In February of 1996, Ophelia Duarte, who had turned 23 in the summer, decided she wanted to baptize all three of her sons. Ophie is small and curvy, with a Brigitte Bardot mouth and a mass of bottle-red hair that blows around her like carmine fog. Her eyes are large and watchful. In repose, her face is vulnerable to the extreme, suggesting an emotional constitution as flimsy as rose petals. Women with looks like Ophie's have traditionally inspired men to go to war in their behalf – or to do them wrong. In her case, it's mostly been the latter.
Ophie is also the kind of young woman with whom mainstream America has little patience. She had her first baby a week before her 17th birthday, the rest in fairly rapid succession, all by boys who didn't know the first thing about fathering. When social scientists and politicians talk about cracking down on the problem of teenage pregnancy, she is exactly the girl they mean to crack down upon. Even the most tolerant of liberals tend to frown unsympathetically when they hear of circumstances like hers. “All those children,” they say with clicking tongues. “So irresponsible.”
It's hard to explain that Ophelia is a much better person than the facts of her life would indicate, that she's smart and funny, and that the way she's pulled herself from the wreckage of her childhood over and over again is admirable by any reckoning. When she was 3, her heroin-addict mother dropped the little girl, along with the black plastic garbage bag containing her clothes, off on her grandma's front doorstep and walked away. After that, every man who should have protected her instead committed acts of staggering damage. It was hardly surprising that when she hit adolescence, her habitual way of approaching male-female relationships was to throw herself under the wheels of the boys she dated as if they were speeding cars.
Ophie knows what most people think about girls like her. “But what they don't understand,” she said, “is if your mom's a hype or a basehead, and your dad's not around, you grow up without a sense of belonging to anyone. So you want one thing that really belongs you . . . and so you have a baby. That's why I did it. That's why all the girls I know have done it. And that's how the cycle starts all over again.” She paused, the look on her face both despairing and ferocious. “All the young mothers, we know we need to raise our kids different. But that's not always been so easy to do.”
In 1996, however, Ophie was particularly optimistic. She had decided the baptism would be a sacramental fork in the road for her, a public act of faith that would inform God and anybody else listening that she'd survived all the bad things of her life, and that from now on she and her kids would have better.
– 2 –
There was never any doubt who would be the comadre, the godmother, for the baptism. Rosemary Estrada had been Ophie's best friend since 1988. They met because Ophie's then-boyfriend, Curly, was living at Rosemary's mother's house. Where Ophie was soft and pliant, Rosemary was formidable. Five-foot-seven and 230 pounds, she was a tough and scary girl in those days, all attitude and chola'd to the utmost, pushing through space like a battleship with good tits, her naturally pretty face painted up like a '40s movie star.
Right before they met, Rosemary threatened to beat Ophie up. “The night Ophie came to the house,” she said, “I was on the roof, talking all kinds of smack, telling Curly, 'I'm gonna kick that girl's ass.' But when I finally got to meet her, we clicked. After that, she even came to live with us for a while. We got real, real close, because me an' her had been through a lot of similar things.”
Among the “similar things” was the fact that Rosemary's mom had also been a serious heroin addict. “I remember I was in the second grade when the DARE program had barely started in schools,” Rosemary said. “Those DARE people would come in and talk about all these bad drugs, and I would think to myself, 'God. All that stuff is at my house! Imagine if they knew.'”
Her mother's drug use eventually got bad enough for Social Services to take the kids. But in 1989 she cleaned herself up and even became a sort of Mary Magdalene of the neighborhood, acting as a surrogate mom to an ever-changing collection of anchorless kids like Curly and Ophie.
– 3 –
The ceremony was to take place at Dolores Mission, the tiny Catholic church that perches at the center of the Pico-Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. Pico Gardens and its sister project, Aliso Village, combine to form the largest public-housing complex west of the Mississippi. It's also where Ophie and Rosemary spent their teenage years.
