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Hanging On — Barely

Photos by Anne Fishbein

Jack, how much pain is there in the world? I think there’s only one kind, and we all keep moving around it in circles.

—Sherman Alexie, Little Big Man

What mending there is occurs in small acts.

—Louise Erdrich, “Francine’s Room”

After the birth of her daughter Gennisis, Frances Aguilar didn’t return to work for three weeks. She would have gone back sooner, but she had problems with day care. The people who ran the program where her three youngest boys were enrolled said they really couldn’t add an infant. After much searching and pleading, Frances managed to get all four kids into a program run by the Mexican American Foundation. “They usually have a two-year waiting period,” says Frances, “but you know me. I’m a hustler.”

During her first days back at work, Frances feels torn and regretful. “I wanted more time to bond with my daughter,” she says. “I didn’t want to hand her over to somebody else so soon.” Even Estephanie, the 14-year-old, is upset. “Aye, Mom, you should be able to stay home with the baby,” she says. “She’s too little. It’s not fair.” What Estephanie does not say is that if Luis hadn’t been arrested, Frances could have stayed home with the baby — at least for a while.

State of the Family

This is part of a yearlong series focusing on the Aguilar family — Luis, Frances and their children — of East Los Angeles. In Chapter 2, Luis’ legal problems seemed like they might ease when questions arose over police conduct. Luis remains in jail and, against legal advice, has rejected two plea bargains. On the home front, Frances is left to deal with everyday problems — and can’t ignore the needs of a homeboy’s 2-year-old who shows up at her workplace.

As of May 23, Luis has been in jail awaiting trial for four months with no real end in sight. Luis’ court-appointed attorney, James Bisnow, has been tied up on other cases and so keeps asking for continuances. The case against Luis comes down to two basic charges: one, that Luis sold crack cocaine out of his and Frances’ home; two, that Luis persuaded, threatened, cajoled or bribed a minor into selling for him — namely Lil’ Happy, the 17-year-old homeless gang-member kid whom Luis allowed, over his wife’s objection, to crash in the family’s back bedroom.

The first charge — that Luis was dealing — is the one for which the cops have the most evidence. The police report Frances got from attorney Bisnow names three different people arrested for drug possession who told the lead investigating officer, Rudy Chavez, that they bought from Luis at unspecified times. One even signed a statement to that effect. Worse, Officer Chavez says that during a surveillance, he personally witnessed a fourth man go to the Aguilar house to buy several rocks from Luis around 1:30 in the afternoon on January 21.

A good subject: Bola’s shadow (top) and Bola, with frances

At first Bisnow tells Frances he thinks he might be able to get the case dismissed altogether since the alleged drug buy took place during the middle of the day when Luis would have been at work. Since he started with the sewer construction crew in May of 2003, Luis worked 10-and-a-half-hour days, five days a week, bolstering his paycheck by volunteering for overtime whenever possible. Furthermore, Luis was compulsive about not missing work. “I’ve got a lot of years to make up for,” he said. In seven months, he had only two absences, one when he was hospitalized for a severe allergy attack, the most recent in late January due to a freak accident.

That day Luis started work as usual at 5 a.m. Around 9 a.m., the crew hit an underground gas line. The leak sent ultra-allergic Luis into a bout of dizziness and nausea. His boss sent him home at 10 a.m. Luis intended to be back on the job by early afternoon. At home, he went straight to bed. When by noon he felt no better, he roused himself enough to drive to Father Greg Boyle’s office at Homeboy Industries to use a telephone to call his boss. (The Aguilars only have cell phones, and Frances took Luis’ that day.) Arriving at Homeboy around 1 p.m., Luis told Frances he was ill, made the necessary call, then drove back home and, by his account, slept for the rest of the day.

Originally, Frances thought the work absence was on Tuesday, January 20. But at attorney Bisnow’s request, she calls Luis’ job coordinator, Cheryl Mitchell, and asks her to check Luis’ records. It turns out that the gas leak was on January 21, the day that Luis allegedly made the sale.

“Well, what a co-inky-dink,” Bisnow says to Frances, his tone suddenly withering.

Frances reacts as if slapped. “He didn’t do it,” she says.

