Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Susanna Franek

My family thought I was crazy buying a house in a crime-infested, gang-ridden part of L.A.

Upon my return from Spain I had lived with my sister in the San Fernando Valley to get back on my feet, then eventually moved over to West L.A. into an apartment on Beverly Glen that a friend was vacating.

Staying with my older sister and her partner in North Hollywood was temporary. It was hard living with lesbians who chose verbal abuse, co-dependency and alcoholic, jealous-induced rants. Over in West L.A., my neighbors never conversed. I felt isolated and invisible. I’d sometimes wake up wondering where I was.

In the late-80s, Silver Lake was in the early stages of gentrification, but still had a rough edge. The grit of the neighborhood appealed to me. The house on Coronado Terrace was the first of ten the realtor showed me. I fell in love with the 1918, five-bedroom, semi-Craftsman two-story house, even though it had been worked on, piecemeal, over the decades. The ghastly dark-brown carpeting, the pink walls, the olive-green kitchen with its cracked linoleum floors, the back yard covered in concrete, the garage ready to collapse, and the chipped, red painted porch; none of this discouraged me. On the contrary, I knew the minute I walked in, it was the one.

I asked the postman about the area, the block, and in particular the eyesore next door. Junked cars were parked in the driveway and on the street, piles of booze bottles, beer and soda cans in huge plastic bags lined the side of the house, stacks of old newspapers were everywhere, and rose bushes and shrubs stood unkempt and covered in dust. I told myself there were always a few houses like this in a neighborhood, and not to worry. He described the Flores clan, a multigenerational family from the Philippines that lived in the tiny two-bedroom Spanish bungalow, and that drug dealing and gang activity had been going on for years.

“They’re a tough lot,” he said.

Frankie, Freddie, and Fidel – three sons out of the five kids — were part of a third-generation local gang, CYS, aka, the Crazies, a mix of Latino and Filipino youth. Robert, a white guy who lived a few doors up the street and had a reputation for meddling in neighbors’ mailboxes and asking for money, was also part of the gang. Yet something guided me to purchase the house.

Before moving in, I had some workers restore a bit of the Craftsman charm, take out the concrete to landscape the backyard, and move a few walls inside the house. Then I had the fun, yet challenging, job of dressing up 39 windows.

One day I stopped by the house during my lunch hour to check on the construction progress and noticed a gang tag on my side porch. Etched into a thick layer of dust were the initials ‘CYS’. Instead of waiting another few weeks for construction to finish, with my 5-year old in tow, and another sister and niece who were living with us at the time, we pulled the bare necessities together and moved in the next day. I too was staking claim to territory.

Frankie was the oldest and most involved with the CYS. Freddie was more of a follower. Fidel had two young daughters both under the age of 5, who were sometimes pulled along for the ride at night when the brothers would go out, and return with stolen car stereos they’d pass through their side gate to one of the brothers who stayed behind.

I introduced myself when we moved in, and regardless of their disruptive activities, I always said hello, called them by name, and engaged in conversation whenever they were hanging out on the low concrete wall that divided our driveways. They were hard to avoid.

The gunshots soon unnerved us. They were the norm on weekend nights. Helicopters hovered, sometimes for hours, with their bright spotlights lighting up the street and shaking all our windows as they moved from yard to yard. Sometimes we could hear sounds in the bushes up on the hill in our back yard. I never got used to the echo of bullets flying through the silence of the night.

One evening when I returned home from work and pulled into my driveway, a dozen CYS members blocked my way. They were hanging out with Frankie. My sister panicked; I realized we had to take a different strategy. I got out of the car to take my trashcans up the driveway, asked how they were doing, and would they mind letting me through. They moved. I got back in my car, a bit shaky but relieved. A couple of days later my front wall was tagged.

The tagging around the neighborhood never ceased; they were like cats marking their territory. I joined the Silver Lake Improvement Association – SLIA. I started going out with crews to paint out CYS and Temple Street graffiti along Sunset, and on the walls surrounding Mayberry Elementary School that became a canvas for the tagging wars between the CYS and ExP, the Echo Park gang. Their tags went as far as Glendale Boulevard, and spilled over into the more upscale hills of Benton Way. Before long I had a bucket of paint, brushes and some overalls in the back of my car and was often inspired to stop and paint out graffiti wherever I found it in the area.

The SLIA was a great resource for me as I settled into the hood. I started going to more meetings. Over time, though, the group’s rhetoric felt unrelated to neighborhood issues. I was invited to a meeting at the house of SLIA President. Lining her mantle were volumes of L. Ron Hubbard books on Dianetics. She was attempting to recruit SLIA members into Scientology. Around the same time, a series in the L.A. Times exposed the organization’s cult-like tactics and their problems with the IRS. I asked them not to call me anymore. I didn’t know which cult was more dangerous: the CYS or the Scientologists?

Yet through the SLIA I met LAPD Officer Joe Writer. He was the Senior Lead Officer (SLO), a job he held from 1986 to 1999 at the Northeast Police Division. SLOs are the bridge that unites the LAPD with the communities they serve. They help residents create a system of vigilance to discourage burglary and other crimes. The Rampart police scandal was then front-page news; stories of criminal cops were daily headlines. Neighborhood policing was an effective way to work in tandem with neighborhood leaders known as Block Captains, and build relationships to offset some of the bad blood.

Joe encouraged me to become a Block Captain. My sister and I worried about retaliation, and envisioned slashed tires, more tagging on our front wall, and danger to our lives. The brothers next door happily spoke with us in our driveway, attempting to disassociate themselves from any crime in the hood. But their theatricality started to wear thin, and their cohorts felt much less friendly.

Another Filipino member, Jake, who lived with his family next door to Robert and was especially known for his bad temper, was shot down at a party only a few blocks away. The mourning played out on our street with a hundred gang members all in black jackets with CYS emblazoned on the back blocking traffic for two days. We worried about more gun battles from rival gangs.

These guys were heavily armed, which Frankie openly bragged about to my Italian boyfriend, Paolo, who they thought, because of his thick Italian accent, must be associated with the mafia. They liked him and invited him over one day to show him them their arsenal.

I was scared but soon learned to trust Joe. He knew all the CYS members and their families. He had a magic touch; his soft blue eyes communicated empathy, while his large, strapping build and no-nonsense personality commanded respect. He knew each of them by name and visited their homes to mediate conversations between the kids and their parents. I remember him talking to one mom about her son, offering to get funding to put him in art classes to channel his tagging habit more productively.

