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An American Family: Living on the Verge 

Chapter One: Starting all over — again

Thursday, Feb 12 2004
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Meet the Aguilars.
Inside their home on César
Chávez Avenue, and outside
on the streets,
their lives unfold in surprising,
yet all too common ways for
hundreds of thousands of
people in Los Angeles.
A yearlong series will
record their struggles, challenges
and triumphs.
(Photographs by Anne Fishbein)

I am fast-forwarding
past the reruns ése
and riding the big wave
called future.

—Luis Alfaro,

“Orphan of Aztlan”

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April 2, 2003, dawns cold and clear as Luis Aguilar pulls out the small, neatly folded pile of new clothes, mailed by his wife three weeks ago, to be worn today when he walks out of prison for what he prays feverishly will be the last time. American bombs are still falling in Baghdad as 31-year-old Luis boards the big, gray correctional bus just outside the California Institution for Men at Chino, a sprawling, 62-year-old complex located in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Luis was supposed to get out March 31, but the day came and went without his name being called. When he asked a guard to find out what might be wrong, the guard shrugged. “Are you sure you didn’t get in trouble?” Luis was very sure, he said. The next day, when he inquired further, a Chino staff member would say only, “There’s a problem.” The problem turned out to be an INS hold. It seemed that, although Luis was born at the L.A. County–USC Medical Center, the state of California had him listed as a resident alien and had scheduled him for deportation. “It’s always something,” Luis says.

Luis’ wife, Francis, then 30, had planned to meet him at the gate to bring him home. But it took another two days to resolve the mix-up, so Luis decided not to call her. Picking him up would have meant taking time off work, not to mention dragging all the kids up to the prison, which Luis never thought was a good idea.

Between them, Francis and Luis have five children, ranging from Elijah, the baby, who will be 2 at the end of February, to Estephanie, a slender, pretty 13-year-old who has recently discovered boys. More accurately, the couple has six children between them, since Luis also has a 9-year-old daughter who right now lives with her mother. Luis and Francis would like eventually to get full custody of the girl. But this could only happen down the road, and only if everything goes right. “Everything” meaning if Luis can find a job and get on his feet financially and, of course, if he can really manage to stay out for good this time.

On first bounce, it sounds ridiculous to suggest that Luis and Francis Aguilar and their family — immediate and extended — embody any kind of typical Los Angeles household. Both are former gang members. Both grew up in poor and extravagantly dysfunctional families. Luis, now 32, has been to prison three times for a total of eight and a half years, the first time a seven-year jolt for assault with a deadly weapon. In combination, they’ve managed to bring into the world more children than most people consider sensible.

On the other hand, gangs and poverty — plus their attendant wounds to the psyche — are a fact of an increasing number of L.A. lives. And since the California prison population has levitated to nearly seven times what it was 20 years ago, with no abatement in sight, this means that, in the next decade, more than a million and a quarter of those inmates will, like Luis, come out and attempt to start over, towing behind them like a dirty kite tail all the difficulties that a prison past engenders. If present trends hold, at least 500,000 of those parolees will land in Los Angeles, which is already home to the largest parole population in the country.

So, viewed from a different angle, perhaps Luis and Francis are emblematic of another, newer L.A., its story writ complex, fierce and turbulent. Moreover, since much of the future of the nation seems to be scripted here at the multicultural, celluloid-haunted rim of the Pacific, where the era’s hoariest social problems exist on a scale and at an intensity found nowhere else in the United States, maybe Francis and Luis also represent the emerging, prototypical American family to whose lives attention must be paid if the rest of us wish to understand the brave new world unfurling now before us.

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