I first began driving regularly to the projects – as the residents call it – in the fall of 1990, to research a magazine article on Eastside street gangs. I was interested in the work of Father Greg Boyle, who, as Dolores Mission's pastor, was then gaining a reputation for his work with the area's gang members. It also seemed to me that Pico-Aliso was the ideal laboratory in which to explore the gang milieu. Within its mile-square boundaries, eight active gangs claimed territory, and according to statistics compiled by the LAPD, it had the highest concentration of gang activity in Southern California and, arguably, the world.
Like many journalists who come to the barrio, in the beginning I was mesmerized by the extravagantly tragic actions of the young men. I tended to overlook the finer-tuned dramas of the girls and women, whom I saw as peripheral to the story I wanted to tell. But as my article turned into a book, and my time in Pico-Aliso stretched from months to years, I began to suspect that the women – both older and young – were not the story's periphery at all, but its heart. After all, they were the ones raising the boys. And if this most violent community in all of Los Angeles was going to transform itself for the good, the transformation would have to begin with the newest generation of women – girls like Ophie and Rosemary.
Therein lay the problem. All too many of the girls in the projects had childhoods that ranged from bad to horrific. If there wasn't severe drug or alcohol abuse in the family, there was physical or sexual abuse – often all three. Moreover, to be raised in Pico-Aliso was to grow up in a war zone. Every single kid had friends or relatives who'd been shot to death. Add to this the kind of soul-grinding poverty that occurs when the poor of a city have calcified into a permanent underclass. And then there were the babies – all those children having children.
Real personal change – the kind that reshapes the trajectory predicted by one's past – is difficult under even the best of circumstances. So how realistic was it to expect girls with so many obstacles arrayed against them to gather the internal momentum necessary to alter their lives and, by extension, their community?
– 4 –
Ophie didn't tell Rosemary the deepest secrets of her childhood until more than a year after they first became friends, but Rosemary told Ophie everything right at the beginning. She talked about how, when she was a girl of 10, she had developed a fiction of survival. After everybody else was asleep, she would stay up for hours at a time imagining herself as a princess. She would whisper strategies of rescue to herself in what she imagined was a princess voice. “You'll run away real, real far,” the princess voice would tell her, “and he'll never find you.”
“He” was her father, an angry and brutal man who had battered her for as long as she could remember, and sexually abused her since she was 9. He would corner her when her mother went to visit the neighbors, she said, or when she was by herself in a room. “Our apartment only had two bedrooms,” she said, “but it was upstairs and downstairs. My dad always knew the perfect moment when he could get me alone. He would say, 'Hurry up and go upstairs. And don't cry, and don't say nothing.'”
The ways he would get to her were infinite and varied. There was the time he took her downtown with promises of a shopping spree. “On the way back he pulled the car over at this place down by the L.A. River. I cried and screamed and told him no. And he would say, 'You don't want something to happen to you or your mother,' or my brothers and sister. He would always say he would kill me if I told anybody. So I just lay there and I tried to pretend it wasn't happening. Sometimes I would make up a story that he's the devil or a beast who's doing this, not my father, because fathers don't hurt you like that.”
The abuse ended one night in December of 1986. Rosemary was 12 by then, and for weeks her princess self had been telling her if she didn't get out, she'd go crazy. “I'd seen a thing on television about multiple personalities, and I was afraid that it was happening to me,” she said. She waited till 5 in the morning, then snuck out of the house and ran down the street to the home of a school friend whose mother worked the graveyard shift. When the mother came home in the morning, Rosemary said she wanted to go to the police.
At Hollenbeck police station Rosemary told her story, then pleaded with the officers to get her brothers and sister away from her father. Officers were dispatched immediately to retrieve the kids and to arrest Rosemary's dad. The three younger children and Rosemary remained in foster care for two years. The police never found the father.
In 1989, when Rosemary's mother told her that her dad had died in Mexico, she demanded to see the death certificate. “I wanted to see if it was true, because I was still so terrified,” she said, “and I didn't believe he was really gone. But when I saw it, I got mad. I thought, now he's died and so it's over for him. God forgive me, but I wanted him to suffer, because I'm still suffering so much. That's why I always used to put on that tough little attitude, so nobody could see how bad I was suffering.”