The CYS was openly dealing drugs, which attracted even more shady characters. From our second floor windows we saw what looked like drug deals go down. Mr. and Mrs. Flores didn’t seem to care, and when Joe approached them I could hear their excuses and laments as to how they wanted to send their sons back to the Philippines, and insisting they were not aware of their sons’ CYS activities. I observed otherwise. I often saw Mr. Flores, a plane mechanic for the Americans during the Vietnam War, drinking with CYS members in their backyard, often for hours.

The first of many Neighborhood Watch meetings I organized drew 40 people to my back yard. With Joe’s support, the CYS slowly got the message that we’d no longer hide behind closed doors and windows. I strategized with Joe and some of the neighbors, and we decided to coordinate with a few phone calls as soon as we heard Frankie and friends congregate in front of the house when they’d return from their escapades late at night. We would come outside at the same time, to socialize, and walk our dogs, big and small, throwing them off guard and disrupting their gathering. It worked. They soon shifted their hoodlum activities a few blocks over; we helped those neighbors organize as well.

The years that followed were not easy living next to the Flores family. Apart from the junky cars and hoarding, there were many nights of family feuding and shouting, or Freddie overdosing on god-knows-what, screaming for hours. Nevertheless, we always chatted with Frankie, and though conversations were peculiar since he was usually either drunk or stoned, we stayed on good terms.

I babysat the block for nearly a year and a half, and then grew weary of mediating petty complaints between neighbors. Pilar, a landscape artist and set designer for the film industry, took over the Neighborhood Watch. She revived the meetings and also brought in the French muralist, Didier Guedj, who worked with the Mayberry Elementary School kids to design a mosaic mural. Now a young magician’s wand brought words of encouragement to the neighborhood and to the school kids: Integrity, Non-Violence, Friendship, Justice, Love, Wisdom. Neighbors who were meeting each other for the first time went on to collaborate for months, filling in the design with tiny pieces of broken tiles.

The Flores family eventually sent Freddie back to the Philippines, an arranged marriage awaiting him. Fidel finally got his life together and left the neighborhood, moving to Valencia with his two daughters, older teens by that time.

Frankie was in and out of jail for theft and dealing drugs. Every time he’d get out there would be gatherings with some of his prison buddies out in the street or in their backyard. These characters seemed even more menacing than some of the CYS bangers, who were growing older, while the next generation of younger members stepped in. Over time, Frankie was more low-key and appeared to be less involved in gang activity. At one point we thought he might be cooking meth in his bedroom garage that bordered our backyard wall.

A month later a dozen drug enforcement officers swarmed the house, entering Frankie’s room in the back. There was no meth lab, but I later found out that he had been stealing neighbors’ credit card correspondence from mailboxes; they found blank checks that he was trying to falsify. A black cloud lifted when they carted him off to jail. That was the last I saw of him.

The Floreses finally lost their house, which was foreclosed and bought by a Cypriot Armenian who renovated it – a project that lasted a year – and sold it for almost $1 million to a young actor who plays a vampire in a TV series. The house where Robert lived, the white kid involved with CYS, was renovated by an Iraqi developer who sold it for $1.5 million, to the Oscar-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Next door, Jake’s family still lives in the same house.

Today, crime is still happening, but it’s more underground. Property values have risen; many in the neighborhood are sitting on gold mines, me included.

I don’t miss the boys next door, but I’m saddened by the neighborhood turning into a homogeneous hipster community. The newcomers refer to the neighborhood as the “East Side,” as if Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t exist. I miss a community where neighbors watched each other’s backs. It’s starting to remind me of my time living on the west side, where the new folks moving in keep to themselves. Airbnb rentals are bringing in occupants who have no roots in the community, many of whom think they can party well past midnight.

The tagging continues, but rarely do we hear gunshots. With the gang gone, the biggest threat now is the coyotes, especially for the owners of those little dogs.

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Maria Fernandez

Aureliano Valdovinos is walking under the October moonlight. The dirt road is full of shadows, but he is not afraid. He can feel his gun at his waist, moving with him. He’s been walking for more than one hour. Once he gets to the crossroad, he will catch a bus to Sahuayo; a second bus drops him off in San Pedro Caro, Michoacan, where he is now living. With each step he takes, he is leaving his old village, Jaripo, and his girlfriend of several years, Esther.  The cluster of adobe huts, illuminated only by petroleum lamps, gets smaller by the minute.

Men have been leaving Jaripo for years. This small village in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, along with many other villages across the country, sends its working age men to the United States, to work legally as manual laborers under the Bracero program, an agreement the two countries entered in 1942. Thousands have left with contracts, for months at the time. They return home for some weeks, just to depart again with a new contract. Yet, poverty is not the reason Aureliano is walking away from the place where he was born.

It was August 15, the day of the Virgin Mary.  Just after 6:00 pm. People were gathered at church for a rosary in honor of the Virgin. The sweet smell of flowers, and candles burning, mixed with the murmur of prayer. At the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary, dressed in a blue and white outfit, stared at devotees with an almost human expression of kindness and compassion.

Nobody knows why Moices Salceda pointed his gun at Rafael that afternoon. Rafael was sitting on some steps leading to the plaza. Later, they said Moices threaten to kill Rafael for no reason, other than feeling like bullying someone he knew unarmed. The two had never had any problems before. Antonio, Aureliano’s younger brother, happened to be standing nearby. He saw Moices pointing his gun at Rafael, a close relative, and ran to find a gun for himself, snatching it from one of his uncles. Antonio came back yelling for Moices to leave Rafael alone, and to come resolve whatever the problem was, now that he too was armed.

The two men ended up face to face. It all happened fast. Antonio fired first. One bullet hit Moices in the head. Moices lay dead on the street; 18-year-old Antonio was in shock. Revenge was law in town; it wouldn’t be long before armed men from the Salceda’s family stormed the plaza. Aureliano heard the commotion from inside the church. When he realized Antonio was involved, he rushed to his brother, who was still unable to move.

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

Antonio started to move. He slowly bent over to pick up his hat and then took off running across people’s backyards.

Nobody else died that day in Jaripo. The gun battle that followed between the the Salcedas and the Valdovinos left only one wounded man on the Valdovinos’s side; but nothing was ever the same. Most of the Valdovinos clan had to move to another town. Aureliano’s family home and his father’s land had to be sold. Aureliano missed his friends, and working on his father’s fields, but more than anything he missed Esther.

Esther was a pretty, quiet girl, with long, dark, wavy hair and dreamy eyes. They met in elementary school, and remained friends until he asked her to be his girlfriend in their early teens. That’s why now, after the troubles, he kept coming back every week or two. He would only see Esther for half an hour or one hour each time. She pleaded for him to stop visiting. A few years had passed since Moices was killed. Nobody had bothered Aureliano during his visits, but is was impossible to say it would never happen. His gun was always ready; Esther was always on edge.

