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An American Family: Living on the Verge



Meet the Aguilars.
Inside their home on César
Chávez Avenue, and outside
on the streets,
their lives unfold in surprising,
yet all too common ways for
hundreds of thousands of
people in Los Angeles.
A yearlong series will
record their struggles, challenges
and triumphs.
(Photographs by Anne Fishbein)

I am fast-forwarding
past the reruns ése
and riding the big wave
called future.

—Luis Alfaro,

“Orphan of Aztlan”

April 2, 2003, dawns cold and clear as Luis Aguilar pulls out the small, neatly folded pile of new clothes, mailed by his wife three weeks ago, to be worn today when he walks out of prison for what he prays feverishly will be the last time. American bombs are still falling in Baghdad as 31-year-old Luis boards the big, gray correctional bus just outside the California Institution for Men at Chino, a sprawling, 62-year-old complex located in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Luis was supposed to get out March 31, but the day came and went without his name being called. When he asked a guard to find out what might be wrong, the guard shrugged. “Are you sure you didn’t get in trouble?” Luis was very sure, he said. The next day, when he inquired further, a Chino staff member would say only, “There’s a problem.” The problem turned out to be an INS hold. It seemed that, although Luis was born at the L.A. County–USC Medical Center, the state of California had him listed as a resident alien and had scheduled him for deportation. “It’s always something,” Luis says.

Luis’ wife, Francis, then 30, had planned to meet him at the gate to bring him home. But it took another two days to resolve the mix-up, so Luis decided not to call her. Picking him up would have meant taking time off work, not to mention dragging all the kids up to the prison, which Luis never thought was a good idea.

Between them, Francis and Luis have five children, ranging from Elijah, the baby, who will be 2 at the end of February, to Estephanie, a slender, pretty 13-year-old who has recently discovered boys. More accurately, the couple has six children between them, since Luis also has a 9-year-old daughter who right now lives with her mother. Luis and Francis would like eventually to get full custody of the girl. But this could only happen down the road, and only if everything goes right. “Everything” meaning if Luis can find a job and get on his feet financially and, of course, if he can really manage to stay out for good this time.

On first bounce, it sounds ridiculous to suggest that Luis and Francis Aguilar and their family — immediate and extended — embody any kind of typical Los Angeles household. Both are former gang members. Both grew up in poor and extravagantly dysfunctional families. Luis, now 32, has been to prison three times for a total of eight and a half years, the first time a seven-year jolt for assault with a deadly weapon. In combination, they’ve managed to bring into the world more children than most people consider sensible.

On the other hand, gangs and poverty — plus their attendant wounds to the psyche — are a fact of an increasing number of L.A. lives. And since the California prison population has levitated to nearly seven times what it was 20 years ago, with no abatement in sight, this means that, in the next decade, more than a million and a quarter of those inmates will, like Luis, come out and attempt to start over, towing behind them like a dirty kite tail all the difficulties that a prison past engenders. If present trends hold, at least 500,000 of those parolees will land in Los Angeles, which is already home to the largest parole population in the country.

So, viewed from a different angle, perhaps Luis and Francis are emblematic of another, newer L.A., its story writ complex, fierce and turbulent. Moreover, since much of the future of the nation seems to be scripted here at the multicultural, celluloid-haunted rim of the Pacific, where the era’s hoariest social problems exist on a scale and at an intensity found nowhere else in the United States, maybe Francis and Luis also represent the emerging, prototypical American family to whose lives attention must be paid if the rest of us wish to understand the brave new world unfurling now before us.

 

With this in mind, the Weekly asked me to find and follow for a year’s time a family like that of Luis and Francis Aguilar. I should choose, my editors said, people whose trajectory would ordinarily fly beneath the radar of the rest of L.A.’s citizenry. Certainly Francis and Luis fit that mold. If we notice them at all, we often mistake them for our burden, an absurd concept, since in truth, they are our hope. Looked at apart from their liabilities, Luis and Francis are bright, attractive, likable people, each possessing a variety of talents and what appears to be an appreciable determination to succeed. Thus, if this couple and their kids can make it, it bodes well for everybody. If not . . . well . . . we won’t go there just yet. Theirs is, after all, a story that is only beginning to unfold.



Uneasy calm: Luis and Francis
face a world of surprises.


