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
In the gang world, when a homeboy dies, even an inactive homeboy like Roman, a protocol kicks in that is as formal and predictable as that for an event of state. The gang immediately calls a series of meetings. The timing and strategy of vengeance are discussed. Homeboys take up a collection to help the family with burial costs. A fund-raiser is scheduled, usually a car wash. Someone is assigned to order the sweatshirts the gangsters will wear to the funeral. The sweatshirts are always the same, black pullovers printed with white Old English lettering: "In Loving Memory of Our Homeboy" — here the name is inserted — "R.I.P."
In Roman’s case, the collection was taken, and a car wash planned. But for the first time in TMC history, no sweatshirts were ordered. There was talk of retaliation, but it was confused and halfhearted. "Deep down, everybody knew he wouldn’t have wanted it," says Fulgencio Estrada.
Gabriela Ortiz, an attractive woman of 26 with a wild mane of auburn hair, has posted herself at the front door. As a teenager, Gabby was known as Candy Girl, one of the few females ever to be courted into TMC. Two years ago, she began working as a field representative for then–state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. When he was termed out, she switched to the new speaker’s office, but worked on Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign nights and weekends. As the mourners file past her, Gabby hands each a Xeroxed sheet of paper on which a commemorative poem has been printed. "Sometimes people come into your life and you know right away they were meant to be there," it begins, ". . . to help figure out who you are or who you want to become . . ."
Once most of the crowd is inside, Gabby leans back against a wall. "I don’t regret that I was in a gang," she says, "because my experience on the street has made me a more qualified person in every sense you can think of. I came from nothing, and the way I see it, if I could survive the projects, there’s nothing in the straight world I can’t survive. But this thing with Roman scares me. Maybe no one would do anything to me because I’m a girl — a single mother raising a kid. But all you need is one person who knows me from way back when, who says, ‘Hey, she was caught up in it.’" Gabby breathes deep, then lets it out. "They say what goes around comes around. And sometimes it comes around five times harder."
Roman’s family sits at the very front of the church. His girlfriend, Monica, looks the most fragile, her eyes wide and stricken above her dark-scarlet lipstick, her fingers trembling in a continuous shiver. Next to her, Martha Campos, Roman’s mother, is dry-eyed and still. People say she hasn’t shown much emotion since that July day when her oldest daughter drowned trying to pull her baby boy out of the public swimming pool in Pecan Park, a few hundred yards north of here.
Roman’s aunt, Rosa Campos, sits near the middle of the church. Her daughters, Grace and Rosa Jr., are in the pew directly behind her. Grace is 25, with the face of a Modigliani Madonna. She had her first baby a month before she turned 16, by a TMC gang member who is now doing life without possibility of parole. She had two more before she was 20, with Jose Nieto, the man she eventually married. Both Grace and her sister are projects girls who have made good. Rosa Jr. works in administration at Cal State Los Angeles. Grace makes her living as a production coordinator on TV commercials for Federal Express and E-Trade. She plans eventually to start her own bilingual production company.
"Jose wanted to come," says Grace with a nervous little flex of her lips, "but obviously he couldn’t." Her husband is a smart, hard-working man who has been employed in heavy-equipment maintenance for the past six years. He was friends with Roman but, like Victor Ayala, was from Cuatro Flats. "This is such a bad, sad situation for us," Grace says, "because of how we’re caught in the middle. See, my kids go over to my mom’s house after school so I can work. Jose used to pick them up at the end of the day. After Roman, he can’t do that anymore, because my mom lives one-half block away from where Roman was shot. One of the TMC youngsters could think, ‘Okay. It’s payback time. Cuatro Flats killed someone who was out of the game. We can do the same thing.’"
Roman’s brothers, Armando and Fernando, slip in quietly after the rest are already seated. As children, the twins were skinny, big-eyed boys with faces like upended teardrops and enormous, elfin ears. At age 20, they are tall and handsome, albeit with the same remarkable ears. Tonight they walk with their shoulders unnaturally tensed, as if against a strong wind, their expressions broken like glass. Grace reaches out a sisterly hand to each of them as they pass her. They both list, if only briefly, in her direction.