– 5 –
When I initially turned my writer's lens on the young women of the projects, the pain of their lives was so intense it scared me. The lives of the boys were no less painful. But the gender difference seemed just heat shield enough to protect me. With the girls I had no such shield.
However, as I gradually got to know them, I realized that I'd judged the situation all wrong. Certainly, most of these young women weren't thriving yet, and, as in any population, some of them never would. But for Rosemary and Ophie, and others whom I watched grow up during the years of my research, mere survival required an unusual degree of resourcefulness.
Rosemary and I had been friends for some time before she told me about her father and the molestations. I found the revelations stunning. Surely, a person who has the strength to turn her abusive dad in to the cops at age 12 is capable of all manner of accomplishments if given half a chance. Thus, I began to suspect that the lives I'd first viewed as three-alarm fires were, in fact, something else entirely: potential sources of light.
Yet the opportunities middle-class America accepts as givens, in Pico-Aliso were as slippery as quicksilver. And even half a chance sometimes seemed as far out of reach as the moon.
– 6 –
Once Rosemary had agreed to be the godmother, a godfather had to be chosen. Rosemary suggested her boyfriend, Snoopy. But Ophie had another homeboy in mind, a young man named Cesar, known on the street as Puppet.
A lanky, sleepy-eyed dream of a kid, Puppet was the only guy Ophie thought had ever looked beyond her boy-toy exterior and recognized her true worth. “Puppet was the one who had respect for me,” she said. “On those nights when I was drunk off my ass in the alley where we all kick it, Puppet would put me in his car and say, 'Nobody fuck with her. If you fuck with her, you're gonna fuck with me.'”
Part of the reasoning behind the baptism, in Ophie's mind, was that “If something were to happen to me, my kids would have a mother and father” – meaning the godmother and godfather. And Ophie felt that Puppet would be a better role model for the boys than their own blood fathers. “I knew he was a real man,” she said. “He cared. He never hit women. He had a job.”
The fact that Puppet was working steadily was also a important because it meant he could afford to pay the fee to the church – the portion of the baptism expenses the godfather was expected to handle. Moreover, if you got Puppet, you got his girlfriend, Erica, as well. “We knew that Erica would make sure that everything on Puppet's end was taken care of,” said Rosemary.
Erica Parra was a long-legged, brainy girl with smooth moreno skin, Eurasian eyes, and a facile ability to deflect the attentions of the boys who frequently buzzed around her without injuring their egos. “Wake up! Wake up!” she would say, snapping her fingers with mock urgency in front of the eyes of the latest homeboy proposing an amorous encounter. “You're dreaming! Now, wake up!”
While Ophie and Rosemary were both members of the Clarence Street Locos – a mostly boys' gang called CSL for short – Erica was not, had never been, a gang member. She was ambitious and wanted to go to college or, at the very least, make some kind of mark on the world. At 17, she was one of five young men and women who were given a grant to create a photo-video portrait of the Pico-Aliso community, and the results were good enough that the installation toured successfully throughout the city. In her spare time, she wrote clever plays that the community women performed at festivals and on church holidays.
Despite her talent, Erica's ambition was continually derailed by her parents. Those closest to her say her father alternately berated her and made sexual advances, and he and her mother clung to her financially like dead weights. As a consequence, she dropped out of school before graduation to become the primary support for her family, although both of her parents were fully employable.
In many ways Puppet was a blessing for Erica. He was proud of her accomplishments, supportive of her struggles with her family, and eventually helped her move out of the house. His sweetness of spirit seemed to assuage the depressions to which she had of late become increasingly subject. On the other hand, he refused to stop hanging with his homeboys, and he was not faithful to her. His latest excuse for straying was the baby issue.
Before Puppet, Erica made a point of avoiding the baby trap. By 1995, however, Puppet had become convinced that a baby was the magic spell that would make him stay home at night. So he began pressuring Erica. At first she resisted. Then, frantic not to lose him, she capitulated. But after a year of trying, she hadn't conceived. The relationship was on the rocks as a result.