“Yeah, well, I’m no longer so optimistic about the outcome here.”

Bisnow tells Frances that he needs her to track down the men whom the police claim have implicated Luis so that the attorney’s investigator can interview them. “It’s not that simple,” she says. “They’re drug addicts, so a lot of them are homeless.”

Well, somebody better do something, says Bisnow.

“I’ll try,” Frances tells him. “How does he expect me to do this?” she asks after she hangs up. “He’s the one with the investigator.”

Meanwhile, there is the rest of life to handle: Although 12-year-old Bola is doing well, just before Luis was arrested, he and four friends were picked up by the cops for tagging the roof of a store on Cesar Chavez, a few blocks from home. The boys are scheduled for juvenile court on March 10.

Bola is wide-eyed and nervous when Frances drives him to the Municipal Courthouse on Hill Street. “Just tell the truth and you’ll be okay,” she instructs him. Surprisingly, he does. Inside the hearing room, the other boys mumble vague excuses in response to the judge’s questions, but Bola’s manner is suddenly calm and direct. “I know it’s my fault,” he tells the stern-faced woman judge. “We’re kids, and we’re curious, so we try things. But we did wrong. And I’m not going to do it no more.”

The judge fines each boy $55, telling them they should find ways to pay the money themselves. “I don’t want your mothers to do it,” she says. They are also assigned 30 hours of community service that Bola wants to fulfill at Father Greg’s office. “I’m proud of you, George,” the judge makes a point of telling Bola before they leave. Frances tells her son that she’s proud of him too. “Really proud,” she says.

Bola is still being teased viciously by certain former friends, although he won’t talk to Frances about it. “He won’t because I’m his mom,” she says. “He needs Luis. Estephanie looks to me when she has a problem. But Bola looks to Luis.” Scrambling for ways to build her son’s confidence, Frances learns of a photography course being taught every Friday afternoon at the Homeboy offices and tells Bola that if he’ll take the class, she’ll take it with him.

Bola agrees, and at the first class the teacher asks each student to pick a subject to photograph. Frances selects portraits. Bola announces he’ll photograph “graffiti art.” During the next week he rides his bike all over downtown looking for graffiti photo ops, under bridges, at the back of the Sears building, along the brightly painted concrete hips of the L.A. River. “See, I used to be into all that stuff before,” he explains to the teacher when the film is developed. “But now I’m into it a different way.”

Raising a boy in poor, urban Los Angeles is perilous by any standard. Yet it’s a task made harder if the parents are former gang members still living in gang territory. Before Luis was locked up, Frances tolerated the homeboys who dropped by the house to kick it or to cadge a meal. Not anymore. If they knock, she politely but firmly shoos them away. And when Officer John Pedroza asks if Frances wants him to send a squad car over if he sees a group of gang members congregating on the sidewalk near her front yard, she nods quickly. “Yes, please,” she says.

When Frances visits Luis they inevitably talk about where the family should move when Luis gets out of this mess. If Luis gets out of this mess. Luis thinks Downey might be a good idea, or Lynwood or Chino. “My aunt lives in Palmdale, we could try that,” he says. “Too far,” says Frances. She knows the move is necessary. “How could I not know?” she says. Yet, deep down, part of Frances doesn’t want to leave Boyle Heights. “I grew up here. This is my home.”

The point is demonstrated plainly whenever she walks down Cesar Chavez Boulevard; outgoing, personable Frances runs into another friend or longtime acquaintance every 10 or 15 feet. There’s the middle-aged Asian woman who runs the jeans-and-clothing store, the 30-something couple with the tamale stand, the chatty Anglo basehead everyone calls “Professor” who makes money sweeping up after-hours at the popular restaurant La Parrilla. The list goes on and on. And since word got out that she works for Father Greg, she has become Homeboy Industries’ one-person outreach team. People waylay her so frequently to ask if she can help with jobs or tattoo removal that Frances has taken to carrying business cards at all times, even on quick errands. “Just call or come by during business hours and ask for me,” she’ll say. “I’ll make sure you talk to the right person.”

