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
A few hundred feet away, Fernando, the as-yet-unemployed twin, is sweeping the sidewalk in front of his mother’s house, where a small makeshift shrine has been erected for Roman and Ray-Ray. When the pictures are unveiled, he stops sweeping and raises his gaze. He stares at the board for several long moments, his expression blanched and unreadable. Eventually, he turns away and resumes sweeping. "I’ve known every one of them all my life," Fernie says softly, his voice barely audible above the swish-swish of the broom. "All my life."
Grace Campos doesn’t learn who is on the board until the following morning. "I know all of them too," she says. "I’ve been in their houses. I know their mothers." She is silent for a minute. "I try to explain this to the people I work with, but they think I’m crazy. They don’t understand that all it takes is one stupid moment to do something so terrible that it changes everything," she says. "My younger brother Juan is from Cuatro Flats, and he’d still be out there if he didn’t have a family who did whatever it took to get him out of it." Grace pauses for breath. "What I’m saying is, if our family wasn’t as strong as it is, my own brother could have been in the van with the rest of them."
Tragedy can arrive in an instant. Change for the better comes slowly: five steps forward, four and three-quarters back.
Around the same time that Father Boyle hires Roman’s brother Armando, he also hires a Cuatro Flats homeboy named Archie Dominguez. To make sure that the latter arrives in the office safely, Cara Gould drives Archie to work every morning. En route, he talks to her about how, even though he’s trying to move on with his life and leave the gang behind, he just can’t get past hating TMCs. "Don’t worry," he tells Gould, "I wouldn’t trip on them," but he certainly would never talk to one, he says.
One Friday afternoon in November, Armando is sitting on Gould’s desk helping her with some paperwork. Earlier, she asked Archie to pack up some Homeboy T-shirts to be shipped to customers. Archie is behind Gould folding up the box when Mando does the unthinkable. He talks to Archie. "The tape is in that cabinet," he says. "Do you want me to get it for you?" Archie blinks. "Yeah," he says.
Mando fetches the tape and hands it to Archie. There is only a millisecond’s pause before Archie responds. "Thanks, homey," he says.
Cara Gould is from a nice Catholic family in Boston. To her friends back home, she says, the housing projects of East L.A. resemble a dangerous and depressing alien planet — especially after the most recent spate of deaths. "Why do you stay?" they always ask her. In an effort to explain, she writes occasional long e-mails, the most recent of which includes the story of Armando and Archie.
"I know it may seem like a little thing," writes Gould, "but this was the first time in years that either of them spoke to someone from the other’s neighborhood. And it happened after Archie’s friends killed Mando’s friend . . . and Mando’s brother, Roman. It’s those moments that keep me here."
There are other small victories. Arnold Machado has finally found a house. "It has a great yard for the kids and everything," he says. "Sometimes I dream that we’re already living in it. In the dream, I hear the birds singing in the back yard, the sun is coming through this big window, and I’m so happy. But then I wake up and we’re still in the projects. But it’s okay," he says, "we’ll be there soon."
In December, Boyle’s Jobs for a Future office moves to a new and bigger space, and a party is thrown to inaugurate the building. Gabriela Ortiz speaks at the event. She does such a bang-up job that everybody tells her she ought to run for office someday. Gabby waves the suggestion away. "Not with my past," she says, but at the back of her eyes there’s a flicker of interest. Tens of thousands of this city’s young adults have former lives that include gang membership. L.A. can’t shut every one of them out of leadership. It can’t afford to.
Spring arrives with blue skies, rolling blackouts, and auguries of change in the projects that alternate between suffering and merciful redemption.
As the anniversary of Roman’s death approaches, Fernando is jobless and drifting precariously, while Armando continues to make headway. He makes a point of picking up Roman’s daughter every day after school. Then, one morning in early March, he asks Cara Gould to increase his responsibility around the office. "Like you could put me in charge of intake for the tattoo-removal program," he says. "I’ll do a good job for you."
Another morning, Mando announces that he wants to go back to school himself. "I got a plan," he says. "First I’d need my GED. Then I want to learn electronics. I heard about an adult school out in El Monte where they’ve got courses you can take for free. Then maybe eventually I could become a cop. But first, the electronics," he says, "because it’ll keep my mind busy, which is what I need." When his mind is not occupied, things threaten to go bad, Mando says. "I’ve still got so much anger. And I still can’t accept my brother is gone."