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
During the children’s first week home, each family member’s demeanor — including that of the baby — fluctuates between tentative and frantic. Gennisis will not sleep in her crib, but demands to be held by either Luis or Frances. Even when she is held, she tends to grab whichever parent is holding her in a tiny-fingered death grip. Estephanie has become anxious about keeping the house clean. "No, Mom," she tells Frances if the least bit of mess develops, "it has to be really clean. Really clean."
Luis still is without employment, and his jobless state increasingly abrades his state of mind. When he gets a $1,600 check from the union for long-past accumulated vacation pay, it covers one more month’s mortgage. Frances’ salary can just cover the four-month $783 water bill but not much more. "I wanted to decorate the house for Christmas, because I have decorations I’ve saved from before. But I decided not to, because we don’t have money for gifts. Not even for little gifts. I don’t want to get the kids’ hopes up."
And, in the manner of abused children who take out their misery on each other, Frances and Luis are still fighting.
By Tuesday, December 14, their quarreling has reached the point that they aren’t speaking again. On Wednesday, Frances even goes so far as to look at a separate apartment. The one bright spot is that, with the help of a new therapist on staff at Homeboy, Platicas, her proposed discussion/therapy group for homegirls, has actually gotten off the ground and is meeting every Tuesday morning at 10. "Right now I need the support as much as anybody," she says. "I just don’t know what’s going to happen with me and Luis."
Then, out of the blue, on the morning of Friday, December 17, the world changes all over again. Luis gets a job. But it’s not just any job. It’s the gig that, for months, he’s been applying for, and now it has come through. He will be working on a five-year underground construction project for the city. "I’m making $24 an hour now," he says happily. "But if they put me on the underground crew — which I think they’re going to do — it goes up to $28."
Like browned grass that revives with the rain, this single turn of events gives husband and wife the needed incentive to reach out to each other again. And, on Friday afternoon, Christmas spirit has also been resurrected, and Frances takes the two littlest boys with her to the holiday toy giveaway organized out of Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa’s office, where she scores presents for all six kids. The police are also giving away gifts, and Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza comes to the Homeboy office to ask Frances for a list of families especially in need, telling her to be sure to add her own. When he comes back to collect the list and sees her name missing, he wants to know why. "We’ll be okay," she says. Instead, Frances has included one of her neighbors, a woman who also happens to be particularly active in the Neighborhood Watch Committee that has worked for months to get rid of the Aguilars. When she tells the neighbor that the toys, plus a $50 gift certificate, will be delivered to the woman and her three kids, the woman stares at Frances for several long moments. "Oh, gracias," she says. Frances nods. "No hay de que," she says. Don’t mention it.
Saturday night, Luis unexpectedly encourages his wife to go out with her women friends, volunteering to watch the kids in her absence. When Frances returns just before midnight, a Christmas tree is standing in one corner of the living room. "Luis and I got it," brags Bola. "It’s a little on the dry side," laughs Frances. "But we don’t care. We love it. It’s our tree!"
By midday on Sunday, the tree is fully adorned with the stored decorations — candy canes, bright plastic Christmas balls, long tinsel garlands in red and green, miniature stockings, one for everyone in the family. "At the gift giveaway, there was a craft table set up for kids, so Elijah and Frankie made 10 snowflakes out of Popsicle sticks," says Frances. "I think they’re very creative." The snowflakes, which are covered with glitter and oversize metallic confetti, now grace the tree too.
"So I guess we’re having a real Christmas after all," she says. "I told the kids, ‘Look, we’re going to have a small Christmas.’ But it’ll be a good Christmas, because we’re together, and that’s the most important."
And it is good. On Christmas Eve, Frances makes pozole, a traditional Mexican soup thick with pork, garlic, onion, chile peppers and cilantro. The kids agree to wait until midnight to open the gifts, but by 11:35 p.m. they can’t stand it anymore so, with Frances’ and Luis’ permission, everyone unwraps in a cheerful frenzy. "Santa brought me this Power Ranger because I’ve been good," Frankie says gravely, as he holds up a huge stuffed action figure, acquired in the Villaraigosa giveaway. "Very good," says Frances. "You’ve been very good, honey."