Puppet mentioned the problem to Ophie. “He said to me, 'Damn! How do you get pregnant? Man, they just look at you and you get pregnant.'” Ophie shook her head. “Erica didn't want to have a baby. She looked around her, and saw how it messed up her friends' lives. But she really wanted to please Puppet.”
Ophie and Rosemary went together to ask Puppet to be the copadre. He seemed flattered, and said yes right away. When he came home to tell Erica, she tried to be a good sport. “Cesar was really happy he was going to be a godfather,” she said wistfully. “So many people had asked him to be their kids' godfather, because everybody knew he just loved kids. Everybody knew . . .”
A week before the baptism, Rosemary and Ophie went to choose outfits for the boys. Buying the dressy white baptism garments for each child was Rosemary's main responsibility as godmother. “We went to this nice little store on North Broadway,” she said, “and got little white tuxedos for the older two boys. Jacob was still a baby, so I got him some little shorts, a shirt, a cap and a blanket that all went together. And I got each one of them little necklaces.”
The shopping spree totaled over $300. The fact that Rosemary could afford such an expenditure was a major victory. Unlike Ophie, who'd worked part time since she was 13, full time since she was 20, Rosemary had briefly held one part-time job and mostly picked up pocket money baby-sitting for neighborhood children. Then, in June of 1995, one of Pico-Aliso's activist mothers, Pam McDuffie, recommended her for a summer position in a community outreach program sponsored by White Memorial Hospital. The White Memorial folks liked her, and the seasonal post stretched into year-round employment.
Rosemary blossomed unexpectedly in this workaday environment. With money from her first few paychecks, she bought herself “career” dresses, restyled her hair from tease-and-spray to long, soft waves, and got her nails done at a local salon. For her, as well as Ophie, the baptism was a kind of coming-out party, a declaration that she was as capable as anybody else of reaching for an American Dream that, before now, had been merely a mirage.
The ceremony was only a week away when things started to go seriously wrong. The chain of events began when Night Owl, another Clarence Street homeboy who had earlier volunteered to buy a cake for the reception after the baptism, gave the cake money to Rosemary, who in turn gave it to her mother for safekeeping. Rosemary's mother then decided to apply some of the money to an overdue phone bill. She reasoned that Ophie had made long-distance phone calls from her house and owed her.
Word of the reallocation of funds got to Curly, Ophie's on-again-off-again boyfriend, who, as the father of two of her sons, felt he had some say in the matter. Curly called Rosemary, screaming recriminations. Rosemary screamed a back, and soon Ophie was in on the screaming. By the end of the day, the baptism was canceled, and Rosemary and Ophie weren't speaking.
Everybody figured that the fight would get patched up and the baptism would be rescheduled in a week or two – maybe the weekend after Puppet's birthday, which fell on the 22nd. However, before a rapprochement could occur, fate played an unexpected card.
– 7 –
Erica dreaded the telephone calls that Cesar would get after dark. Although he had long ago pulled back from any kind of active gangbanging, he was a still a “big head,” one of the older, calmer members who took a leadership position when there was trouble. Sometimes the late-night phone calls were merely from friends who wanted Puppet to come out and kick it in the neighborhood. But sometimes they had a darker intent.
“Every time he would leave,” said Erica, “we would always do the same thing: He would give me a kiss. And he would say, 'I'll be back.' And I would always say, 'Watch out' and 'Be careful.'”
The phone rang at Cesar's dad's apartment around 9 p.m. on Tuesday, February 27. “Those days, he and I were sleeping on one of those mattresses on the floor in the living room,” Erica said. “And that night, we were there watching a TV movie. After the phone rang and he said he had to go out, I got up. Then we just stared at each other. I wanted to say the usual thing, 'Be careful' or 'Take care.' But all of a sudden, I was afraid to tell him to be careful, almost like that would jinx it. Even though I always said it before. That night it was different. I had such a feeling. I know he had the same feeling, too. So we just stared at each other. Then he kissed me, and said, 'I'll be back.'”
