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
frances hears that several active Tiny Boys gang members have recently gotten out of prison, a fact that makes her jumpy. “A lot of these guys are real knuckleheads,” she says. “I just don’t want any of them anywhere near me.”
Adding to her anxiety is the fact that Lil’ Happy was just released from juvenile probation camp. (Lil’ Happy is the 17-year-old who dealt drugs out of the Aguilars’ back bedroom.) He was arrested the same day Luis was arrested, pleaded guilty to drug dealing and was sentenced to four to eight months in Camp David Gonzalez, at the north end of Malibu Canyon. Within a few hours of his release, Happy cheerfully shows up at Frances’ door looking for whatever belongings he might have left at the house before his arrest. He is a tall, skinny, desperately shy kid who seems emotionally much younger than his age. “Why did you do this to us?” Frances asks him once the needed pleasantries are out of the way. “Why did you burn us this way after we gave you a place to stay, and fed you, and bought you clothes?
After we were kind to you?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I needed to make money for my mom. She’s got my three little brothers at home to take care of, and she don’t have no job.”
Frances also wants to know how Happy hid his dealing from her. It was easy, he explains matter-of-factly. “People would call me on my cell phone, and I’d tell them when to come by. Or sometimes they’d just throw rocks at my window. And since I was in the back bedroom, you and Luis were in the front with the TV on, you couldn’t hear nothing.” He mostly instructed people to show up late at night, Happy says, “like from 12 till 2 or 3 in the morning, either that or while you guys were still at work.”
As gently as she can, Frances tells him he shouldn’t come around anymore. “You’re a man now,” she says. “Your mom needs you. You can’t be here.” Happy asks if Frances can help him find a job. “I don’t want to slang [sell drugs] or gangbang no more. That’s it for me,” he says. She tells him to come to the Homeboy office in the morning.
After he leaves, Frances thinks about the conversation. “For months I’ve been asking myself, did I notice anything that should have told me what was going on? And the answer is, honestly, no, I never saw it.”
The next morning, Happy turns up as agreed. Frances introduces him to one of the job developers, who, in turn, hooks him up with a part-time position at Homeboy Silkscreen, one of the businesses run under the Homeboy banner. After that, she hears no more from Happy, and wonders if he will last. But a month later he’s still working.
“I like it here,” he says. “I’m learning things. I’m staying away from the neighborhood, and giving most of my check to my mom.
It feels good.”
As to whether Luis knew he was dealing, or was dealing himself, Happy is emphatic. “Luis never had nothing to do with it. Nothing. But he caught me once out in the garage, packaging some stuff up. He got really mad, so I told him I wouldn’t do it no more.” But did he stop? “No,” says Happy. “I just did it more on the down low.” The nine bullets found in the search belonged to him too, Happy says. “I never thought about hurting nobody,” he says, his eyes huge and stricken. “Frances, she’s like the really nice older sister I never had. And now that I see what I did, it makes me feel all, you know . . . sad.”
FRANCES OFTEN FEELS weighed down, particularly by the financial burdens, yet at a more fundamental level she is gaining strength. On June 3, a local Spanish-language radio station wants to do an on-air interview with a male gang member who speaks fluent Spanish. Homeboy Industries’ operation director Mike Baca instead bounces the call over to Frances. The interview is scheduled to be a half-hour long, but generates such a deluge of calls that the host extends the show another 15 minutes, praising Frances effusively off the air. Then, on June 12, Homeboy Industries holds its once-a-year $300-a-plate fund-raiser at Our Lady of Angels Cathedral, and Frances is one of four featured speakers. She sits on the stage, more dressed up than she’s been in years, face made up in the soft pink tones that Estephanie chose for her, clutching her notes, nervous to the point of nausea. Yet when Frances actually speaks, her voice is clear and strong. “I was a gang member for over 20 years,” she begins. “My life changed completely when I went to work for Homeboy Industries.” Significant pause. “Or as I call it . . . Homegirl Industries.” Afterward, assorted wealthy Westside types make a point of waylaying Frances to tell her that they loved what she said, that she’s a natural.