Esther’s family liked Aureliano. Her mother made tortillas for his mother for a small fee. They noticed the handsome, hard-working young man early on, and welcomed the relationship once they learned about it. The couple had talked marriage but nothing was decided, until one day Esther accepted Aureliano’s proposal in a letter. Aureliano paid for the wedding with money he earned as a bracero, pruning beets in Idaho, harvesting peas in Minnesota and corncob in Delaware. The newlyweds settled in San Pedro Caro. He was 24-years-old, Esther was two years younger.

For the next several years they were often away from each other. Esther, like many other Mexican women at the time, was giving birth and raising kids almost on her own. Aureliano always sent money home when he was away, working in the United States. He enjoyed bringing back gifts for the kids when he returned. But he always left again, sometimes with contracts, sometimes working independently. Esther would find out she was pregnant and write to her husband with the news. In spite of the money coming reliably in Aureliano’s letters, it was tough being a single mother to seven children. The day little Carlos died of stomach flu, which often killed poor babies. Aureliano was working in the United States. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his son.

Every day, at exactly 12:00 pm, the women in the neighborhood took out their chairs and sat in front of their houses to wait for the mailman. Sometimes he passed by a house without stopping. They picked up their chairs and went back inside, hopeful that tomorrow would be different. Sometimes letters came with no money orders. The husband or the son would explain that frost had made it difficult to harvest the tomatoes or the asparagus. They had to wait. Yet the mail remained the most expected time of the day.

San Pedro Caro was a town of fisherman, farmers and migrant workers. By the beginning of the sixties running water was a privilege for few. Women and girls washed clothes by hand at the public “lavaderos,” or even at the edge of a canal, also popular with boys for swimming. Neighbors with wells in their backyards, opened their houses for the community. They endured the constant coming and going of people carrying buckets of water. Nobody had to pay, only patiently wait for their turn and follow the rules, like using only the rope and bucket already at the well to get the water out.

At night, and regardless of her complaints about the lack of help to buy new batteries, Maria Gil would take her radio out and put it where all could hear the soap opera. Women and kids alike surrounded the neighborhood’s only radio.

Esther was not very sociable, but it was difficult not to become part of the communal routines. People shared more than radios and water, and more than the sounds of kids playing on the streets; they shared the absences of loved ones, and the hope and loneliness that came with it. They shared the hardships for the lack of social services and the heartache of seeing babies die. But most also shared a dream, the dream of one day setting foot in “El Norte,” joining their husbands, fathers and sons.

Every time Aureliano returned home from the United States, he found work in the fields of well-to-do families in town. Even if he only had weeks to be with his family, he didn’t rest. One morning when on his way to work, while hauling farming equipment with his horse, tragedy struck. The horse got scared and threw him. The heavy piece of farming equipment trapped and crushed one of Aureliano’s arms when it fell on him. Some surgeries later he had improved but not totally recovered. For several years he was unable to return to work in the United States. He continued working on whatever jobs he was able to handle, but with more mouths to feed – now a total of 11 – for the first time since they got married, Esther and Aureliano’s family experienced hunger.

The economic situation was so bad that the oldest kids had to drop out of school to help. By the time Aureliano’s mobility and strength returned to his arm, some of the kids were young adults and teenagers. It was now their turn to look North. They left one by one, the way it always happens. At the beginning of the seventies, Aureliano made once again the trip to the United States to reunite with his sons, in Los Angeles, California, sending for Esther and the younger kids a couple of years later. The two oldest daughters had already married and stayed in Mexico.

For Esther “El Norte” was nothing like she had imagined. The two-bedroom apartment where she and her three kids landed, was infested with rats and roaches. The space was already home to Aureliano, three of their sons and two other male relatives; one son had already moved out and had a wife and a baby. The apartment complex was in the heart of East Side Clanton 14 St territory, one of the oldest gangs in Los Angeles. The two adult sons liked to party and were often out late at night. The teenager was ready to follow in their footsteps. Drive-by shootings and gang violence were frequent.

Esther had no friends to talk to. She had to clean and cook for ten people. She and her two girls often pushed a shopping cart full of dirty clothes to the laundromat. She always made sure to get the sand from the beach out of the seams and pockets of her son’s pants. She imagined the beach, and all the nice places in California she had been told about in stories. So far, she had not seen many.

During the week, with the kids at school and the man at work, in a dilapidated living room and surrounded by old furniture, she often buried her face in her hands and cried. Esther and Aureliano had grown distant from years of separation. Aureliano couldn’t understand why she was unhappy. It was true they didn’t have a car, they didn’t go places. It was ten people in a two-bedroom apartment. She was alone for long periods of time, unable to get around on her own, but was it really that bad? Why couldn’t she just be content?

As months and months passed, sadness and hopelessness took a hold of her middle age heart. She finally had enough, returning to Mexico with Aureliano, and their two younger daughters in the early eighties. Sadness went home with her. Depression never really left after those years.

Settled back in Mexico her daughters had what they needed, but when it came time for them to go away to college, Esther couldn’t let them go. Universities were several hours away, in Morelia and Guadalajara. It was better they returned to Los Angeles, there at least they had their brothers.

Luz Elena, the youngest daughter and the one that used to run to Esther with tissue for her to dry her tears, back when they lived near 14th Street, was the last one to leave the family home in Mexico, and move back to the United States. Once again, Esther found herself in an empty house. Aureliano always had an easier time adapting to the changes. In San Pedro, he enjoyed cock fights and sitting at the plaza with his friends. Esther walked to church and to the market alone most of the time.

Esther and Aureliano returned to the United States many times, they stayed with their son’s and daughters in the houses they purchased in the suburbs of Los Angeles: South Gate, Huntington Park, Downey. They welcomed many grandkids and then great-grandkids over the years. She told stories of how much she had worried and how difficult those first years in the United States had been. When shopping at the mall with Luz Elena, she picked nice shoes and nice clothes for herself. Don’t I deserve nice things, she would ask no one in particular. A picture from that time, of her, Aureliano and her two daughters, shows her standing in front of a water fountain at Macarthur Park in Los Angles, her lips tight and her eyes looking far into the distance.

Esther died in Downey, California at the age of 78.

Aureliano will soon turn 90. He remembers the beauty of her long hair and her blessings every time he started back down the dirt road, back in Jaripo, back when they were young.

____

Maria Fernandez, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, is a small-business owner and mother to an 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. She lives in West Covina, California and enjoys music and almost all kinds of documentaries. She is planning on attending business school and on continuing writing stories about her family and her community. Contact her at fabricfanclub@aol.com.

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Louie Flores

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the summer of 1973, I was one of the kids who painted the mural in the Estrada Courts housing project in honor of the gang I belonged to, Varrio Nueva Estrada.

