Straight outta seminary
Father Masseo J. Gonzalez, El Padrecito, the rapping priest, spreads the word
Meet Father Masseo J. Gonzalez. Standing under the Reno Arch and riding through the streets in tricked-out lowriders, he raps about growing up in the ’hood a troubled youth:
You can’t claim me if you’re six feet deep,
Crying above and a mother who weeps.
I know what you’re saying:
you don’t know la calle.’
You don’t know me,
I wasn’t born a priest.
I was raised in the ’hood
And I know it ain’t good.
So what I preach in the form of a flow,
I learned it from the streets,
It’s coming from my soul.
This would be like many other rap videos—except that the artist is an unassuming Catholic priest wearing his robes while performing.Streets is watching
Father Gonzalez has been in Reno for two years and currently serves as associate pastor at Saint Thomas Aquinas Cathedral. He is a member of the Franciscan Order.
“There’s a great story about St. Francis where someone asks him, ‘Well, where is your monastery?’ And he says, ‘Come with me.’ And he takes him by the hand, and they walk all around the town and interact with the poor. They go back up the hill and St. Francis says, ‘That’s my monastery.’ So, in essence, the world,” says Gonzalez.
Growing up in Richmond, Calif., Gonzalez was raised Catholic in a Mexican-American family. He had a hard time focusing in school.
“I was never really comfortable with the church,” he says. “I was never really at peace.”
He eventually was asked to leave the Catholic high school he had been attending in 1978. He then transferred to a public school in Richmond but continued to have problems. “It was there that I really started to go downhill. So, I just left school—basically dropped out.” He joined Job Corps and was sent to Stead in 1980. He began studying, got his GED, and became an amateur boxer. However, he was still partying and getting into trouble.
“One night we went out, and there was some alcohol involved. There was a big fight that actually took me to 395. We were being chased by a vehicle, and I ended up pinned between two cars on the freeway,” recalls Gonzalez. He wound up in the hospital and lost the lower half of his right leg.
Gonzalez moved back to Richmond shortly thereafter to recuperate. Professionally, he was doing much better—he had a job as a computer operator—but still found something missing.
“Spiritually, I started having this great hunger, and I would find myself going to church on my own,” says Gonzalez. “I met the Franciscans … at that point, I felt my calling. It took me about three years to accept that calling.” Gonzalez joined the order and was later ordained in 1996.
Around the same time, Father Gonzalez’s brother, David Gonzalez, began releasing his Homies and Mijos toys, which are gumball machine figurines depicting young, urban, Chicano characters.
“It’s important to realize that these little Homies characters resemble people that I grew up with,” says Father Gonzalez. “I’m kind of getting caught up in this, thinking these are the kind of people I would love to reach out to. I want to try to make sure the church is there for these young folks because to a certain degree I don’t think the church was really there for me as a child and a teenager.”
His brother ended up creating a character of a little priest—El Padrecito.Holy word is bond
The toy was released in 2000, and Gonzalez decided to create a website based on the character of El Padrecito with the goal of connecting to youth, introducing them to grants for college, and generally empowering them.
“My whole thinking is we’ve got to connect with the kids, and let’s do it creatively. And one of the things you’ve got to have is credibility in connecting, pretty much with anybody, but especially with many of the kids I wanted to get to.”
The response was almost overwhelming. Teens began seeking advice on relationships and other personal issues. Gonzalez realized that there was a need out there for help and community.
Father Masseo always had a love for music. Growing up in Richmond—near San Francisco and Oakland—he was exposed to many of the bands that passed through or established themselves there. He names a few influences: Carlos Santana, Tower of Power, Smokey Robinson, Motown, Ohio Players, lots of funk. He fell in love with the genre of rap, as well.
“I kind of pushed that side of me away when I became a priest. I figured, ‘Well, that certainly doesn’t have a role in my life right now,’” says Gonzalez. Once again, circumstances intervened, and in 2006, Father Gonzalez met Arturo Cruz, a rapper living in the Bay Area. Together, they created a platform for young people to connect and express themselves in a group called Hiz-Kidz.
The response to Father Gonzalez’s unique approach has been extremely positive. He recently received a grant to produce an anti-violence rap video in Northern Nevada. He is working with kids and teens from the juvenile detention facility on Parr Boulevard to create a video and a piece that will be performed at Artown in July. It is a collaborative piece that allows the kids working with Gonzalez to have their own voice.
“Coming to Reno, one thing I’ve noticed about Latino youth is that there is still a lot of hope here in the Reno area to do something about gang violence,” he says.
Father Gonzalez says there is a lot of misunderstanding of the Mexican-American community in Northern Nevada. “There are so many stereotypes out there. I think the larger community needs to have a better understanding of this particular population of youth.”
As for connecting with these kids through music, he cites his own life. “I ran around the streets, was in trouble with the law. I have a sense of what it’s like in terms of the cold feeling some of these kids have. I feel for them.”
Gonzalez’s intention has always been to help others, but something he realized early on is that it’s not so much whether other people get the message from the videos. It’s more about those involved, the kids who are participating. Giving them the opportunity to perform and express themselves is transforming.
“The creation of these videos, which I thought was going to be for others, actually changed the lives of the kids who were involved in it,” says Gonzalez. “I’m thinking the world, right?”
He brings it back to the story of St. Francis. “I think that’s the whole concept,” he says, referring to finding God even in the streets. “And I didn’t know that. All the time I used to run around, I didn’t know that He was out there.”