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
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 notthe 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.
In the meantime, Frances patches together baby-sitting however she can. Her friend Nancy, the pregnant woman who lives across the street (who has by now delivered a healthy baby girl), fills the gap some days. Other days, Frances sneaks the little boy into work with her, knowing Father Greg will be annoyed if he finds out.Painful grace: Bola washes cars to help pay for Magoo’s burial.
A small shard of relief arrives one afternoon in early June when a guy from the Homeboy Graffiti Removal crew named Miguel Gomez breezes into the office and calls out to Frances. “Hey, Tweety!” he says, and motions for her to come over. (“Tweety” is Frances’ gang placa, her street name. It evolved out of a family pet name: “Tweety Bird” was Frances’ mother’s childhood term of endearment for her daughter.)
“What d’you need?” asks Frances cautiously as she walks in his direction. “Nothing,” answers Gomez, whose own street name is Magoo. Then, with an exaggeratedly hearty handshake, he slaps something into Frances’ palm. “I heard you’re taking care of the homie’s son. Thanks for stepping up like that,” he says, then strides away. Frances unfolds the item he has slapped into her hand. It’s a $100 bill.
She is astonished by the gesture. Magoo is a compact, well-built 36-year-old who has recently been paroled after 10 years in prison. Frances knows him from back in the day, but not well, in part because he has been locked up for much of the last 20 years, but also because, back then, Magoo was something of a dark legend, a gangster whom even other homeboys considered to be so unpredictable and dangerous that they tended to steer clear of him. (Magoo is the only homeboy ever to have pulled a gun on Father Greg — threatening, fairly convincingly, to shoot the priest.) “He was scary,” says Frances. “Everybody I know was scared of Magoo.”
When, a few days after his release from prison in late March, Magoo walked unannounced into the Homeboy offices and asked to see Father Greg, the priest wasn’t entirely overjoyed to see him. “I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Magoo said as he approached Boyle’s desk. “You’re thinking, ‘Uh-oh. Here comes trouble.’ But look, I’m not the man I used to be. I’ve spent 20 years trying to build a reputation for myself, and now I regret I even have one.” With that, Magoo put his head in his hands and began to sob.
Boyle assigned him to the Homeboy Graffiti crew, working from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. He turned out to be an excellent and genial employee. A few weeks later, Magoo found a second job, cleaning office buildings after hours and on weekends. A month after that, he gave Frances the hundred bucks out of his paycheck. In another few weeks, he gave her a second hundred, both times waving away her thanks.
“Nobody else has offered to help me,” she says. “Not even Mando’s dad. And here Magoo is just struggling to get his own life together, but he thinks about helping somebody else. It just goes to show you should never give up on anybody.”
THE ONGOING DRUG-DEALING CHARGE that keeps Luis in jail tests the couple in many ways. Both Luis and Frances are deeply worried that Jim Bisnow, Luis’ attorney, will not mount a strong defense and only wants him to take a plea bargain. Luis can petition the court for a different lawyer, but no one can guarantee he’ll get one. And would a new attorney be better or worse than Bisnow?
After another dispiriting go-round with the lawyer, Frances confides her fears to Father Greg. When Luis calls and confesses the same fears, Greg comes up with an idea. A few months before, he says, he ran into an old friend who mentioned that if the priest ever had a special criminal case that he wanted handled pro bono to give him a call. Greg decides that Luis is that special case, and phones the guy, whose name is Mark Overland. “If that’s what you want,” Overland says, “I’ll be happy to do it.”
Overland is a small, pleasant-looking man with a penchant for well-tailored, conservative suits and a highly focused intensity that suggests an extremely intelligent bird of prey. “Hi,” he says when he introduces himself to Luis in the holding cell before Luis’ next perfunctory court appearance. “I’m the guy who’s going to save your ass.”
After reading Luis’ paperwork, Overland cautions that the case is not an easy one. “But there are some interesting discrepancies,” he says. The first thing he intends to do, Overland says, is to file a Pitchess motion, a legal request for access to information regarding complaints or related disciplinary actions in the personnel file of a police officer, in this case Officer Rudy Chavez. As it happens, Frances and Luis had each asked Bisnow to file a Pitchess motion in weeks past, but Bisnow declined. “I fail to see the point,” he said.