That was my last summer in the varrio before my enlistment.

Varrio Nueva Estrada had formed thirty years before by guys who lived in the project in the 1940s. By the 1970s, VNE was very large, one of the largest gangs in East L.A. It included several cliques. Mine was the Dukes. I was 18 years old and the first gang member in my family. I never knew my father. My oldest brother was my father figure. He painted furniture at a factory and was fifteen years older than I was. He was an alcoholic and a very prideful man. His pridefulness must have rubbed off on me. Anyway, my mother used to worry a lot about me. There was a lot to worry about. The gang was like my family. I felt I needed to protect my family at all costs. At the time, the varrio was something I would die for.

The mural that summer was funded by the county, which wanted to beautify the East L.A. area. The fire department donated the paint and the Kiwanis Club lent us the scaffolds. A mural was better than graffiti, they figured, and the neighborhood artist proposed a mural that no one would deface with graffiti. It turned out to be a mural showing how long VNE had been there and how long we were planning on staying. It was pride in the neighborhood, meaning the varrio, the gang.

People who didn’t belong to the neighborhood didn’t have any business in the projects – that’s how we felt. We viewed the mural as a statement to other gangs to stay out; that this is VNE headquarters – all of it funded by the county.

About a hundred homeboys worked on that summer youth program, and the VNE wall mural was the first one approved. After it was finished, other murals were painted. Murals went up in the Maravilla projects, the Hazard projects, in Primera Flats – all on county property with county funding. They all did the same thing we did, which was to glorify our neighborhood, our gang.

The mural takes me back to that summer of 1973. I was drinking a lot and I used to get high on reds and whites. I smoked marijuana a lot, too. I was a follower and I needed to fit in. I got picked at random to help out on a crew of five painters. None of us were artists, but it made a lot of us feel good for a change. The artist, Danny Martinez, directed us, telling us which colors to paint where. He had the whole mural outlined in chalk.

The mural is of two hands growing from a tree stump and holding up the letters V-N-E, atop which stands an eagle with a ribbon proclaiming “In memory of a Home Boy. 1973” – all against a royal blue background.

Back then, gang killings were much less common than they became a couple decades later, and we rarely used guns. One night in 1973, though, we got invited to a party in the Florencia area. One of our homeboys was a kid named Noely who lived a few blocks from Estrada Courts. His parents were Russian immigrants, but he spoke Spanish, grew up with us – a white guy and a member of our gang. He was shot and killed at the party. That set off big problems between us and Florencia for many years.

The mural was painted in Noely’s honor. There’s a banner below that reads, in Spanish: “Que Rifan Todo Las Cliqas del Varrio Nueva Estrada, Que Vivan.” (May the Cliques of Varrio Nueva Estrada Rule. Long May They Live.)

For a month I worked on the mural, painting its blue background and the ribbon across the top. I painted with great care, thinking that it had to be perfect so that the rest of the mural could look nice.

Many years later, I talked to Danny Martinez. He explained that the tree stump represented the years that the varrio had been in the projects. Like a tree, the varrio had grown. The hand represented how we were holding up the varrio to glorify it. The eagle was showing the Chicano struggles in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the ribbon was dedicated to Noely.

Many younger homeboys were on crews that painted those murals. One who became infamous was Ernie “Chuco” Castro. He was about 13 years old at that time, getting high on reds and whites.

The year before the mural, I was arrested for possession and suspicion of sales, so I was on probation when I turned 18. That year, I was beating up a kid in a park and cops arrested me. I was facing my first felony and my probation officer recommended me to the military. So a few months after helping paint the VNE mural, I enlisted in the Army, which turned me around. When I came back in 1977 I was military minded. I moved out of the varrio with my wife.

Later, after I moved away, I remember meeting Chuco’s ex-wife, Jackie. She told me that Chuco was doing some time and they had kids already. He’d been doing heroin by then. Heroin was an epidemic in East L.A. at the time. A lot of guys into heroin were doing a lot of robberies. I think Chuco got caught up in that.

But I missed it. I was working, driving trucks in the 48 states. So I lost contact with many homeboys. I was no angel. I’d drink heavily for a while. I smoked PCP for a couple years, and gambled.

Then 27 years ago, I just stopped it all. The blackouts got to be too much. I’d come home from the racetrack with nothing. I lost a wife over it. Since then, I’ve been clean, driving trucks, and working on older cars. My second son is getting a PhD in English in New Mexico, so I’m happy about that.

I don’t get over to see the mural too much any more. But when I do, I feel lucky to have gone to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division. I could have ended in prison, or been killed at the rate that I was going. I was sly, sick and wicked and got away with a lot of crimes. I got shot at a couple times, but they missed.

I still run into a few of the homeboys from time to time. One guy, name of Ciclón, was a pretty bad dude then. Now he’s got a bad back. He told me about Chuco. Chuco, he said, had been doing some work for the carnales – the Mexican Mafia. He became a made member. Then, a few years later, he was arrested and, facing life, Chuco became an informant. He testified in a famous case that sent many of the carnales to prison for life.

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

____

Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Louie Flores

I’m about the 10th jumper, and we had been trained to push the guy ahead of us, so everybody is pushing and shuffling to the door and yelling. Then we all go flying out and I started counting. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. On the fourth beat I got the tug of my parachute inflating. So I looked up and there it was, fully inflated. I was floating and yelled out “Geronimo!” as my squad floated down around me.

It was 1974; I was 19 and straight out of East L.A. from the biggest varrio at the time: the Varrio Nuevo Estrada Dukes.

I had been arrested at the end of 1973 for assault and battery. I got caught beating up a kid in Montebello Park. I was loaded on reds and alcohol when the cops came around the corner and saw me fighting with the kid. I was hitting him with a branch of a tree, so I was facing a felony that I wasn’t going to beat.

On top of that, I was already on probation for under the influence, possession, and suspicion of sales of barbiturates (a.k.a. reds), so my probation officer recommended me for military service. It was looking like Uncle Sam’s army or Folsom Prison.

I went to the recruiter’s office. He told me about the 82nd Airborne and right there, suddenly, I wanted so badly to wear that famous maroon beret.

I thought I would look sharp with spit shine boots and the blue infantry rope and the French forager. It was the Vietnam era, and I was that rare thing – a volunteer. I knew when I signed up that it was like signing a death warrant. But I wanted to belong to the best airborne division, America’s guard of honor. The other division, the All-Americans, the 101st Airborne, had been wiped out in Vietnam and they were becoming an airmobile unit.