At 10 a.m., after he is processed out of Chino, Luis is given $200 “gate money” to get him started. As he makes his final exit, prisoners in a nearby yard yell out the usual salutations: “Stay out, man. This ain’t the place.” By 11 a.m., the lumbering, fog-colored bus, known as the gray goose, has dropped Luis and 14 others at the nearest Metrolink, where he tries unsuccessfully to get change to buy the necessary ticket to Union Station. Finally, he gives up and stuffs a $10 bill into the ticket machine, although it means losing five of it. Hours later, he reaches downtown L.A., then boards the blue No. 68 bus that lets him out at César Chávez Avenue, a block from Francis, the kids and home.

During the next few days Luis is too spooked to leave the house much. “I felt really paranoid,” he says later. “I kept thinking the police might try to get me and send me back.” His concern was not without foundation. When Luis was first paroled in December of 2000 after having served his original seven-year sentence, he had every intention of staying out for good. But in the two-plus years since, he’s been back to prison twice on parole violations, neither of which involved the commission of a crime. The two additional terms — one for nine months, the second and most recent, another 10 months — were for “gang association,” meaning the police had spotted Luis with someone who was currently or once used to be a gang member, categories that cover the majority of the people Luis knows, including Francis.

In this matter, Luis matches an unfortunate California norm. In 2002, of the 136,000 felons on parole, 85,500 returned to prison (far and away the highest recidivism rate in the nation). Even more incredibly, at least four out of five of those returning state guests went back, not for new crimes, but for technical violations of their parole. Like Luis.

Eventually, he does venture out since he needs to find a job — bringing him up against still more dispiriting statistics. Nationally, 65 percent of all employers say straight out they won’t hire somebody with a record. (A similar percentage of landlords state they won’t rent to a parolee.) Of the other 35 percent who profess to be willing, most simply put guys like Luis at the bottom of any given list. Yet, he thinks he might have a leg up on the employment issue. The other times Luis was out, he worked for a company that does cleaning and maintenance for the McDonald’s playground structures. The owner professed to like Luis’ work and said there’d be a position waiting for him on his release. But when the owner doesn’t return calls, Luis decides things must have changed. He spends several more weeks filling out applications, none of which elicit a reply.

No income and no job leave Luis feeling high-strung and jittery, plagued in his lowest moments by the dread that he’ll slip back into earning money the old way. His state of mind isn’t helped by some unsettling new encounters with the police. It seems that in the months before Luis’ release, several officers from Hollenbeck Division had taken to cruising by at 5 in the morning and shining the light from the patrol car into Francis’ bedroom window. Other times, late at night, they’d park for extended times across the street from the house and simply watch. One officer was the most persistent. Furious, Francis began documenting his visits with a video camera, then drove to Hollenbeck and filed a complaint. When the cop didn’t back off, she filed a second complaint, then a third.

 

Now that Luis is out, matters have, if anything, escalated. “This one officer keeps saying, ‘Tell your wife to get those complaints off me,’” says Luis. “‘I know where to go to if she keeps on pushing the issue. But if you solve my problem, maybe I can solve yours.’” He shakes his head. “It makes you feel like nothing will ever work, that even if you do good it won’t matter.” Luis feels sure the police still have him listed as a shot caller for the Tiny Boys. “And, the truth is, I used to have that kind of influence,” he says. “That’s not my life anymore. But they don’t believe it. They still see me as a bad person.” A conversation with several Hollenbeck officers suggests that Luis’ view of the cops’ perception is dead-bang accurate.

After one more week with no progress on the employment front, Luis decides to try another strategy. Francis works as a receptionist for Homeboy Industries, the gang-intervention program run by Father Greg Boyle. Luis knows Boyle from past years, but hasn’t wanted to ask him for help. Yet now he feels he is running out of options. “I really need a job,” he tells the priest. “Any job. I need to be busy. Otherwise I feel too . . . I don’t know. . . desperate

Having nothing else to offer Luis, Boyle tells him he can come in and answer phones. The job is little more than make-work, but it pays off when a new city-funded training program comes across Boyle’s desk, and he suggests that Luis go downtown for the interview. Five other guys go too, but Luis is the one who gets the callback. The deal is, he will go to Arizona for two weeks of training in underground construction, which should eventually lead to a job. There is only one slight hitch: The conditions of Luis’ parole restrict him from traveling more than 50 miles from L.A. Screw it, he thinks, and decides to chance it.