Luis is heartened by his new attorney’s attitude. “I know I’m really lucky,” he says. “If I’d stayed with Bisnow, eventually I would have had to take a deal. That’s the way it is for most people in my situation. I see it every day in here. Jail is such a bad place to be, psychologically, if you’re fighting a case. You see some
people who are guilty, other people who are innocent. But almost nobody goes home. They take a deal or they get convicted. You think, well, maybe I can be that 1 percent who wins their case. But what are the odds, really? When I was in the holding tank, after Chavez arrested me, he told me, ‘This time you’re going down for a long time. This time, you’re going to lose everything.’”
But with Overland, says Luis, he feels, once again, he has a chance.
Estephanie turns 14 on May 25. It is a school day, so Frances wishes her daughter happy birthday in the morning and hands her a $10 bill, all she has in her purse. That night, Estephanie uses the money to go to the movies with friends. The girls talk about their upcoming eighth-grade party at Six Flags Magic Mountain and their imminent graduation from Hollenbeck Middle School. Estephanie tells her mother she wants a new dress for graduation. “But I’ve got the money, so don’t trip, Mom,” she says, meaning money she has saved from afterschool work at the Homeboy office.
Then, two weeks before the end of school, Estephanie blurts the news that she won’t be graduating. Her academic performance, while not stellar, easily satisfies school requirements. But, students are also marked for “work habits” and “cooperation” — with the possible scores of “E” for excellent, “S” for satisfactory or “U” for unsatisfactory. According to Hollenbeck rules, a student may only have four U grades and still graduate. Estephanie has six.
“My teachers say it’s too late to do anything about it,” she tells her mother miserably. When Frances investigates further, she learns that, although Estephanie won’t graduate, neither will she be held back. “They still want to get rid of her,” says Frances. “They just won’t let her walk across the stage.”
Of all Frances’ kids, Estephanie has had the rockiest school experience. For instance, when she was in the third grade, Frances became concerned because Estephanie didn’t seem to be learning to read. (In 2001, Estephanie’s school, Hoover Elementary, was listed as one of the worst in the district, with 65 percent or more of the children attending scoring “below basic” or “far below basic.”) Her concern escalated when her daughter came home in tears and handed her a note. “The teacher’s aide told me that you need to buy this stuff so I won’t be so stupid,” said Estephanie. Frances opened the note. It read: “Please get GINKGO BILOBA for your daughter.”
“A teacher’s aide gave you this?” Frances asked. “Where’s your teacher?” Estephanie explained that the teacher was in a car accident, so she needed to rest. “Every day we put chairs together for her so she can lie down.”
Outraged, Frances drove to Hoover Elementary the next afternoon and found that a napping teacher was the least of the problems. Estephanie’s third-grade class was an ESL class. Okay, thought Frances. But then she noticed it was an ESL class for Korean-speaking children. Estephanie was the only non-Korean kid in the class.
The apologetic school principal convinced Frances that it was too late in the school year to make a change without compounding the damage. The next year, with the help of a kindly teacher who tutored her after school, the girl began to catch up academically, but the injury to her confidence lasted. “The good news is my daughter still knows a lot of Korean,” says Frances with a sad laugh.
Bola, on the other hand, had always done well academically, scoring second from the top in his fifth-grade class. But, now in sixth grade, particularly since Luis has been locked up, things have gone in a less promising direction. On Friday, May 28, when both Estephanie’s and Bola’s report cards come in the mail, Bola has all F’s. “F stands for ‘fantastic’!” Bola jokes uncomfortably as his mother stares at the flimsy slip of paper. “I don’t know if he thinks he’s being cool, or what,” Frances says later. “I’ve got to get him out of that school.”
