towards the light bill.

Hector pleaded his case to other members: “I’m not concerned with the parents. I’m more concerned with the children because they won’t have proper heating and I can’t stand the thought of them freezing.”

The vote was unanimous. Mendez and Caldera left the interview to pick up the light bill.

This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.