“Your parole officer is supposed to help you out,” he says. “But in my life, I’ve never seen anybody be helped by their P.O. They just give you the $200, throw you out on the street, and say good luck. It’s like survival of the fittest. So I choose survival. I’m going.”

When Luis returns from Arizona, no job is immediately in the offing. But by the end of May, a position opens up on a crew that’s putting in a new sewage system in South L.A. at Exposition Boulevard and Arlington Avenue. After a week on the job, Luis’ frame of mind has done a 180. “Now Luis leaves the house at 5 in the morning, sweats like a perro all day, and he loves it,” Francis says. “Now he comes home tired and happy.”



Growing up in L.A.: "Bola" and Elijah
head around the block; Estephanie
at home; snack time for Elijah.


The new job has also had a salutary effect on the marriage, which had grown strained during the months at Homeboy. Wishing to use the momentum, Francis talks Luis into setting aside one night as a sort of date night. “The rest of the time we’re with the kids. But Saturday is for just Luis and me,” she says, suddenly lapsing into Oprah-speak. “I tell him that’s what you have to do to work on a good relationship.”

In June, a new wrinkle appears when Francis slips up on her birth control and gets pregnant, the baby due February 22. Rather than being horrified, she seems delighted. “The doctor already told me I’m having a daughter,” she says. “I’ve never gotten to buy all those pretty, girlie things for a baby before.” When asked about Estephanie, her 13-year-old daughter, Francis flashes a small, grim smile. “I wasn’t really there for her until she was 5,” she says. “That’s when I started to wake up. Before that, I was a stupid teenager, out in the street, not a mother. Estephanie’s had it the hardest of everybody.”

When Luis is asked about the pregnancy, he appears to be measurably less enthusiastic. “I think we’ll work it out,” he says, but his tone suggests he might have wished for another outcome.

Although it’s hard to see an upside to adding yet another kid to this still precarious family, it’s clear that, now at least, Francis has a real knack for the nuts and bolts of parenthood. She likes taking all the boys every other Saturday to their favorite $4-a-cut barber shop on César Chávez, likes holding family meetings on her and Luis’ big bed during which she encourages each kid to speak out about their problems, likes taking Estephanie to drill-team practice, likes the weirdly peaceful meditation after everyone’s asleep of sorting out a hundred pairs of clean socks, which is what the number comes to when she does everybody’s laundry on alternate Saturdays.

 

Not surprisingly, Francis’ nurturing urges extend to adults as well. She cooks regularly for a small herd of neighborhood strays who appear to have no other family to speak of, and does errands for the 80-something-year-old, blind Holocaust survivor who lives around the corner. And, of course, she nurtures Luis. “I need her,” he says. “She calms me down. I might be out there being stupid if it weren’t for Francis.”

The fact that Francis exudes maternal warmth like a form of light is ironic since she received so little of it as a child. The youngest of 14 kids fathered by three men who managed to absent themselves (the first committed suicide), Francis was an oops baby conceived when her 42-year-old mother believed she was already in menopause. Soon following Francis’ birth, her mother developed arteriosclerotic Parkinsonism. Unlike regular Parkinson’s, this atypical form rarely produces tremors. Instead, the disease’s most common feature is dementia caused by damage to brain vessels due to multiple small strokes. During Francis’ childhood, her mother descended gradually into Parkinson’s dementia. By the time Francis was 8, even routine errands with her mother were problematic. “We’d be at the store and my mom’d talk to people who weren’t there,” she says. When Francis was 14, the mother’s condition deteriorated to the point that she was institutionalized. (She died seven years later, when Francis was 21.) After that, an older sister tried briefly to raise the girl, who was by now wild and disaffected. One night the sister’s boyfriend crept uninvited into Francis’ bedroom. The next morning, she packed her belongings and took to the streets, staying first with one friend then another. At 16, Francis got pregnant, moved in with her boyfriend, and left her family for good. .

The boyfriend, whose name was George, was good-looking, charming and a gang member with a tendency to hit women. What he did have to recommend him was a warm and accepting mother, a Salvadoran woman named Maria who came to the U.S. without papers, spoke no English, and supported her four kids by cleaning houses for rich gringas in Pacific Palisades for a gross take-home of $110 a week.