According to experts, Bola and Estephanie’s school troubles are symptomatic of a newly quantified problem — namely the harmful collateral effect of imprisonment on families. “We find that when a father is removed from a family through incarceration, kids suffer in a variety of ways,” says Todd Clear, director of doctoral studies in criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Children are less likely to stay in school. Moms are more likely to go on welfare. Teen births are more likely to occur. And when you remove a lot of males from a lot of families, the whole community becomes less stable,” adds Clear. “There’s even a tipping point at which crime goes up precipitously.”
At this, Frances laughs grimly. “Half of the women I know with kids have their men locked up,” she says. “Half. I’m not kidding. And you can always see the effect on the kids.”
THURSDAY IS PARENT-TEACHER NIGHT at Hollenbeck, and Frances intends to go. Estephanie hopes that her mother will talk some of her teachers into relenting on the U grades. Frances agrees to try. But by the time Thursday rolls around, matters have already slipped further downhill.
It seems that earlier in the week, Estephanie got a notice that she owed $68 for a lost textbook that, according to school records, she never returned in the seventh grade. If Estephanie doesn’t square the debt, she can’t go to the eighth-grade party, although she’s already paid for her ticket. Resigned to the fact that the money set aside for the graduation dress must now pay for the book, she glumly brings a wad of cash to school. But somewhere in between home and the administration office, Estephanie manages to misplace nearly $80. She has $48 left at home, but that’s $20 short of the cost of the vanished book. The next day, Thursday, is the last day to settle accounts. Before she leaves the house, Estephanie asks her mother to loan her the $20, but Frances doesn’t have the cash on her. “Then I can’t go to Six Flags,” says Estephanie, and flounces out of the house, her expression one of pure adolescent misery.
At school, however, resourceful Estephanie manages to borrow the needed $20 from a friend. But because she doesn’t have a new graduation dress, her mood turns dismal by the time she gets home, and she tells her mother not to bother with the parent-teacher conference. When Frances insists she still wants to meet with Estephanie’s teachers, the teenager throws herself on her bed and shifts tactics. The parent-teacher event was last night, she says. “You already missed it.” Besides, says Estephanie, she doesn’t want to do the stupid graduation, after all. Frances intuits that Estephanie is lying on both counts, and drives to Hollenbeck Middle School anyway.
First she learns that Estephanie’s U’s in cooperation are due primarily to absences from school, most of which occurred during various family crises: when Luis first got locked up, right after Gennisis was born, and on certain scattered other days, such as when the baby was sick and Estephanie stayed home to help her mother. The “work habits” U’s are for missed homework — most of which was missed on the days that she was absent from school. Catch-22, LAUSD style. At Frances’ urging, two of the teachers agree to do away with one U each if Estephanie completes some makeup assignments over the weekend. “I’ll make sure she does it,” says Frances, and stuffs the requisite assignment papers into her purse.
Next, Frances talks to Bola’s counselor, a petite, young woman named Ms. Barajas, who doesn’t appear to be long out of college. “My son has pure fails,” Frances begins. “Why didn’t somebody let me know that there was a problem if George was failing everything?”
Ms. Barajas frowns. “Someone should have called you for a conference . . . But don’t worry,” she says, smiling encouragingly. “With the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program, he’ll still be promoted to the seventh grade.”
“Do you really think that’s going to help my son?” asks Frances.
After Frances leaves the room, Ms. Barajas’ expression collapses. “As a counselor you want to help,” she says, “but I’ve got, maybe, 900 students on my caseload, and a lot of kids slip though the cracks. Look, right now, I’m not even sure I even have a job next year, because with the new budget, we’re told one of our counselors is going to get cut.”
Frances’ last stop is Bola’s homeroom teacher, Ms. Blount, a middle-aged, no-nonsense woman, who warms when she hears Bola’s name. “George is a great kid,” she says. “He’s a natural leader. The other kids love him. But he needs help that I can’t give to him. He’s bright, but he’s lacking a lot of fundamental skills, and he won’t admit it. I think, in his own mind, he’s not failing, because he’s not trying.”
“I don’t want him to be in educational handicapped classes,” Frances says. “I was in E.H. classes, and I just hated it. I felt humiliated. I won’t do that to him.”
Of course, grades aren’t the end of the world, Ms. Blount says. “College isn’t important for every kid . . .”