Deep down, I wondered if I had it in me to jump. I needed to know if I could go through it. I had once vowed I would die for the varrio, but unlike if I were to die for the varrio, I imagined that my family would be proud of me dying for the country. My cholo mentality was gone. I was going to serve for God, country, and honor, and I felt like a lean mean killing machine.

It took three weeks to prepare me to jump. As soon as I got off the bus the black caps were all over us, yelling at us, calling us dirty legs. I was in for three weeks of hell. I didn’t walk during the training. I ran. We ran everywhere. During the second week we ran four miles every day, and on the final week – jump week – we ran five miles to the airfield, then we climbed into the iron bird.

Inside the C-130 airplane, I was still cool, calm, and collected. But when the bird took off and we were high in the air, the green light went on and I started praying. Something like, “Heavenly father, hear my call for through the sky I will soon fall.”

The commands started.

“Stand up!”

I stood, hooked up and I shuffled to the door. I was praying hard by then. “For Your will, nothing less, nothing more.”

Then out I went. I heard the wind all around me. It was quiet. I saw the trucks and trees below, and they looked small. I was nervous but those crucial four seconds were the most important in my life up to then.

It felt great coming down. I was in God’s front yard. I steered my chute to the right, left, to the front, and back. Some guys were yelling but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I felt as if I was riding a giant swing – a natural high. I felt closer to God’s house.

Then the ground started getting bigger. It was the greatest five minutes of my life, and maybe the scariest. I readied myself as the ground approached. Then I hit it, and I flipped to the side, my chute dragged me for a bit, and I got up and collapsed it.

I had done it! And I liked it. I knew that I only had four more jumps to go to earn my wings. I ran for the rest of that day’s training.

The next three day’s were similar. On Friday, we ran five miles to our last jump, and graduated later that afternoon. I had my wings and was on our way to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Green Berets.

How I wished that my mom could have made my graduation. I received my wings on my uniform over my chest, where they seeped into my heart. It was the proudest day in my life up to that time.

I came home looking sharp in my uniform, feeling I had conquered fear. I was afraid of nothing. I wanted to go to the front lines and fight for country, honor, and duty.

I was once a proud member of one of the largest gangs in Los Angeles. Now I was a paratrooper from East L.A.

Louie Flores
Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Jose Nunez

As we walked toward the corner of Juniper and 108th, the bright glow of the streetlight made it even harder for us to keep from swaying. There were three of us, Jose Varela, Jose Villalobos, and myself, Jose Nunez, trying to decide which way to go.

Varela, the oldest, swayed and yelled, “Ya fools are drunk as hell!”

Villalobos giggled and stomped toward Varela and scolded him.

“What you expect? We just drank a 40 of Old E.”

Varela pushed him away.

“Shut your ass up before I knock you out.”

Villalobos put his hands up and threw a couple of punches.

“What’s up? You want some? Come get some, homes. What, you scared? Chabala. Ranker. Leva. That’s what I thought, punk.”

We all laughed.

I stood there quietly with my hands in my pocket searching for change that I knew I didn’t have.

“I thought we were going to a party?”

It was past midnight and our only option was up the street toward the music coming from a parked car. Varela led the way. He was a year older than Villalobos and me, and, at 15, he was a head taller with a full mustache. This was his neighborhood, and his nickname, Crow, was on more than a couple of walls. His grandfather trained kids to box in his own front yard. There was a full-size boxing ring with a speed bag nailed to a tree. His oldest uncle, Modesto, was good enough to try out for the Junior Olympics, but got stabbed at a party that left his right leg partially paralyzed. Varela trained too, but I think he loved basketball more. We once fought in the middle of the street with gloves on and it was no match. I was smaller then and always trying to prove myself.

“Where we going?” I slurred as I stepped off the curb and stumbled to catch myself from falling.

Villalobos giggled again.

“Yo momma’s house.”

Funny thing was, Villalobos’s momma lived just three houses down from where we were standing, and if she knew her 14-year-old son was out drinking and walking these streets, she probably would have whooped all three of us. She was nice and all, but strict. I would spend the night at his house and go to church the next day.

We passed the corner house where a girl named Gerri used to live. I always wonder what became of her. One day after football practice, I remember, she asked me to go see her at her cousin’s house. I was surprised by the invite, and felt the butterflies kick in as soon as practice was over. Gerri was a year older and pretty as hell, with hair to her waist that danced when she walked, and a smile that matched her laugh. Her cousin lived half way up the street from her house, and out of view from her mother. She took no chances and walked out of the house and stood a few feet away from the gate making sure that a tree blocked the view of the front door to her house. Her mother must have been home.

“So who do you like?” was how she started.

“Huh?” Caught off guard, I panicked.

“Nobody.”

“How about Yolanda?”

“Who?”

She stomped her foot. “Yolanda Lopez!”

“She’s all right, I guess.”

We talked about Yolanda most of the time and that was okay as long I got to talk to Gerri. The next day I was Yolanda’s boyfriend. We lasted for three days. I guess she could tell I wasn’t into her and Gerri never asked me to meet me at her cousin’s again. I should have been nicer to Yolanda.

Gerri had two older brothers who were protective and fierce. Once, they got into it in the middle of the street – a full-on fistfight, just the two of them. People came out to see the show, but their mother wasn’t too happy. Her screams were useless. They kept fighting. So she went into the house and came out with a monkey wrench, the same monkey wrench that her son used to open the fire hydrant in the summer. She looked mad enough to swing at their heads. Instead, she smashed the windshield to her oldest son’s Impala. That stopped the fight. The look on her son’s face when he walked over to his car was painful. He didn’t say a word. He just got in his ride and left. With brothers like that, you had to be real careful not to try anything with Gerri.

We finally got to the car parked in the alley. Varela jumped in the back seat with some girls.

By this time Villalobos and I were standing in the shadows next to five or six gangsters from the neighborhood.

“What’s up, Villalobos! You guys been partying or what?” was the first voice that belonged to Fausto, Varela’s uncle.

“Yeah, man, we’ve been drinking Old English. We’re tore up for real,” he yelled loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, including the nuns in the convent up the block.

The nuns lived in a two-story convent next to the priest’s house. They taught at San Miguel Catholic School across the street from the convent, where the three of us met. The nine Sisters of the Love of God were from Spain and came to the United States, learned English, went to college and taught kids from Watts right from wrong. There were some nice ones, but others ruled with iron fists. Sister Mary was one of them. She was my second-grade teacher. During recess she caught me doing something and began to reprimand me. I was in the fourth grade by then and should have known better than to talk back to her. I interrupted her with, “Sister, it’s because…” and before I could finish my sentence, wham, came a slap across my face.

Callese! Don’t talk back!” she said in a heavy accent before walking away.