Francis loved Maria, who taught her to cook and provided her with her first real family. As a result, she put up with George’s cyclical brutality. She had Estephanie by him when she was 17, followed by two more babies in quick succession. She left only when the hitting got so bad she worried for her own and her kids’ safety. After that there was another guy, and another baby. And then, finally, there was Luis.

Francis and Luis first got together just before Christmas of 1999 when, two weeks after he was initially released from prison, a friend brought him over to Francis’ house for a party. At first, she wasn’t even remotely interested. “We were from the same gang, so I knew him from back in the day,” she says. “And I hated him. He was such an a-hole. Everyone was scared of him back then.”

Francis was startled to find she liked the post-incarceration Luis a lot. “It’s like he was a different person,” she says. “He was so polite, and so, I don’t know . . . nice.” Still, she regarded him as little more than a fling at first, and refused to let him meet her kids. “I never let them see guys I went out with,” she says. “My kids come first, everybody knows that about me.”

Francis had been dating a police officer when she started up with Luis, and one night the cop cruised by when Luis was there. Claiming he was merely being protective, the cop called his rival’s name in on radio, and found he was on parole. “You know, I could bust you for even being here,” he told Luis, meaning he could report him for gang association, since Francis was a homegirl who lived smack in the middle of Tiny Boys territory. Luis didn’t blink. “I guess my life is in your hands,” he said. “But you got to know that, whatever happens, I’m not going to stop seeing Francis.”



Living in L.A.: Another mile, another worry

 

For the most part, Francis and Luis balance each other well. Francis is the family’s magnetic center, the locus around whom everyone else circles for bearing. Luis is the source of ambition and focus. “He has long-term goals,” says Francis. “And he’s serious about them. He’s not just blowing smoke. Like when we first got together, he said if we were still together at the end of a year, we’d get married, and then we’d buy a house. And then he went out and did both of those things, just like he said.”

Indeed, in January of 2002, after they’d been together 12 months, Luis told her it was time to set the date. He suggested February 7, his own birthday, “So I’ll never forget our anniversary,” he joked. But before the ceremony could take place, Luis got arrested on that first parole violation. At his insistence, they got married anyway. Francis went on her own to the small wedding chapel in Inglewood, then brought papers to Luis for his signature when she was next allowed a visit. The marriage certificate officially states Luis and Francis were married, as promised, on February 7, though they were nowhere near each other at the time.

A year later, Luis achieved his second goal of buying a house through a peculiar stroke of luck. It seems Luis’ twin brother, Carlos, was serving time at Pelican Bay on a robbery conviction and was shot by a guard while handcuffed after one of the infamous so-called gladiator fights, staged battles between inmates that caused a spate of prison scandals in the mid- to late-’90s after several inmates died. A lawyer got hold of the case and talked Carlos into suing for damages. They won $25,000, which Carlos split with the attorney. Carlos had never had any money in his life, and decided he had no need of it now, so he offered his half to Luis. “Do something good with it,” he said.

Luis and Francis found a two-story, Eastlake-style Victorian house just south of César Chávez. Built in 1896, it was not in the greatest shape. Its gingerbread wood façade had been covered in stucco, and it had been turned into a duplex in the ’70s. Then, in a more recent incarnation, it had morphed into a meth lab. “I guess there was a little guesthouse in the back of the property that exploded,” says Francis. But the lot was big, and the house itself seemed structurally sound. Furthermore, although it was priced at $220,000, the bank was willing to take a minuscule 1 percent down of $2,200. That meant an onerous monthly mortgage payment of $2,131. But if they rented out the bottom for a thousand, that left only $1,131 to cover on their own, a number Luis figured he would manage, now that he was out and working again. When he was arrested on the second parole violation a few months later, Francis was frantic, afraid that without Luis she’d lose the house. He told her not to worry, that she could use what cash remained of the original $12,500 to cover the mortgage for the 10 months he was away.

As is often true with couples, Luis and Francis tend to worry about different things. According to Francis, Luis’ main bugaboo is money. “Like when the doctor tells him he needs Claritin for his allergies, he won’t buy it because it’s $6 for five capsules,” she says. And when his construction crew is given days off for Christmas, he’s freaked at the work stoppage, sure it’s somehow a precursor of financial disaster. “Luis was so poor for so long,” she says. “He’s always afraid we’re going to lose everything and it’ll be like that again.” Francis also grew up poor. “But not like Luis,” she says.

