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An American Family: Close to Breaking 

The Aguilars face money problems, bad grades and near-constant arguing about Luis’ future

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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Photos by Anne Fishbein

Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.

Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.

—Jane Hirshfield, “Poem With Two Endings”

This is part of a yearlong series focusing on the Aguilar family — Luis, Frances and their children — of East Los Angeles. In Chapter 3, tensions grew with Luis’ attorney over the handling of his drug case. Frances sought to confront her neighbors, who see the Aguilars — not the police — as the problem.

It’s the beginning of June, and Frances Aguilar is nearly out of money. She still has her $1,440-a-month paycheck, which covers the family’s monthly expenses as long as she’s careful. All but the mortgage. Since Luis was arrested in January, Frances has made the house payments from the $4,500 in savings that Luis managed to squirrel away out of his salary of $29.45 an hour plus overtime. A small windfall arrived when Frances filed a damage claim under her homeowner’s insurance, hoping she’d get money to repair the door the police broke during the raid. At first it looked like the insurance people would decline to pay, so Frances gave up and hired a friend to fix the door for nearly nothing. Then, in late March, California Fair Plan sent a check for the inexplicable amount of $1,002.32, which Frances quickly deposited in the savings account. The $3,010 Frances got back on her income tax made two additional mortgage payments possible, at $1,130 each, with a bit left over. The net result: The mortgage is paid through July. But that’s the end of it.

Frances has always known this day was coming, yet she figured she’d find some way to make do. For one thing, Luis’ parole hold is supposed to officially end July 2, meaning theoretically he could be bailed out. The idea is that once the parole hold is removed, Luis’ attorney could ask the judge to lower his bail from the $225,000 that was set at the beginning, to a more reasonable amount, say $50,000. Bail-bond companies require 10 percent. So $5,000 could buy Luis’ freedom, at least in the short term. The Aguilars don’t have that kind of money themselves, but they figure they could borrow a little from friends and family, then put up the house as collateral. Plus, if Luis gets out, Cheryl Mitchell, his employment coordinator, has assured Frances she’ll have a job waiting for him. “That means we could start paying people back really fast, if we lived mostly on Frances’ salary,” says Luis optimistically. “I just want to get out of here. I need to be there for my family. I need to see the kids. It’s been six months since I’ve been with them. This is too much for Frances alone.”

So far, however, it is all wishful thinking. Luis assumes his parole hold will be lifted on July 2, but there is no guarantee. And although attorney Jim Bisnow succeeded in getting the bail dropped to $125,000 at the preliminary hearing, this means the Aguilars would still have to come up with $12,500, which — barring a miracle — is far too large a nut for them to crack.

Coming clean: Lil’ Happy tellshow he sold drugs out of the Aguliars’ house.

When Luis was arrested, Frances borrowed $1,200 from Homeboy Industries to get his car out of the police impound, a sum she is paying back in $200 monthly increments. After that, other than the house payments — and occasional extraordinary expenses (like the hospital bill from the baby’s birth, and ongoing car problems) — Frances’ largest monetary outlay is for food. “I spent $117 on groceries two days ago,” she says. “I bought lots of bananas and fruit, because the kids love fruit. But now all of it’s gone.”

It doesn’t help, of course, that in addition to feeding her own six children, she’s added a seventh, Armando, the 2-year-old she took home on impulse in May because she couldn’t stand to see him dumped into foster care.

Armando — called “Mando” for short — has integrated into the family with surprising ease. He plays, with only minor squabbling, with Elijah and Frankie, Frances’ 2- and 4-year-olds. The rest of the time, he follows Frances around the house like a small cat, calling out, “Mom, Mom,” and raising his toddler’s arms to be picked up. “He heard the other kids calling me Mom,” she says, “so I guess he just copied them.”

Save for the food and diapers, Frances’ primary problem with Mando is day care. The woman who runs her own kids’ day care says she can fit Mando in once Frances is designated his temporary legal guardian. This can be a simple process, requiring the child’s legal guardian to sign off on a document stating that he or she has agreed to this arrangement. Unfortunately, the parent closest to hand is Mando’s dad, who, as it turns out, is not the child’s legal guardian; Mando’s mother is the one empowered to make such decisions. But she’s incarcerated somewhere in San Diego, and no one seems to be directly in touch with her.

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