By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Well, somebody better do something, says Bisnow.
“I’ll try,” Frances tells him. “How does he expect me to do this?” she asks after she hangs up. “He’s the one with the investigator.”
Meanwhile, there is the rest of life to handle: Although 12-year-old Bola is doing well, just before Luis was arrested, he and four friends were picked up by the cops for tagging the roof of a store on Cesar Chavez, a few blocks from home. The boys are scheduled for juvenile court on March 10.
Bola is wide-eyed and nervous when Frances drives him to the Municipal Courthouse on Hill Street. “Just tell the truth and you’ll be okay,” she instructs him. Surprisingly, he does. Inside the hearing room, the other boys mumble vague excuses in response to the judge’s questions, but Bola’s manner is suddenly calm and direct. “I know it’s my fault,” he tells the stern-faced woman judge. “We’re kids, and we’re curious, so we try things. But we did wrong. And I’m not going to do it no more.”
The judge fines each boy $55, telling them they should find ways to pay the money themselves. “I don’t want your mothers to do it,” she says. They are also assigned 30 hours of community service that Bola wants to fulfill at Father Greg’s office. “I’m proud of you, George,” the judge makes a point of telling Bola before they leave. Frances tells her son that she’s proud of him too. “Really proud,” she says.
Bola is still being teased viciously by certain former friends, although he won’t talk to Frances about it. “He won’t because I’m his mom,” she says. “He needs Luis. Estephanie looks to me when she has a problem. But Bola looks to Luis.” Scrambling for ways to build her son’s confidence, Frances learns of a photography course being taught every Friday afternoon at the Homeboy offices and tells Bola that if he’ll take the class, she’ll take it with him.
Bola agrees, and at the first class the teacher asks each student to pick a subject to photograph. Frances selects portraits. Bola announces he’ll photograph “graffiti art.” During the next week he rides his bike all over downtown looking for graffiti photo ops, under bridges, at the back of the Sears building, along the brightly painted concrete hips of the L.A. River. “See, I used to be into all that stuff before,” he explains to the teacher when the film is developed. “But now I’m into it a different way.”
Raising a boy in poor, urban Los Angeles is perilous by any standard. Yet it’s a task made harder if the parents are former gang members still living in gang territory. Before Luis was locked up, Frances tolerated the homeboys who dropped by the house to kick it or to cadge a meal. Not anymore. If they knock, she politely but firmly shoos them away. And when Officer John Pedroza asks if Frances wants him to send a squad car over if he sees a group of gang members congregating on the sidewalk near her front yard, she nods quickly. “Yes, please,” she says.
When Frances visits Luis they inevitably talk about where the family should move when Luis gets out of this mess. If Luis gets out of this mess. Luis thinks Downey might be a good idea, or Lynwood or Chino. “My aunt lives in Palmdale, we could try that,” he says. “Too far,” says Frances. She knows the move is necessary. “How could I not know?” she says. Yet, deep down, part of Frances doesn’t want to leave Boyle Heights. “I grew up here. This is my home.”
The point is demonstrated plainly whenever she walks down Cesar Chavez Boulevard; outgoing, personable Frances runs into another friend or longtime acquaintance every 10 or 15 feet. There’s the middle-aged Asian woman who runs the jeans-and-clothing store, the 30-something couple with the tamale stand, the chatty Anglo basehead everyone calls “Professor” who makes money sweeping up after-hours at the popular restaurant La Parrilla. The list goes on and on. And since word got out that she works for Father Greg, she has become Homeboy Industries’ one-person outreach team. People waylay her so frequently to ask if she can help with jobs or tattoo removal that Frances has taken to carrying business cards at all times, even on quick errands. “Just call or come by during business hours and ask for me,” she’ll say. “I’ll make sure you talk to the right person.”
Yet for all the community warmth, the disadvantages of staying here still clearly outweigh the good. In the three-block-square area where the Aguilars live, drugs are dealt in multiple, obvious locations, even out of a storefront on Cesar Chavez. There is also the fact that Frances and Luis managed to buy a house smack in the middle of Tiny Boys territory, meaning that guilt by proximity — deserved or not — is all too easy to acquire. The area claimed by State Street, one of Tiny Boys’ oldest enemies, is a short two blocks away. Although Frances works with former “enemies” every day at Homeboy, she still can’t walk into State’s territory without becoming visibly jittery. “I don’t think they’d do anything,” she says, “because they know I’ve been out of it for so long, but you never know.” Even nearer to home, the atmosphere can turn from benign to dangerous in an instant.
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