Yet for all the community warmth, the disadvantages of staying here still clearly outweigh the good. In the three-block-square area where the Aguilars live, drugs are dealt in multiple, obvious locations, even out of a storefront on Cesar Chavez. There is also the fact that Frances and Luis managed to buy a house smack in the middle of Tiny Boys territory, meaning that guilt by proximity — deserved or not — is all too easy to acquire. The area claimed by State Street, one of Tiny Boys’ oldest enemies, is a short two blocks away. Although Frances works with former “enemies” every day at Homeboy, she still can’t walk into State’s territory without becoming visibly jittery. “I don’t think they’d do anything,” she says, “because they know I’ve been out of it for so long, but you never know.” Even nearer to home, the atmosphere can turn from benign to dangerous in an instant.

At around 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday in April, Frances is on the sidewalk in front of her house chatting with a very pregnant friend who lives in a duplex just across the street. All at once, a quarter block away, four or five homeboys scuttle out of a front door and into a waiting taxi, their manner secretive and menacing. The two women watch wordlessly until the taxi speeds away. “That’s not good,” says Frances. A few minutes later, an unfamiliar car cruises slowly past, the driver’s expression hooded and strange.

“Okay, time to go inside,” Frances says, and both women sprint up their respective front walks without looking back.

Easter is Frances’ favorite holiday. In past years, she’s always managed to make up baskets for each of the kids. But with her finances so uncertain, she reluctantly decides that Easter baskets must be eliminated this year. “When I was growing up,” she says, “Christmas was really sad with my mother. We did nothing. I mean, really, nothing. We sometimes went to the secondhand store, and my mom would get us each whatever used teddy bear or little thing she could find for 25 cents.” But Easter was different. “My mom always had baskets, and we’d dye eggs. She’d also get those little plastic eggs and put quarters inside them for us. Then we’d get dressed up and go to the park and feed the doves. Things always seemed about to get better at Easter.”

The Saturday before Easter Sunday, Frances piles Estephanie plus Frankie and Elijah and the baby into her white Astro van and heads out to visit her husband. (Luis bought the van used in December so that Frances could accommodate all six kids safely and legally.) Since January, Luis had been housed at Men’s Central Jail, which is seven minutes away from Frances’ home. But in mid-April, he was moved to Pitchess Detention Center, a 3,800-acre sprawl of concrete buildings located off the 5 freeway, a few exits past Magic Mountain.

Everybody except law enforcement refers to the jail complex by its old name, Wayside — short for Wayside Honor Rancho, built back in 1938 literally as a ranch where minor offenders raised their own beef, dairy products and produce. At Wayside, friends and relatives are allowed hourlong visits, not the meager 15 minutes at C.J. — Men’s Central Jail. The wait to get into Wayside varies, an hour on a good day, three hours or more on crowded days or if the facility is in lockdown, which occurs several times a month. “That means you can wait and wait, then not get in at all.”

When Luis comes out to the cubicle, his eyes are swollen and he’s broken out in hives. “They haven’t given me my Claritin here yet,” he says. Frances tells him that she and the kids are skipping Easter this year. “Oh, no, buy ’em something, babe,” Luis tells her. “I wish I could be out there for you. I feel the pain as much as you do.”

Frances decides to follow Luis’ advice, but somewhere on the 5 freeway between Wayside and home, the Astro’s engine simply turns off, and the van slows to a stop right in the middle of the second lane. Scared they’ll be hit, Frances frantically calls a friend who owns a tow truck. He tows the van back to the used-car lot where it was purchased. “It needs a new motor,” the car lot’s owner tells Frances. At this she begins to cry. “Oh, great,” she says. “You sold us a lemon. Now, what am I supposed to do?”

By nightfall, Frances decides to make the best of the sad, bad day and telephones her cousin Eva, an attractive woman whose husband is also locked up. Eva shows up with her three kids, and together the women hard-boil 20 eggs. Then, using 89-cent Wal-Mart-purchased dye kits plus crayons, everybody spends the next couple of hours turning the kitchen into a happy mess dying Easter eggs. The next day, the women and kids extend the festive mood at Evergreen Park for a carne asada. “So we had a good Easter after all,” Frances says.