I stood watching her waddle back to class. To this day I’m not sure what I did. There was no chance in hell of turning her in. Corporal punishment was the law of the land back then and the nuns had Jesus in their corner. I just accepted it. Plus, if word got back home, I’d probably get it worse.

I entered San Miguel in the middle of second grade. Celso, my father, found out about the school from a grocery owner in Compton where we lived, before my parents separated and we moved to Watts. He thought it was better to be taught by nuns than in a public school. Tuition was always a problem but my parents made ends meet. Pops was a gardener so he mowed the lawn at the priest’s house. Concha, my mother, volunteered every chance she got. She cooked the menudo on Saturday for Sunday breakfast. My siblings and I helped set-up the tables and chairs. We spent a lot of time in the parish hall setting up for breakfast and dances and even DJ’d when we got older.

Those dances would bring the neighborhood together, young and old. The older crowd would dance to a conjunto that played cumbias and rancheras, and then the DJ would play for us. The three Jose’s were there as well along with our Mothers.

At one dance, Varela spotted my mom walking across the dance floor.

“Man, Nunez, here comes your Mom!”

She asked me first.

“Andale, Jose, vamos a bailar?”

“Aw, Ama, no quiero bailar rancheras.”

She worked her way down the line.

“Andale, Villalobos. Vamos,” she said, as she pulled his arm. He either liked dancing rancheras or was too nice to say no to my Mom that night.

“Here you go, homes,” said one of the shadows and passed a joint to Fausto. He took a hit and passed it back. He turned to us.

“Don’t do drugs. It’s bad for you.”

The homeboys chuckled.

“Naw, it’s cool. We only do hardcore drugs,” was Villalobos’ response, but the joke didn’t get past the smoke.

I overreacted.

“You’re a fool, Villalobos!”

I went back to trying to be cool in the shadows. If it were the middle of the day we wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with gangsters from La Colonia. This was the nickname for our neighborhood given by the old Mexican families that came here in the ‘30’s and ‘40s. La Colonia was four square blocks sliced up by one-ways and centered around the church. The small streets had even smaller houses. Most were wooden bungalows built back in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s that were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. On those hot summer days, the homeboys from La Colonia opened fire hydrants to cool off. These same homeboys claimed La Colonia as their own. They had rivals on all sides and the feuds often brought tragedy.

One mother found her little boy slumped over his cereal killed by a stray bullet. My classmate’s father was talking to a neighbor and didn’t duck the bullet meant for the homeboy who was running for his life. There was also Christina, a girl who Villalobos married a few years later.Her family had moved to our neighborhood from East L.A., where her brother had some trouble. Early one Saturday, the trouble followed him home, where he was ambushed and killed.

All three of those families lived on our street.

“One time!”

The homeboy closest to the curb put down his beer. Before I could turn, lights from a Sheriff cop car were on us.

“Put your hands up!”

No one moved more than they had to and Villalobos and I followed everyone’s lead. We turned and faced the fence. I turned to look for Varela. He had a gun pointed at him and his hands were sticking out of the window.

“Interlock your fingers and look straight ahead!”

The cop squeezed my hands and pulled my head back while he searched me. I was stunned by the amount of force. I guess if you’re going to hang out at midnight with gangsters you’re going to get searched like one. My buzz was gone. I started to get cold and wondered if Sister Mary was looking out the window of the convent to see what trouble makers were out this late. Lucky for us the cops swooped in on us without the siren. They quickly went down the line. After he finished, I turned to face the cop. Varela was still being searched on the other side of the car. He was cooperating.

“Get the hell out of here!” one of the cops said finally.

We started to walk up the street. Varela was close behind and the rest of the homeboys took off in different directions.

We laughed and pushed each other around as we headed toward Villalobos’ house. We tiptoed into his house, hoping his mom wasn’t awake. I was on the floor in a sleeping bag when his Mom opened the door. It was dark, she didn’t even turn on the light, but we knew she was mad. I pretended to be asleep. Villalobos was going to get it.

My worry was bigger. I pictured Sister Mary calling my Mom to tell her who she saw in the alley that night.

____

Jose Nunez

Jose Nunez is a middle-school teacher living in Los Angeles. He grew up in Compton and Watts and managed to avoid the pitfalls associated with these neighborhoods, but also sees the beauty in these places.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Fabiola Manriquez

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

___

Fabiola Manriquez grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in the formation of storytelling.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Johnathan Quevedo

I’m 28 and grew up in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest — in different states. My mother suffers from severe bipolar disorder. I came out to Los Angeles to get away from her.

You can Google her and understand perfectly why I left. She was a mess and made the news in every state we lived in. Somehow she wrote a book and it’s on Amazon now.

She was a medical doctor for 34 years, originally from Panama and immigrated here in 1984 with my grandmother who was from Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. She was considered “gifted” and graduated medical school at 17. She and my father divorced in 1991, but recently got back together in 2011. He is Chilean, and a cook, an author, and a small restaurant owner in Michigan.

I haven’t seen them in seven years and I’m actually going to visit them tomorrow for the first time since I left for Los Angeles.IMG_3641

But the last time I saw her, in 2006, she was living in a mansion in a gated community in Detroit called Sherwood Forest. I planned on staying a week but she was in full manic mode and people I didn’t recognize were constantly coming and going. I remember the neighbors handing out flyers out front and purposefully avoiding me, which gave me a clear indication that something was going on. The house had also been raided by the D.E.A four days before I arrived.

I love my mother but she constantly treated people badly when she was manic. I was her son but nobody else wanted anything to do with her. Her manic phases didn’t allow her to sleep so she worked at Henry Ford Hospital, ran a medical clinic on the southwest side of town, and hosted a radio program in Spanish about medicine and health.  She did the same thing in Alabama.

Anyway, back to me. I moved here from Detroit with two brothers from Los Angeles who I met when they were living in Michigan with their father. I stayed with them and their father in Michigan for a time. This was common. My mother’s manic phases meant I lived with different people all the time. When I was 15, I lost my virginity to a 46-year-old woman named Gina. I left her place at 16 and stayed with another woman named Maria who was 35 and the same thing happened there. Maria did it to get back at her husband who was cheating with a prostitute, who was an old friend of mine. Now that I look back on it they both took advantage of me knowing I was desperate and had nowhere to go.

It was during this time that my two friends from California helped me out by allowing me to stay with them and their father.  By the time I graduated high school I had credits from schools in four different states: New York, Georgia, Michigan, and California, which I visited with the brothers. During one visit, I met a girl I stayed in touch with.

I fell in love with Los Angeles. The mountains, the deserts, the climate, and the beaches were so different from what I knew growing up back east. When you aren’t from here, the vision of California you have is what Aaron Spelling and Arnold Schwarzenegger show you: Malibu, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. A lot is overlooked — like all the social tensions within the communities.