Always before, when Puppet would go out late like that, Erica would go to sleep. Then, when he came home, he would open the door quietly and wake her. This time Erica couldn't sleep at all. “I kept on getting up, walking around,” she said. Around 10 o'clock, she went outside to smoke a cigarette. “And, like, all of a sudden I had this picture in my head of Puppet in a casket. I started getting so scared. I thought, 'What's wrong with me! Why am I thinking like this?'”
A little after 11 p.m., the phone rang again. “Cesar's dad answered it,” she said. “But, as soon as I heard it ring, I knew it was about Cesar.”
The dad told Erica to put on shoes and a jacket. “When we got in the car,” she said, “he told me that Cesar was in the hospital.” He said some guys had jumped Cesar, but that his injuries weren't life-threatening – a few broken ribs and maybe a broken arm.
“Are you sure that's all?” Erica asked him. “There's something else, right?”
“No, no,” said the dad. But when they got to the hospital, the Intensive Care Unit nurse explained that the situation was serious. The dad went in to see his son first. When he returned, he told Erica he thought it was best if she didn't go in just yet. Erica went anyway, and fell immediately into shock.
– 8 –
In the small, white cubicle behind the doors marked Intensive Care, Cesar was crying blood. The ruby tears flowed in rivulets from his eyes into his ears, which had always been a half-size too big for the rest of his face. His head, which had been a gawky but somehow attractive shovel shape, was now oversize and blurry, giving the impression that his brain had been inflated like a party balloon, larger than his skull could contain. The smooth, light-brown skin of his face was water-colored with deep sea blue and amethyst, all dusted with black.
Outside the cubicle, doctors told Erica that Cesar was in a coma and had no awareness. But when she spoke to him, she thought she saw evidence to the contrary. Every time she said his name, his breath grew faster, as if he was running with effort to reach her across a long expanse of snow. She experimented several times until she was sure of the reaction. The fact that Cesar could react at all made her hopeful.
Rosemary, who had been driven to the hospital in the middle of the night by Pam McDuffie, was far more pessimistic. “I went in and watched the machine making Puppet breathe,” she said. “I had never seen somebody so bad, the way Puppet was. Nobody except for Bambi, who was my other best friend before Ophie. She was shot in the head in October of 1990, and her face was swollen just like Puppet's. When I saw his swollen head, I knew then and there that he wasn't going to make it. But I couldn't accept it. I kept saying, 'No. No. How could this happen? How could this happen? We didn't get to baptize the boys!'”
Rosemary's assessment turned out to be the right one. On the afternoon of February 29, two days after he was injured, Puppet was removed from life support. His father and Father Boyle were in the room with the doctors when they shut down the machines, as if turning off a light. Rosemary paged Ophie to call the ICU pay phone, and gave her the news. Erica teetered through the waiting room, sometimes crying distractedly, sometimes disappearing into the ladies' room to throw up.
Later, outside the hospital, Erica sobbed with hysterical abandon. “If only I could've gotten pregnant,” she said between gasps. “At least then, I'd have some part of him to keep.”
In the next few days, rumors about the way Cesar died flew around the projects like ashes gusting up from recently burnt ground: He was jumped by baseheads trying to rob him. He was set up by an angry former girlfriend. He was beaten down by enemy gang members as a payback, and he took the blows without defense so that the enmity between his neighborhood and the other gang would be settled without further incident. This last odd rumor gained credence because Puppet was known to be a skilled fighter, and in the hospital the knuckles of his hands were peculiarly unbruised.
The brutality of Cesar's murder stupefied the Pico-Aliso community. But for Erica, Rosemary and Ophie it had a more dangerous effect. In Erica's case, the danger was the most absolute and immediate. Friends hurriedly conspired to make sure she was never left alone, fearing she might try to harm herself. But responsible Erica fooled everybody. For the first few days, anyway, she moved through the funeral preparations with a numbed and purposeful velocity.