Frances is convinced that attorney Bisnow is doing little or no investigation, so she has done as he suggested and attempted to track down the drug buyers listed in the police report. By mid-April she has found two of the men and has a possible line on the third and fourth.

The first is Gus, the old basehead who approached her in court with the tale that Officer Chavez had threatened him with prison if he didn’t name Luis as his seller. She finds him again a few weeks later, and he repeats the same story but at more length.

It turns out Frances actually knows the second man on the list, but she only knows him by his nickname, “Pepe,” so at first she doesn’t put it together. The man, whom we’ll call Juan Garcia, is a 50-ish ex-con heroin addict who drops by to use the phone at the Homeboy office several times a week. His name is common, so when she first approaches Garcia, Frances isn’t sure she has the right person. “My husband, Luis, is fighting a criminal case,” she says. “I think you might be on his paperwork.”

Garcia is the guy. Yes, he says, he was arrested on January 14 as reported, but he’d purchased what he thought was five “nickel balloons” of heroin from a dealer on Cesar Chavez. When he checked the balloons, he found they did not contain heroin. “They were filled with dirt.” So Garcia took off after the fraudulent dealer. According to Garcia, the chase went on for two blocks until he lost sight of the guy and began racing up and down open driveways, including that of the Aguilars. A block later Garcia was arrested. (Police lab reports confirmed that the balloons contained dirt, not drugs.)

Upon hearing that he purportedly told Officer Chavez he’d bought from Luis in the past, Garcia snorts, “If that’s what the cops wrote, it’s a lie. I know your husband. I knew him as a little kid. His tío and me were homeboys. But look. I’m a heroin addict. I buy heroin, that’s it. And I never bought it from your husband or at your house. And I sure never told no cop that I bought from Luis. If you need me to come to court,” he tells Frances, “just subpoena me. I’ll do it.”

Frances is elated. But when the information regarding Gus and Garcia is related to Bisnow, he is dismissive. “What you’re telling me,” he says, “is that these guys are perjurers who falsified evidence to the police, and now they’re saying something else because they’re afraid to implicate a gang member. Not very credible.”

Since Bisnow is Luis’ only chance at beating his case, Frances doesn’t want to alienate him. “But I’m not sure I understand where he’s coming from,” she says. “These guys aren’t saying they lied, they’re saying Chavez lied. Why doesn’t he get that?”

Nearly all of Frances’ waking moments are informed by the interweave of three pressing themes: Luis’ case, the well-being of her kids, of course, and money — namely, how to get by on less and how to make more. She still won’t apply for public assistance other than the WIC program in which her kids are already enrolled. (WIC is a federally administered grant program that provides low-income pregnant and postpartum women and children under 5 years old with certain nutrition-rich foods — mostly milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and a few odds and ends like peanut butter and canned tuna.) She is still able to pay the mortgage with her and Luis’ savings, but in a couple of months the savings will run out. “So I’ve got to make more money,” she says. “I love working for Homeboy. And nobody’s ever going to cut me the same slack in terms of letting my kids come here after school, but I’ve got to find a way to make more.” In mid-April, she comes up with a plan to pick up a little extra cash. “I’m going to become a notary,” she says. “My friend and I are going to do it together. I’ve already found a class and signed up to take the test.”

On Monday, April 26, Luis goes to court for yet another continuance. Although the court appearances last only four or five minutes, Frances’ presence makes a big difference to Luis, so she makes a point of going. Bisnow is in trial elsewhere, and an alternate public defender is present in his place. After court, the P.D. passes along a message to Frances. It seems that a group of community members have faxed a letter to the prosecutor stating that the Aguilar residence is a known drug house. Even more alarming, for at least six months a group of her neighbors have been holding meetings to complain to the police about Frances and her family, and to strategize about how to get the Aguilars out of the neighborhood. “So I guess Officer Chavez wasn’t just harassing you,” Bisnow remarks to Frances later. “I guess he was just doing his job, wouldn’t you say?”

“With all respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says.