When I turned 21, in 2005, I moved here permanently. Anything was better than the on-and-off hell of my mother. I knew something was wrong with her but I didn’t know how to help her. Because I didn’t realize how much it cost to live here, I eventually ended up staying in Skid Row for a while. I slept on benches, in car trunks, in the Panama Hotel and finally the Ford Hotel on 7th St.

I didn’t have any family or support. The girl I met on an earlier trip became my girlfriend and her family helped me. She is Mexican-American and her family moved here from Michoacan, Mexico in 1983. My existence is due to her entirely.

She and I had the idea that since we couldn’t go to school simultaneously, she would go, then I would go. So she finished in 2008 and that was when I returned. Because she was in school at Cal State University, Los Angeles and doing her student teaching and I didn’t have a career job to support us, we decided to move to Compton where her father owns a duplex.

I knew Compton was bad, but I’m not involved in gangs, and I worked, and this was only a temporary thing, so I agreed to live there.

I had two jobs, one working for Evergreen Aviation and the other as a Loss Prevention Officer at the Marriott Hotel in downtown L.A.

Then my car’s transmission went out, so I had to take the train to work: The Blue Line to 7th and from there I’d just walk. I had to be there at 6 am.

One day, I was walking to the Blue Line station in Compton, when an SUV with four Latino gang members passed me as I was at the intersection. The passenger held a gun out the window and said, “Don’t move, motherfucker!”  They were talking directly to me as if they knew me personally.

I ran. They made a U-turn and raced after me. They came up on me. All four of them hopped out, and one of them shot me once, point blank. I just remember not believing I was hit until at the same time I fell face first in the cement and had a concussion. I tried to get up but noticed my equilibrium was off. I remember feeling the blood spread inside my head and grabbing the left side just to see a handful of blood, bone fragments, and pieces of my own brain in my hand. I remember tasting it because it was in my throat.

I remember being carried away by the mechanic and my girlfriend to the back because they thought the gang members might return. As they carried me, a neighbor’s wife was coming home and she helped us also. I was yelling for help. But people there stay out of things even if a life is in jeopardy. I’m pretty sure they heard me.

I stayed conscious for about 30 minutes until the blood started swelling in my head. I still remember seeing pieces of my own brain, mixed with blood and skull fragments in my hand and on the street.

I had never seen these guys before and, as far as I know, they’d never seen me until that moment. They passed everyone and came directly for me and left the rest alone.

I had surgery at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood and immediately moved to Downey. Physically I was fine but it took me two years to recuperate psychologically. I suffered from massive headaches, seizures, short-term memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. I had to learn how to walk, read, write, and socialize all over again.

I wanted to be a stand-up comedian but that ended with the depression and anxiety I began to feel.

Everyone I know believed this happened because, though I’m ethnically Latino, I have black features. The gang members never yelled a racial slur, so it was never counted as a hate crime. But I don’t think it was anything else.

Since then I’ve seen other cases and I’ve listened to people, coworkers, students, teachers, family, and witnessed open encouragement for hatred of blacks on the trains, in these communities, and downtown. This is the city’s very open secret.

The guys were never caught, and the lack of justice sparked my interest in political science. I’m hoping to finish a degree in that soon.

My boss was able to contact my mother later that day. She had been in prison by then for three months.

She was released a month later. Then she remarried my father.

___

*Johnathan Quevedo has remained in Southern California, working full time and studying political science at California State University, Dominguez Hills. This is his first story for Tell Your True Tale.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
True TalesTYTT Export

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Christian Lockwood

I once had a house with a white picket fence. In it, I lived with a wife, and two children. Life seemed pretty good. But the shell shock from a tour in Libya fighting the war on terrorism tore me up, and drugs and alcohol became a way of life from which I could not free myself.

That is how one warm August day in 2009, well into my self-medication, I awake on the seat of my pickup after another night of no place to rest my head. My pickup, my dog Batman, and my cell phone are all I have left. My wife and kids have been embarrassed by me for the last time. They have disowned me.

I am sweating profusely as most junkies who need a fix experience. The gagging has started. “I need a drink,” I say to myself. If I don’t get one I could die. I am in the DT’s. My skin is crawling as if overrun with bugs. I am drenched in my own bodily fluids. The hallucinations are starting now. It’s  as though I am being pursued by little green men coming from everywhere. A full blown seizure is sure to happen soon. I need a dose bad.

I scuffle across the street to get my medicine. I gag the entire way, only bringing up yellow bile. It’s 5:56 am and this damn storekeeper better not be late today. By 6:05 am, with no store owner in site, I’m getting sicker by the minute.

Finally, at 6:12 he drives up and notices me and my condition. He exchanges pleasantries with me and hurriedly opens the door to let me in. He knows what I need. The storekeeper doesn’t stop to turn the lights on and upon entry goes immediately to the shelf to pull down my elixir.

A pint of Jose Cuervo and a tall Coors are my usual liquid meals. I’m infamous here at this store. They know me all too well. I pay for my stash with change I’ve bummed from passing folks and leave. I barely get away from the storefront and I need to get the first couple of pops in me. The sooner I down it, the better. The first couple never stays down anyway. As predicted up comes the burning alcohol through my nose and mouth. My Boston terrier gazes up at me with a look of “Really?” Then he smells the frothy discharge and laps it up. Wow, I’m turning the damned dog into an alcoholic too. I need to sit down and let these first two swigs work. After a minute or two my gag reflex has given me a reprieve and it’s time now to completely bury my torments in life.

I was once a proud United States sailor with an impeccable service record and receive citations for Honor and Expert Marksmanship. In civilian life I  was a well-respected member of the Tri-County Gang Task Force and had a reputation as a tough cop who was known for fighting gang crime and drug interdiction. Now, in fact, this is more of a hindrance when it comes to copping my dope. Too many of these street people know me. Only my selected posse at Gibbons Park know me as Rocky, just another park dwelling bum like them.

Speaking of my posse, it’s time to get back to the park.  I finally feel fit enough to navigate my way back to my home, the park. I get to our favorite picnic table where we all hold court and share our harrowing tales about surviving the night before. We begin to pass our bottles between us as if in attempt to see who could out-drink who. Then the talk always turns to who has weed, and eventually someone comes up with some to smoke. Then it moves to crystal and soon we are all snorting meth off of a paint chipped picnic table.

Eventually it happens. Black-and-whites drive into the park from all directions; everyone runs but me. I am as if frozen in time. Was it that I was surrendering? Nope, really how fast can a man run with a little black dog tethered to his leg? A cop car stops in front of me and the officer jumps out and immediately opens the back door.