“Bola wants to go to college,” Frances interrupts, her voice even but fierce. “He told me he wants to go to USC because they have the best programs for minorities.”
“Then you need to get him a tutor,” says Ms. Blount kindly, “because unless something happens soon to turn George around, he’s never going to know how smart he is.”
By Monday, Estephanie has made up all the requisite work and will graduate after all. She also gets her new dress, a pretty, little, black strapless number, trimmed with white lace. Her mother pays for it. As she collects her blue-ribboned diploma in the bright Southern California June sunshine, Estephanie looks heartbreakingly young, surprisingly womanly. Beautiful.
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.
As Frances expands in one area of her life, the change seems to unleash emotions in other areas, in particular a latent, free-floating anger toward Luis. On June 2, when Luis calls her at the office, she sets down rules for how things need to be the next time he is released. “I told Luis that if he wants things to work out, he has to go to counseling. ‘You, me and the kids,’ I told him. ‘The kids are mad at you. And I’m mad at you. You allowed Lil’ Happy to live at our house. You allowed the homies to be there all the time, even when I pleaded with you not to. Eighty percent of our relationship, you’ve been busted,’” she snapped near the end of a conversation. “‘And I’m so, so tired of it. Look, Luis, if you don’t feed a flower it dies.’”
Later, Frances tries to sort through her feelings. “It’s not about him getting out, or not getting out,” she says. “It’s about him thinking about us first. No, really, it’s about him thinking about himself first, about him liking himself enough to do the right thing. If you can’t care about yourself, you’re not going to give a fuck about anybody else,” she says. “Not really. I’ve learned that lesson the hardest possible way. And my kids suffered until I learned it. Now I look at my kids, and it reminds me every day that we should have better. I want to have better.”
Although Luis is defensive on the phone with Frances, privately he admits that she’s right. “I know I shouldn’t have had the guys in the house. But some of these people are the only friends I’ve ever had in my life. When we grew up, we were all the same. We had the same kind of problems, so we bonded. When I was a kid, I couldn’t bond with other people who hadn’t been through what I’d been through. My intentions were never to get into this lifestyle. But years ago, I took the wrong step. I walked the wrong way. I take responsibility for that. I know I’m smart. And that means I’m smart enough to have gotten away from all this. We should have moved away. Everything would have been better if we’d moved out and started over new. But we didn’t. I didn’t do what the police say I did. I wasn’t selling drugs. But I stayed in the line of fire. I can’t blame other people for that. You dig your own hole. I was starting to climb out of my hole, and now — boom! I’m back in the hole again. This time, I know I have to change completely. There’s no room for anything else. That’s one of the reasons I want to bail out,” he says. “Frances and me and the kids need time to piece our hearts back together.”
Two days after they argue, a dozen long-stemmed red roses, plus a tiny teddy bear, arrive at the office addressed to Frances. The card reads: “They can take away my freedom. But they can never take the love I have for you. Love, your husband, Luis.”
While Frances is obviously touched by the roses, two weeks later, she reiterates her point. “If you get bailed out,” she tells Luis, “and you won’t go to counseling, I’ll leave you. If you let any of the homies in our house, I’ll leave you.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Frances is determined to find a tutor for Bola. In the meantime, she asks him to read aloud to her at night before bed. The first book they choose is A Rainbow of Gangs,an academic tome on gang life, given to her by a professor friend of Father Greg’s. “But he likes it,” says Frances.
Lousy grades notwithstanding, Bola continues his trend of working to stay out of trouble. Although he has long ago completed the required community service for his tagging spree, the day after school lets out for the summer, Bola shows up at 8:30 a.m. at the Homeboy office wearing Luis’ bright-orange work vest and volunteers to go out with the graffiti crew. He appears every weekday morning thereafter. “Bola told me he just wants to stay occupied,” explains Frances. Several days running, Bola lands on Magoo’s team. Magoo is sweet with the boy. Clearly longing for adult-male contact, Bola basks in the masculine attention. “He even brought me over to his mom’s house for something to eat,” Bola tells Frances. “Then he even brought me to the place he lives. And he never does that for anybody.”