Privately, Frances is stunned by the news. “When I was selling drugs years ago at our other house, nobody bothered us. In fact, a lot of people were happy to take my dirty money, for drill-team outfits, for field trips, for a lot of things — even though they knew where it was from. But now that I’m doing good . . .” Her voice trails off. “If all these people think that bad things were going on at my house,” she says quietly, “why didn’t one of them have the guts to say something to my face?” Then, after a pause, “Maybe it’s time I went to one of these meetings.”

A big kick: Estephanie and the drill team

Since the gatherings include the police, she reasons they must be official Neighborhood Watch meetings. “And those are listed on the LAPD Web site.” Sure enough, there’s a meeting listed as taking place every Monday night at Resurrection Church.

At exactly 6 p.m., Frances pulls into Resurrection’s parking lot where there is only one other car. A young male receptionist in the church office tells her to come back at 6:30. When Frances returns at 6:35, the parking lot is packed.

“I’m scared,” says Frances. But she walks into the crowded meeting hall anyway, and 45 or so sets of eyes swivel toward her. For a few milliseconds, a frozen Frances stares back. Then all at once it becomes clear that the receptionist has it wrong. This is not a Neighborhood Watch meeting at all but a group of parents planning some big baptism Mass.

Back in the parking lot, Frances collapses against the car with a case of hysterical giggles. “When I saw they were planning a Mass,” she says, gasping with laughter, “I thought, oh my God! These people are really serious about getting me out. They’re even praying about it!”

Undeterred, Frances drives next to Hollenbeck police station to ask where the real meeting is being held. This time she’s directed across the street to the office of Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa where, indeed, a large, lively meeting is in full swing. However, this new meeting concerns the disputed closing of a popular local bar. Frances gives up, at least temporarily.

Back at home the night is still warm, so she walks down the street to talk with one of her neighbors, a fine-boned woman with a long, wavy mane of pure white hair, whom Frances refers to respectfully as Doña Christina. “Oh, yes,” says Doña Christina in Spanish, “there’s a group who was taking around a petition a few months ago to try to get you kicked out of your house. But I don’t think many people signed it, so don’t worry.” Whether or not this last part is true, it calms Frances’ anxiety, at least for the moment.

Luis goes to court again on Monday, May 3. Once again he is offered a deal. The offer is worse than the last time, eight years instead of four. Attorney Bisnow tells him it’s as good as he’s going to get and that he ought to grab it. Again, Luis refuses.

It takes Frances longer than usual to drop the kids at day care, so she reaches court a few minutes late and misses Luis’ appearance altogether. Luis calls her at work later in the day and tells her about the offer. She tries to be sympathetic but is too drained. “Tell Bisnow he should do the eight years if he thinks it’s so damn good,” she snaps. “I thought he was supposed to be on your side.”

“I don’t feel like I’m there for Luis right now,” she says when she hangs up the phone. “I don’t feel much of anything. I just feel like I fucked up my life at the beginning, and now there’s nothing I can do about it.”

She hasn’t slept well in days, she says, because Frankie, the 4-year-old, has been keeping her up nights asking for Luis. “Now he won’t go to sleep because he thinks Luis might call. He keeps telling me, ‘Mom, make the police give him back.’” And, with the Astro van still broken, Frances has been driving Luis’ 1990 Nissan Stanza, but the registration on that car has just come due, meaning it also needs a smog test. “But to pass it, I have to have the muffler repaired, and that’s another $100.” Plus, although the baby’s birth was covered by Luis’ insurance, she still owes a $500 co-pay. “Which I know is a great deal, since the real bill was, like, $11,888. But for me, $500 is still a lot of money. Money-money-money,” Frances trills the words in a rhythmic litany. “That’s what it’s all about, right?”

On top of everything, the results of her notary exam arrived in the mail this morning. “And I didn’t pass,” she says. “I need a score of 75, and I got a 64. It’s okay. I’ll take it again in a month, but it makes me feel . . . you know . . . stupid

In an effort to take control of something this day, Frances calls Senior Lead Officer Pedroza and politely tells him she’s heard about the community meetings and would like to come to the next one. Pedroza pauses, then gently tells her the truth. “Look, if you come, the rest of the people won’t come. I’ll organize a meeting if you want, but I’m telling you, that’s what’s going to happen.” (For the record, the Neighborhood Watch committee declined to allow the Weekly to attend any of its meetings, despite repeated requests.)