Luis was born on February 7, 1972, and named for his father, Luis Aguilar Sr., whom he never met (although he’s tried recently to track him down through the Internet). His mother, Maria del Refugio, was a farm girl from Zacatecas, Mexico, who came north without papers at age 20, found work in a bakery, then became pregnant by one of the bakers who turned out to have a wife and family back in Guadalajara. After Luis and his twin brother were born, his mother moved to a since-demolished West L.A. motel named Cozy Courts that rented rooms by the week, and tried to make ends meet by doing housecleaning, making up the gap with public assistance.

 

As a child, Luis was a quiet, studious boy who wore oversized glasses and got straight A’s, in part because he was very bright but also because he liked the order of school. Then, at age 9, his world tilted in an ill-fated direction when his mother hooked up with a new man who turned out to be both a hard drinker and a woman beater. After the stepfather, whose name was Pedro Lopez, killed a local gang member in the course of a feud, then fled to Mexico ahead of a murder warrant, Luis’ mother packed up the twins and followed a week later.

For most of the next two years, the family lived in small towns in the state of Durango, Mexico, where his mother and stepfather earned subsistence wages picking chiles and apples. Although the Mexican constitution forbids children under the age of 14 to work, enforcement is practically nonexistent, and at the time when Luis was there in the early ’80s, somewhere between 8 million and 11 million kids were employed illegally. Soon Luis and Carlos were among them working as pickers alongside the adults. When the apple season ended, Pedro took the boys to pick wild oregano in the mountains and to scrounge extra money by killing rattlesnakes to sell to the curanderos. School was a thing of the past.

Being poor in L.A. is soul-grinding, but being poor in Mexico is worse, so in 1983, the family returned to California despite the legal risks. Luis and his brother, now 11, re-entered 24th Street Elementary School in fifth grade. By that time they were so behind academically that Carlos lost all interest. But several teachers recognized Luis’ intelligence and urged him to try to catch up. Yet while Luis’ grades improved, his formerly shy persona acquired a new patina of anger. He hated feeling helpless when Pedro hit his mother, hated having thrift-shop shoes while other kids wore Nikes, hated being teased and called a TJ wetback by boys whose parents were no less Mexican than his, hated being beaten up on his way home, hated that he had no friends, hated everything about school — except the actual classwork, which, for the furious, lonely boy, again provided an island of calm and pleasure.

Midway through middle school, Luis started hanging with a tagger crew called the Tiny Boys, after he noticed that, while he walked with them, the teasing stopped cold. When the Tiny Boys turned from taggers to full-fledged gangsters, Luis drifted into a double life: smart student and swim-team member by day, street hoodlum by night. The split became most extreme during his senior year at Manual Arts High, where Luis was on the honor roll, the football team and the academic decathlon team (after he personally persuaded a teacher to start one). Then one night in the spring of 1990, some enemy homeboys shouted insults and waved a gun at him. When Luis failed to back down, one homeboy fired a single bullet into Luis’ chest, collapsing his lung and nearly killing him. When he got out of the hospital, Luis the good student was replaced by Luis the full-time gangster bent on revenge. He soon gained a reputation as a hard ass who would walk straight into, not away from, gunfire, which quickly moved him up the gang hierarchy to the position of shot caller. “It’s like I forgot about everything else and had this death wish,” he says. His career as a dangerous urban street legend was finally halted in 1994 when he was arrested and sentenced on the assault-with-a-deadly-weapon charge.

Luis says that the shock of prison was what he needed. “I’d be dead if I hadn’t gone,” he says. “Prison woke me up. I saw how violent and crazy I’d been, and that it was up to me to better myself and change.” During his years on the inside, he got his high school diploma and began to read everything he could lay his hands on. “They used to have college classes at the prison where I was, and a lot of those textbooks were still roaming around,” he says. “I read so much, I couldn’t sleep at night, just thinking, about my life, about everything.”

When Luis was released, even Father Boyle, who is in the business of helping gangsters start over, says the difference was uncommonly dramatic. “I remembered him as a real jerk years ago when he was out

on the street,” he says. “Really the worst. But when he came out, something fundamental had changed in him. All his kindness and gentleness and intelligence was right there on the surface. It was one of those truly remarkable transformations you always hope for.”

 



The ritual: Elijah faces at the barber.