The night of Wednesday, June 23, Elijah, the 2-year-old, won’t go to sleep, so rather than climbing into bed, Frances curls up with her youngest boy on the bedroom floor, finally dropping into her own fitful sleep with the TV still on. At 6 o’clock the next morning, the words of an early news broadcast suddenly shock her into wakefulness. “. . . Homeboy . . . graffiti . . . shot . . .” says the reporter, “. . . killed . . . pending notification of family . . .”
Frances struggles to rise from the rug, but all at once, fear is a huge animal sitting on her chest, smothering her back into place. Bola is with the graffiti crew, she thinks.
Frances begins to scream. “Estephanie!” she screams. “Where’s Bola? Find Bola!” Estephanie stumbles into her brother’s room. “He’s in here,” she yells back. “He’s asleep. What happened?” Only then does Frances’ hysteria calm slightly. Then, who?she wonders. While she rushes to get the younger kids ready for day care, the phone rings. It’s Gabby Guillen, one of her friends from the Homeboy office.
“Did you hear?” asks Gabby.
“I saw it on the news,” says Frances, “but they didn’t say a name . . .”
“It’s Magoo,” says Gabby.
During the workday the news spills out in fits and starts. Three crew members were in the white Homeboy truck at Fourth and Breed streets, painting out new tags on the wall of the Smart & Final, when two gunmen approached, their faces oddly shielded by brimmed straw hats. One crew member was off to the side stirring a bucket of paint, the second was in the truck filling out paperwork. The third member doing the painting: Magoo. A gunman shot him once in the back, twice in the head at close range. Miguel Gomez died on the sidewalk before the paramedics could arrive.
Two spontaneous shrines made of photos and candles have materialized at the shooting site and on the sidewalk in front of the Homeboy offices. All day Thursday, Bola scoots with a disconnected, desperate energy between the two shrines, lighting candle after candle.Frances’ demand: Luis must get counseling once he’s out of jail.
When a homeboy or homegirl dies — former or current — it’s traditional to hold a car wash to help pay for the cost of the burial. The car wash for Miguel Gomez is held on Sunday, June 27, in a parking lot across the street from the Homeboy office. Bola, little Julian and Estephanie are there all day, sponging off cars with Homeboy staff members. Frances mostly stays at home, fashioning scores of bows from strands of black satin ribbon printed with Magoo’s name. “I didn’t buy the ribbons,” she says. “Grumpy bought them.” By Grumpy, she means Gustavo Martinez, a muscular, bighearted former gang member who also works for Homeboy. For much of both of their lives, Martinez’s and Magoo’s gangs have been mortal enemies. In fact, one of Martinez’s closest boyhood friends was killed by Magoo’s gang. “But still, Grumpy was the person who bought the ribbons for Magoo’s wake,” says Frances. “That’s the miracle of Homeboy that’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never been through it.”
A rosary is held for Miguel Gomez on Wednesday night, June 30. He is buried the following afternoon. Father Greg presides over both services. Frances has always steadfastly refused to let her kids go to funerals of any kind. “They’re too young to be going to wakes,” she says. But this time she makes an exception — but only for Bola. “He needed closure,” she says.
The night of the rosary, mother and son sit quietly in the very last row of the chandelier-lit, formal chapel at Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary. Father Greg doesn’t spot them until the service ends as he walks among the mourners, dispensing hugs of consolation. By then, Frances is already headed outside. Bola is entirely alone. Boyle squats down in front of the boy, who is attempting blank-faced stoicism. “You know, when I saw you here tonight,” Boyle says, “it was the weirdest thing. All of a sudden, I could see your future so clearly. I see you with a great job. I see you happily married with kids. I saw me knowing your kids, and knowing your grandkids . . .”
As the priest speaks, whatever tears Bola has been holding back all week are now released in a silent, chest-heaving torrent.
“Bola, can you see it?” Boyle presses. “Can you see that wonderful future?”
After several long beats, Bola nods, then manages a near-inaudible whisper.
“Yeah,” he whispers. “I can.”Postscript: As of July 13, Luis’ parole hold remains in place.