One of Frances’ gifts is the fact that, while she has her unhappy moments, she never really lingers in the lows. “See, Frances has to put on a strong face all the time for everybody, for her kids, for Luis, everybody,” says Lalaina Rasmussen, a former homegirl who used to work at Homeboy Industries. “But sometimes she needs to break down and lean on a shoulder.”

By Wednesday, Frances’ mood is on an upswing again as she attends a large Cinco de Mayo assembly at Hollenbeck Middle School where several music and dance groups will perform, Estephanie’s drill team prominently among them. Frances snaps lots of photos as a dozen identically dressed girls kick, spin and shimmy across the stage. “I try to take pictures of the kids whenever I can,” Frances says. “I think it’s important. See, I don’t have any pictures from my childhood. Just this one little school picture of me that my uncle gave me after my mom died. But that’s it. That’s why I’m making sure it’s different for my kids. I want them to know they have a history.”

At 9:16 a.m. on May 13, Luis finally has his preliminary hearing. The single witness against him is Officer Chavez. Chavez is a compact, handsome man, with a ’40s film-star profile and a mouth that lists downward at the corners in repose. He describes observing as three drug buys took place at the back door of the Aguilar household between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. on January 21. The first two buys are attributed to Lil’ Happy, the last to Luis. Officer Chavez describes seeing the third buyer climb the back steps, knock on the door, Luis opening the door, the man giving him money, Luis handing the man a packet, the man being arrested down the street, and the packet later being confirmed to be rock cocaine.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Patricia Titus rules that Luis will be bound over for trial for the charge of sales and for possession of nine bullets. The two additional charges — possession and persuading a minor to sell — are dropped, since the prosecutor presents no evidence for either.

Luis is encouraged by the outcome, but Bisnow is pessimistic to the point of hostility. “I know Frances thinks Luis is innocent and this is all a big conspiracy,” he says, “but I don’t think she understands — courts of law require real evidence. And I haven’t seen any.” Frankly, he adds, he doesn’t have “unlimited energy” for this case.

At this, Frances loses it. “You know, Bisnow,” she says, “it’s my ass that’s been hauling around everywhere trying to investigate this case, not yours. It seems to me, you haven’t done shit for my husband except to tell me all the ways you think he’s guilty.”

Over the next few days, Luis and Frances discuss whether there is any possible way Luis can get a different lawyer appointed. Then, on Tuesday, May 18, just as the Homeboy office is about to close, a once-notorious East L.A. Dukes homeboy named Victor Mojica comes in the front door. He is holding the hand of a 2-year-old boy whose small, serious face is as pale as the moon. Victor’s twin brother, Gus Mojica — once equally notorious — is a gentle man who has worked in the Homeboy office for six years, while Victor is drug-addicted and now pretty much lives on the street. The toddler is Victor’s son.

Victor tells Father Greg that he needs help in turning the little boy over to the Department of Children and Family Services — foster care. The boy’s mother is in jail, and both sets of grandparents have declined to take the kid in. “So I have no one,” Victor says, his voice laced with shame. “And I can’t take care of him the way I live, you know?” Greg agrees to make the call. “But once you do this, understand there’s no turning back,” he says. Greg has just picked up the receiver when Frances swoops frantically into the room.

“I’ll take him,” she says.

“Oh, no.” Father Greg shakes his head emphatically. “No. Kiddo, you’ve already got much too much on your plate.” But now Frances is sobbing, “You can’t do this. You can’t let him go into the system! I’ll take him, G., please! He deserves better.” As the debate continues, it spills out that Frances was once briefly in foster care herself. “You don’t know how terrible it feels,” she says. “My sister and brother were in the system for years. Years. They were never the same. My sister was molested. It ruined both of their lives.”

After a few more attempts to argue her out of it, finally the priest relents. Victor Mojica puts his face in his hands, his eyes streaming. “Thank you,” he whispers to Frances. “Thank you.”

Frances breaks the news to Luis two days later when he calls collect. “If that’s what you want, babe,” Luis assures his wife, “it’s okay with me. Really, it’s okay.”