Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sound Bites

I was in my office when Steve told me about the frantic activity down the block. The police had closed off the streets- a clear indication of a shooting or serious investigation of some kind. As a program leader of the Jr. Aztecs, Steve takes at-risk youths on hiking trips as a way to steer them away from getting involved with gangs. When he saw the commotion that afternoon, he immediately wanted to find out what had happened. Steve came back about twenty minutes later to inform me that indeed there had been a shooting. A boy on a bike had been chased down the street by an opposing gang member and was shot three times in the back. He didn't survive. He was only 14 years old.

Cypress Park is a predominately low-income neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles. It's an area that I've worked in for the past five years. Over that time I've come to developed a fondness for the community and the people that lived in it. The neighborhood appears so peaceful on the surface, especially during the daytime. In the morning you see mothers pushing baby strollers on the sidewalk. In the afternoon you see parents walking their children home from school and stopping by the local supermarket to pick up last minute groceries. People used to feel safe to come out during the day. Used to.

Someone asked me if I knew the boy. "Jose", I was told. His name did not registered in my mind. "You know *****? It was his brother that was shot." Oh shit. My thought immediately turned to ***** as I recalled the last conversation we had together. The two brothers came to my program two years ago, and on that particular day ***** had gotten into an altercation with one of the other kids. I sat him down in my office to find out what was going on. He started to cry as he told me about his brother's incarceration. He missed him very much, and the uncertainty of his fate had been weighing heavily on his mind. He apologized for his behavior and promised to do better. That was the last time I saw him. There were a couple of occasions when I ran into his mother at the supermarket, and she asked me if I would be willing to take him back. I told her that I would, but they never came back to see me.

I really didn't know Jose well. I remembered him as quiet kid who always kept to himself. You keep your eyes on the loud, rambunctious ones. They're hard to miss. But you worry about the quiet ones even more. The ones that say the least usually have the most to say. What made the killing even more tragic is the fact that just prior to the shooting, the family had planned to move to a safer neighborhood. The only thing that was holding them back was the tax refund check they were waiting to receive so they could pay for the move.

It's only fitting that it rained on the day of Jose's funeral. Although I was not able to attend, I was told that close friends, family members, and caring people from the community went to give support to the family. Members of Jose's gang were also there. The gatherers watched in dismay as members of his gang paid tribute to him by proudly placing items of their gang affiliation next to him. Some people questioned why the parents would even allow the very individuals who contributed to their son's death to participate in his funeral. Those who had the opportunity to hear the mother speak came away with the impression that she was in denial. It seemed that she could not accept the fact that her son was a gangster. He was her flesh and blood. When she first held him as an infant, she also cradled in her arms her hopes and dreams for him. All that she is left clutching now was his lifeless body.

Violence comes in waves like the aftershocks of an earthquake. As is the case with aftershocks, they are sometimes more jarring and vicious than the initial jolt. The week following Jose's murder there were three additional shootings, the last of which was fatal. A thirty-six year old man had just picked up his granddaughter from Kindergarten when school ended. As they headed home together, he held her in his arms. That's when unidentified individuals pulled up in a car and started shooting. The man was hit numerous times at close range and dropped the child on the ground. It was a miracle the little girl was not killed. An alert passerby saw what had happened and pulled the child to safety. The man was not so lucky. The initial report was that he had been shot 10 to 12 times. He was rushed to the hospital where he was announced dead.

A few days later a mother whose daughter used to come to my after school program came to see me. "George, do you know the man that was shot?" No, I said. "He is *******'s dad. "The doctor said that he had so many holes on his body that he looked like a Swiss cheese. "When ****** found out, she kept saying, "My heart is dead, mom. My heart is dead. First my grandfather, and now my father." Fuck. When ******* first came to my program about three years ago, she was an extremely shy kid. She did not play with the other children or interact with adults. When you asked her a question, she would not say more than one or two words in response. I rarely saw her smile, except when her mother picked her up from the program in the evening. Mother and daughter were inseparable. She was a single mother struggling to provide for her daughter. She was out of work but enrolled herself in school in hopes of bettering their future. From my understanding, the father of the child was not involved in their life. I've also heard that he had fathered six or seven other children. Then you begin to understand why the little girl might be the way that she is. What a shame. She was making such good progress. Just about the same time her mother started dating a new man, we noticed that she was happier and more outgoing. From what I could tell, he has been a positive influence on her. He regularly picked her up from the program and always spoke to her like a loving father would to a daughter. In fact, the mother told me that she calls him her 'dad'. The mother plans to enroll her into my program once again when the new session begins in the next few weeks. I am concerned about how the little girl will respond after this tragedy. Will she continue to emerge and grow out of her shell, or will this push her back into seclusion? I don't know. We can only try our best to help her through it.

The community organized a fund raiser for Jose's family. Together it raised over $1,600 from the taco plates that were sold to the many supporters who came to the community center luncheon. When I think about it, it's just so surreal. Families in affluent neighborhoods have bake sales to raise money for field trips and soccer uniforms. Here, we have car washes and taco plates to raise money for funerals. As in the saying goes, we live in one world but we all live in different ones.

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