While Luis worries about money, Francis worries that Luis’ past will one day reappear as a malign wraith and destroy their future. Luis worries about that too. “That’s why he’s always more comfortable when we’re outside of East L.A.,” Francis says. “When we’re at places like the Universal CityWalk — which we like a lot — or the Long Beach Aquarium with the kids, at those times Luis is a whole different person, all happy and outgoing. But in East L.A. he’s tense because he never knows when he’s going to run into people he knew from back in the day. We’ll be walking and suddenly he’ll say, ‘Oh, shit. I knew him from prison,’ or ‘I knew him from this or that neighborhood.’” Luis’ qualms are serious enough that he always circles the house twice before pulling his car into the driveway, just to be on the safe side. “It’s so he can see if there’s anybody there, you know, waiting.”

Along with threats from the past there is still the matter of the police, whose ongoing attention continues to unnerve Francis. For example, just after Labor Day a neighbor called her at work, saying that a slew of black-and-whites were at her house with a guy from Building and Safety checking to see if she had someone living in the garage. (She didn’t.) Francis raced home sobbing hysterically. “They act like we’re criminals,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how good we’re doing. We’re criminals in their eyes forever.”

As summer turns to fall, the cop scrutiny seems to temporarily slow, but Luis starts having unexplained allergy attacks to the point that he breaks out in gigantic hives at the beginning of November. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the hives are joined by stomach cramps, followed by a shortness of breath so intense he feels like somebody is pressing an anvil into his chest. Francis tells Estephanie to watch the kids and races Luis to White Memorial Hospital three blocks away. By the time he hits the ER, he can’t swallow, and when a nurse takes his pulse, her mood goes from casual to urgent. In short order, Luis is on a steroid IV drip while two doctors, one of them a cardiologist, check his vitals. “If you didn’t bring him, he could have died of a heart attack,” an ER doc tells Francis. The hospital never determines the cause of the allergic reaction, so after a few hours of treatment, Luis is sent home. He stays in bed most of the weekend, weak as a kitten, fretting about whether or not his new medical insurance will cover the hospital bills. By Monday, he is back at work. “I can’t afford to have any more subtracted from my paycheck,” he says.

In early December, a generally blue mood descends upon the family when the flu hits two of the kids, causing Francis to miss more days of work. Then, just a week before Christmas, a good omen arrives in an unexpected guise. The incident occurs just after 9 p.m. when Francis is in the kitchen cooking, and the downstairs neighbors call up to warn her that a police van is parked in front of the house, and some uniformed officers are headed for the front door. Francis flies down the stairs prepared for a confrontation. “Can I help you?” she says tersely as she swings open the door. “Hi,” says the main cop, who introduces himself as Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza. “You might recognize me. I’m the one you always call a motherfucker” — except that Pedroza says “effer” rather than the actual offending term. “How many kids do you have?”

“Five,” Francis replies cautiously, suspecting some sort of trap. “Why?”

Pedroza tells Francis he figured her kids had only seen the negative side of the police. “I want them to see there’s a positive side too,” he says, and asks the children’s ages. Francis rattles off the numbers, then gapes as the officers trot back to the van and return with five age-appropriate gifts, one for each of the kids. As the presents are being distributed, four black-and-whites screech to a stop near the van. In a blur of motion, 16 officers disgorge themselves, clearly expecting trouble. Pedroza rushes over to explain that, no, nothing is wrong, he’s merely playing Santa. The officers are slack-jawed. “To them?!” one officer sputters.

 

“This isn’t about us or them,” retorts Pedroza. “It’s about their kids. Hey, Santa’s supposed to be blind to hate,” he adds when the cops look unconvinced.

For the next few days, Francis and Luis also remain doubtful. Only after a week passes with no further police visits do they decide to accept Pedroza’s gesture as what it was stated to be: an act of kindness.

The night before Christmas, when the family and extended family — meaning teams of in-laws — exchange their own gifts, a tentative sense of hopefulness begins to permeate the household. Luis and Francis did most of their shopping the day after Thanksgiving, arriving at the Crenshaw Plaza Mall at 6 a.m. to pick up ultra-bargain loss leaders from the newly opened, three-story Wal-Mart. After that, Francis made several more trips to the swap meet to round out their gift list. “This is the first time that Luis has been out for Christmas in almost 10 years,” says Francis. By “out” she means out of prison. “So he wanted to get something for everybody.”

