By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For many young men of the inner city, lady-baby-job is the divine trinity that pulls them off the street. The combination worked for Roman. Just before he was hired at Homeboy, he fell in love with a young woman named Monica Lopez. They had a child together, a little girl. Boyle tells about a day two winters ago when Roman came into his office wanting to talk. "Hey, G.," he said. "Check this out. Last night I went to pick up my 3-year-old daughter. We drive home, she walks into our apartment, clutches her little arms to her chest and says, ‘This is great!’ And I said, ‘Mija, what’s great?’" Roman then demonstrated for Boyle how his little girl had flung her arms out in a giant, airy embrace. "‘My home!’ she says."
Boyle teared up when Roman delivered the punch line. "You never had a real home in your life," the priest told him. "Still, you did this. You made a home for your kid to come back to. You did that for her." Roman said nothing. Then he nodded in the affirmative. "Yeah."
"A lot of our young people have done a lot to turn themselves around," says Pam McDuffie, a local mother who is also employed as a gang counselor by the L.A. Housing Authority. "But Roman was the one who we could point to and say, ‘That boy started out with nothing. And now there’s nothing in this world he can’t do. If he can do it, you can do it.’ More than with anybody else," McDuffie continues, "I think the community felt they were part of his success. We’d look at Roman and say to each other, ‘Damn. Look at what our work has accomplished!’"
Then, on May 24 of last year, everything changed.
It was a lovely late-spring afternoon that held no presentiment of danger. The sky was a brilliant Wedgwood blue. The air was balmy, warm enough to inspire open windows and optimism. Utah Street Elementary, located at the intersection of Clarence and First streets in Boyle Heights, just across the L.A. River from downtown, had let out 20 minutes before. Kids drifted home along the sidewalks that radiate from the school in all directions, their voices high and energetic. A team of local mothers — each wearing a bright-green T-shirt emblazoned with the words Camino Seguro (safe passage) — were stationed two or three to a street corner. Around a year before, the women had begun posting themselves here every day so that the elementary and middle school students could get home without incident to the three-story apartment buildings that make up the Pico-Aliso projects.
Pico Gardens and Aliso Village combine to form the largest public-housing project west of the Mississippi. The mile-square area is also the poorest community in Los Angeles, according to the Catholic Archdiocese, with one of the highest levels of gang activity in the county, according to the LAPD. Yet for all its poverty and violence, Pico-Aliso operates like a small town for its residents. Everybody knows everybody here. When someone is in trouble, the neighbors help out. For this reason, people tend to stay long after they can afford to relocate elsewhere. The projects are family. The rest of L.A. is miles and miles of impersonal streets.
Although Roman was born and raised in Pico-Aliso, he was one of those who decided to leave. He and his girlfriend, Monica, found a nice apartment in a safer area a few miles north. For weeks after he moved, Roman had screaming fights with his mother because he wanted her to get out, too. He said she should do it for the sake of his teenage brothers, Fernando and Armando Acevedo, the twins, who still lived at home. Roman had done his best to keep them out of gangs. "I’ll beat any of my homies’ asses if they try to jump my brothers in," he would say. They joined anyway, in spite of his efforts. "If you don’t get out of the projects, you’re going to end up burying one of your sons," Roman told his mother over and over. He was right, but not in the way he intended.
Monica would have preferred that Roman stay away from Pico-Aliso altogether. "Why take a chance?" she asked. In deference to her, he did his best to avoid the place after dark, especially late at night, when things were likely to get crazy. But he didn’t think an occasional daytime visit to see family and friends could do any real harm.
May 24 was a Wednesday, so ordinarily Roman would have been at work. But he’d gone to court for a traffic ticket that morning, and his boss told him to go ahead and take the whole day off. The Homeboy Bakery had burned down in October 1999. During the rebuilding process, Roman had been working long hours at the Frisco Bakery in Lincoln Heights. Plus, for the past few months, he’d been finishing the real estate course, and was about to take his licensing exam. So maybe he felt he could use the break. Whatever the reason, Roman decided to swing by Pico-Aliso.