– 9 –
An initial inkling that something was terribly amiss with Ophelia came when she refused to attend Puppet's funeral. She talked about Cesar as if he was the last good man in a world where good men are in short supply. She couldn't bear to see him put in the ground, she told me dully. “Hope died with him,” she said.
After the funeral was over, her symptoms became more alarming.
On March 8, Rosemary called me from a phone booth. “I just talked to Ophie's sister, and she said that Ophie sounded real bad. She told her sister to tell me that she loved me. Her sister thought it sounded like a goodbye message.”
When I finally reached Ophie, she spoke in frantic, jagged tones, her reasoning dimly lit and woozy. “Puppet is talking to me,” she said. “I should have been there for him. He died alone. If the baptism had happened he never would have been on the street that night.” There was one refrain through it all. “It's my fault,” she said over and over. “I don't want to live anymore.”
At another, better time, Ophie had once recounted her own molestation story. “I was abused by three different men who are my relatives,” she'd said then. “I don't want to say which ones. It will just cause everybody in my family to get crazy. But the man who was the worst, he did stuff from the time I was 5, up until I was 10. He stopped it at 10, because that's when I started my period. Another of my relatives kept up a little while after that, then he stopped, too.”
The abuse left her with feelings of guilt she had been unable to erase, Ophie said. “Mostly I've just tried to forget what happened to me when I was little. But there've been times, if I'm really stressed out, I start feeling that guilt again. That's when my relative's famous words pop into my head. He always told me, 'No one's gonna love you. You're just trash.' And it goes round and round like that in my brain, 'Little girls like me – trash like me – this is what we get.'”
The old wounds festered and fused disastrously with the wounds of the present. I talked to Ophie off and on all evening. Finally she said she could sleep. For the next few days, Rosemary, Curly and various other friends kept tabs on her as much as she'd let us. After a week, the tincture of Ophie's anguish had gradually begun to dilute.
– 10 –
Both Ophie and Rosemary have a long list of dead friends. When Rosemary tries to list them out loud, she becomes confused about the order of who passed away when. “Let's see, first there was Rusty, then Chopper, then Bambi, then Sniper – whose mother, Rosemary, I was named after – then Soldier Boy, then Stress . . . No, wait. Triste was after Sniper and . . . after Sugar Bear, but before Stress. And then there was Spider, and little Dopey, and . . .” And on and on and on.
Conventional wisdom suggests that when death becomes commonplace, grief loses intensity. In reality, the opposite is true: The effect is cumulative, particularly when kids die; each new death calls up all the others. However, there is often a numbness that sets in, which doesn't indicate the absence or lessening of grief at all, but rather the fact that sorrow has come to visit so often it has made a home. Such sorrow is hungry. It may, if one is not careful, eat away at something vital.
Rosemary's disintegration began in secret. Shortly after Puppet's death, memories started circling like dark, malign crows. “Him dying brought back all the bad thoughts about my dad,” she said, “and about my other friends who've passed away. All those wakes. I thought, 'You know what? I don't want to see any of it no more. I just want to forget it.'” So she started doing straight rock cocaine. “It made me forget everything,” she said. “With crack, I didn't think about nobody's feelings. I didn't care. All I cared about was going and getting my stuff and going home and just feeling that . . . whew . . . getting away.”
At first, Rosemary kept her job at White Memorial and hid the drug use from everyone around her. “Sometimes I would stay up the whole night getting high,” she said. “But I would always go to work, even when I'd had no sleep at all. But still no one knew,” she said. “I'd put on that big ol' smile of mine, and everyone would think I was fine. But I was dying inside.”
– 11 –
We assume miracles arrive like bolts from the blue. But most real miracles are built arduously, stone by stone, and only when seen from the perspective of the whole are they revealed to be miraculous. For this reason we tend to miss the wonders happening right next to us, because they are occurring in slow motion and rendered invisible by the filter of our expectations.
Erica's miracle began in a flash of light and grace, then stretched over nine months. Three days after Puppet was removed from life support, she learned she was pregnant. Usually it's sad news when a young girl from the projects says she's going to be a mother. This time it was different.