Luis has even agreed to pull some money out of savings to take the family to a hotel for a couple of nights over the New Year’s Eve weekend, at which time, he says, they should all set new goals and make new resolutions. “I already know most of mine,” he says, ticking them off quickly. “I want to get off parole, which should happen in July. Then in a year I want us to move out of East L.A. to somewhere safer. After that, we’re going to save to buy an apartment building. Those are the big goals. That and staying, you know . . . free

The slings and arrows of normal life sometimes daunt the strongest of us. Yet for a family still as close to the edge as the Aguilars, routine problems tend to metastasize quickly, despite best intentions.

All goes well as Francis, Luis and the kids arrive at their hotel for their three-day getaway late on the night of December 30. When she beds everyone down, Francis notices Elijah, who’s not quite 2, seems overly tired. At 4 the next morning, she wakes up to find him spiking a high fever that neither Motrin nor the cool baths she administers over the next hour seem to lower. Eventually mother and child doze, Elijah curled up on her chest, marsupial-like.

But at 5:30 a.m., Elijah jerks awake in a febrile seizure, his limbs twitching violently, his eyes rolled back into his skull. Francis screams at Luis to call 911, her alarm jacked up exponentially by the fact that the family still may or may not have health coverage. “We were supposed to be covered a month ago,” she says, “so I’m off Medi-Cal. But Luis’ company has never sent us the insurance cards.”

After a two-hour emergency-room visit, Elijah is temporarily improved. The family drives home on New Year’s Day, losing a paid night at the hotel.

Over the next 48 hours, Francis controls Elijah’s fever with cold baths and larger doses of Motrin, as the ER doctor had instructed.

Then late Saturday night, the child starts wheezing. There is talk of taking him to the emergency room. Fearful of more bills, Luis and Francis decide against it. “I mean, we’ll find a way to pay whatever we need to pay,” she says. “But it’ll wipe us out to nothing.

Below nothing.”

At 5 a.m. Sunday, Elijah’s breathing is truly labored, but Francis still thinks she can ride it out herself. “I’ll take him to my doctor Monday. He’ll run it through my old Medi-Cal,” she says. By 7 a.m., Elijah is panting in little, shallow breaths and Luis panics. “We’re taking him,” he says. It is a fortunate call. At L.A. County–USC Medical Center, Elijah is diagnosed with a well-entrenched case of pneumonia. “I think all of those baths made him sick,” says Luis miserably. “They brought his fever down, but he got too cold.”

The rest of the week passes in a blur of wires, tubes and antibiotics as Luis and Francis take turns keeping watch at their little boy’s bedside. “Otherwise the nurses just have to tie him down if he cries,” Francis says. “Nobody’s going to strap my baby down.” An enormous former homeboy with a street name of “Griz” takes some of the pressure off by staying at home with the older kids. Then early Monday, Luis returns to work, meaning most of the hospital duty now falls to Francis, who rocks Elijah when he screams and screams, unable to be comforted. After he falls asleep, she eyes the nearby oxygen-saturation monitor, rubbing her baby’s chest to stimulate his breathing whenever the digital readout falls below 90 percent.

 

Each night after work, Luis showers off the construction grime, then goes to the hospital to relieve Francis. He looks dead on his feet as he holds his small, flailing son against his shoulder with one hand and scoots the IV pole down the hospital’s wide, linoleum hallways with the other — trudging up and down, up and down — until finally the boy quiets.

On Sunday, Elijah is well enough to come home. But by this time both parents are so wrung out by stress and exhaustion that they snipe at each other continuously — about money, about the often-present coterie of ex-homeboys who Francis feels will draw danger to the household.

Monday evening the tension predictably bleeds to the kids, who act out ferociously, chiefly toward Luis. “They’ve always loved Luis,” says Francis, pointedly not looking in her husband’s direction as she slices slippery white pieces of squid and tosses them into the huge pot of Salvadoran-style ceviche steaming on the gas stove. “But lately they’re mad because somewhere in their minds they think he’s going to get locked up again.”

When Luis hears this, his jaw tightens and he is silent for several long moments. “What am I supposed to do?” he says. “I know there’s a gang world and there’s a real world. I want us and our kids to live in that normal, real world. I understand we aren’t there yet. I’m still getting out of my hole, still trying to piece my broken life together.” He pauses. “But here’s the thing,” Luis says quietly. “I really believe I’m destined to be normal. That’s what I tell Francis when she gets all crazy. ‘Don’t worry. We’re destined to be normal. We are. You’ll see.’” Another pause. “But we’re just not there yet.”

During most of January, the family takes small but discernible steps in the direction of Luis’ normalcy. Then a new challenge appears when George — the number-two child whom everyone calls by his nickname, “Bola” — starts tagging sidewalks in front of the house and elsewhere in the neighborhood. At the start, neither parent guesses the origin of the “TBFK” graffiti that has newly bloomed on a distressing number of concrete surfaces. Bola has always been a sweet child, the best with animals of anyone in the family. But as he draws nearer to his 12th birthday on January 17, a bad case of pre-adolescent swagger overtakes him like a virus. He talks back to Luis. One afternoon Francis catches him cutting school, and then Estephanie rats him out for the graffiti. It seems that Bola and a couple of friends have formed their own tagging crew they’ve named “Tiny But Fearless Kings” — hence the TBFK.

Determined to short-circuit this nascent trend, Francis grounds her son for the indefinite future and insists that he come straight to Father Boyle’s office every day after school. A week later she hits on an even better idea. “This Saturday, I’m making Bola go with the Homeboy Graffiti Crew for a day,” she says. “They leave at 5 in the morning.” (Homeboy Industries has a contract with the city to employ former gang members on graffiti clean-up crews.) When she learns that the virtuous Estephanie has occasionally acted as Bola’s lookout, Francis arranges for her to join the cleanup crew too. “Luis and I told them, ‘Look. We learned too many things the really hard way. We want to make sure you don’t have to go through what we’ve been through.’” By Thursday, the 5 a.m. graffiti object lesson is all set. Then on Friday, January 23, everything changes.

The day starts normally enough. Luis leaves for work at 4:30 a.m. Francis gets up with him to lay out his clothes, then goes back to sleep. At 6 a.m., she wakes again to get Estephanie, Bola and Julian off to school. At 7:30 she wakes the two youngest, Frankie and Elijah, the baby. She drops them off at day care before 9, then sweeps in the front door of the Jobs for a Future office shortly thereafter. At 11 a.m., Francis brings Luis some lunch at his job site.

It’s been a while since they’ve had a date night, so he says he wants to take her to the swap meet that night, just the two of them. “He said I could pick out a new crib for the new baby,” she says. “You know how Luis hates to spend money, but ever since that time we were fighting he’s been trying really hard to be nice.”

 

At 4:40 p.m., Francis calls Luis, who tells her he’s about to head home. At 5:25 p.m. Francis leaves for home herself, Bola in tow. But as she drives east along First Street, she sees something that causes her to startle. Two police officers pass her in Luis’ car, a white 1990 Nissan Stanza, going the opposite direction toward Hollenbeck police station. Luis isn’t with them.

Trying to control her panic, Francis yanks out her cell phone and dials her downstairs tenant, a woman named Sandra. “Look out the window! What’s going on at my house?”

“Nothing,” says Sandra. Francis is not reassured. She tells Sandra to call upstairs to Estephanie. “Take Julian and get out of there right now!” she says when her daughter comes to the phone. Estephanie starts to protest but Francis cuts her off. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she says. “Just get out of the house. I think the cops are coming.”

Estephanie grabs her 8-year-old brother and does as she is told. Less than three minutes later, the police descend on the Aguilar household in full force. Since Luis is on parole, the house can be legally searched at any time without warning. But this is not a parole search. The cops have a warrant. They also have Luis’ house keys, but they splinter the back-door frame anyway. According to the search warrant and affidavit, the police are looking for “rock cocaine, cocaine and narcotic paraphernalia” and “any personal property tending to document the sale of rock cocaine . . .”



Stressed and freaked: New
problems with the law.


Meanwhile, Francis fetches the two younger boys from day care, then drives to her cousin’s house a few miles away, where Estephanie and Julian meet her. En route, she calls Luis but gets no answer. She phones Sandra again. “The cops are raiding your house right now,” says Sandra.

“Do they have Luis?”

“I never saw him,” says Sandra.

For the next several hours, Francis is paralyzed by fear and a kind of manic indecision. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “I don’t want to go home and expose my kids to all that. I don’t know what to do.” Throughout the night, she dials her husband’s cell phone over and over. But Luis never answers.

Chapter Two, “Coming to Terms,” will appear next month.


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