“Oh Jesus,” I say to myself. I know this officer.

I quickly drop my head hiding my face and obey every command. I am frisked, and out comes my driver’s license. The officer puts his hand on my shoulder and yanks me toward him forcefully.

“Lockwood?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s me bro,” I reply. I used to work Gang sweeps with this officer on multi-agency procedures.

“What in the world has happened to you?” my buddy asks. “You need help.”

My cop friend for some reason lets me go. My posse, on the other hand, is not so lucky.

Once again I am alone, the dog and I. It was time for another drink. I feel lucky. I stumble to my truck and upon trying to get into the driver’s door I see my reflection in the window. My cop friend’s voice rings loudly in my head as I stare at somebody I don’t even recognize looking back at me. I have checked out of life completely.

The day before a church guy had stopped by the park and gave us all sandwiches, talking “God” the entire time. We all pretended to listen because we were actually thankful someone was feeding us. He quoted the Bible and said something from the book of Romans that while we don’t want to do wrong, we are powerless to stop. He quoted scripture that didn’t make sense to me at the time. But it was all making quite good sense now.  I was a proud United States Military Veteran who was trained to adapt and overcome. But I can’t figure out why I am destroying myself when deep down inside I don’t want to.

I recall a saying I saw on a flier I saw at the VA Clinic. It said, “It takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help.”

The time has come. I need to ask for help. I pull out my dying cell phone and make one last call. They send someone to come to the park and pick up Batman and me.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that August day in 2009.  I have started a new journey in life. That’s who I am now.

____

*Christian Lockwood is studying at San Joaquin Delta College and Bible College at Fellowship Church Community in Stockton and aspires to be an ordained pastor and serve military veterans in San Joaquin County.

 

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
True TalesTYTT Export

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Richard Gatica

The day before I killed Donald Evans I did not even know he existed. The day he died I was smoking crack cocaine and when I smoke crack, nothing else matters. Not family, not friends – not even God.

Each time that I smoked crack, I could hear little demons and their excited little whispers. I knew what I was doing was wrong. That pleased them even more.

At the time, I was out of money and robbing drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles. Crack was everywhere then. Black dealers would stand in the dark shadows near street corners and sell to people as they drove up in cars. Sometimes several dealers would share the same spot and race to the customer as soon as he pulled up. A half-dozen hands would thrust through the car window, each with a display of rocks. The customer would make his selection according to size, color, and weight, as if he were buying precious jewels. He would then speed off and the dealers would run back into the shadows.

I was driving around at five in the morning looking for a dealer to rob. It was still dark. I was planning on simply snatching the rocks out of the dealer’s hand and speeding away. I found no one at my regular spots, which was odd even at that hour. It seemed as if the cops had just done a sweep.

I drove further into the slums and finally seen a woman standing on a corner. I asked if she knew where I could get some crack. She said yes. I told her to get in. She had me drive a few blocks. I could tell she was a smoker herself. Probably a prostitute. They were called “strawberries” – women who sold their bodies for crack. I once saw a strawberry actually perform fellatio on a dog for a hit of crack.

So as this strawberry directed me to a dealer, I knew she would be willing to rob him. After driving a few blocks, she had me pull over in front of a house. Donald came out from the shadows. He was dirty and I saw that if he was a dealer, he was his own best customer. Donald walked up to her window and showed her some rocks. I asked him to pass them to me so I could see them more closely. He was hesitant at first. I told him to hurry before the cops came. He passed the rocks to me. As I pretended to inspect them I put the truck in gear and stepped on the gas. The truck shot backwards. I had put the truck in reverse by mistake. Donald the crack monster held on to the passenger side door unwilling to surrender his product. I put the truck in drive and it shot forward in a cloud of smoke.

People came out of the shadows and started throwing objects at the truck. Through all of this Donald held on tight. The strawberry started screaming like there was no tomorrow. For Donald, there wasn’t. I gathered speed and started zigzagging down the street in an attempt to shake Donald off, but he held tight.

Somehow he got the door open and was swaying back and forth on it. I seen this as an opportunity to smack him up against a light pole or parked car but every time I would get close the door swung inward.

Donald’s last words were, “I’m going to kick your fuckin’ ass.”

For suddenly he was gone. He had fallen off the truck and was sucked up under it. We were doing about sixty miles per hour. His body slammed against the undercarriage. The rear tires lifted off the ground. Donald never had a chance. He bounded and rolled and slid down the street and came to rest under a parked car.

I drove a few more blocks, made a series of turns, pulled over and told the strawberry to get out. She turned to me and asked, “Aren’t we gonna smoke some rock?”

I yelled at her to get the fuck out before I killed her. I would have hit her face against the dashboard until she was dead because she was delaying me from smoking my rock. She tried to get out but the door handle was gone. Donald must have taken it with him. Maybe he was holding onto it and it broke off, causing him to fall. Finally, the strawberry climbed out of the window and as she did, she told me to never ask her for a favor again. Later, I learned she was killed by one of her tricks soon after that.

I went back home and found that my beautiful wife had left me – I wonder why. I thought we were doing pretty good. At least I had my rock. I smoked it in the living room alone. As soon as the rush came I went to the window and peeked through the curtains watching for any suspicious activity. I stood there motionless for over an hour trying to detect any danger. I seen an old lady walk by with a cart and could see that she was covertly talking into a police radio as she glanced my way. They thought I was so stupid!

I finally laid down on the couch and started to formulate a new plan for my next rock. I had just killed a man for a fifteen-minute high and an hour of paranoia.

I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of the police banging on my front door. I tried to run out through the back door but found more police waiting for me back there.

I was arrested but not for killing Donald. I was arrested for stealing the truck that I used to kill him. The police did not connect me to killing Donald for another sixteen years.

Donald was a black man. He was forty-four years old. I was twenty. He had a long rap sheet but nothing very serious. He was addicted to crack just like me.

He died from what is called “eggshell” cracking of the skull. Imagine taking a hard-boiled egg and dropping it, then rolling it around a little. His left ear and most of the left side of his face and neck were torn off as well.

I often look at the autopsy report and photographs as a reminder of what drugs can do. When I was a little boy at school playing on the monkey bars, I never imagined that I would one day be addicted to drugs or that I would kill another man to support my habit or that I would spend the rest of my life in prison.

As I said, prior to killing Donald I did not know he existed. Yet because of our mutual addictions, our fates will forever be entwined. His body is rotting in a dark cold grave and mine in a dark cold prison. The distance between us is very narrow and if there is a God may He have mercy on our souls.

_______

RICHARD GATICA 1Richard Gatica of a former prison gang member and crack addict who is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has completed a memoir of his life, from which this story was taken.

 

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail