Friday, May 15, 2009


One of my lifelong heroes is a judge I worked with from the juvenile court. In around 1995, right after he was appointed to the bench, and I had started working for metro gangs, we had lunch. He told me that he was starting a sort of informal mentoring program for the kids on his caseload. He asked if I would be willing to work as a mentor for him, essentially donating 2 or 3 hours a week of my time to one of his kids.

I was already spending 40 or more hours a week in the company of gang members, so mentoring a female gang member seemed to fall pretty neatly in line with my work responsibilities. "Sure," I said. "Sign me up."

In those days, a lot of mentoring programs weren't very structured. There wasn't a rigorous background check, and there were very few rules. He gave me the name, phone number, and address of the girl he wanted me to mentor: Cecelia.

I called her the next day, introduced myself as a mentor that her judge had assigned to work with her, and asked if she'd like to go to lunch. She said she would. She wasn't in school, and wasn't doing much. Going to lunch with a gringa would be a novelty.

I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she named a restaurant a few blocks from her house in the west side of town...La Frontera.

I picked her up around noon at her house: 1383 West ___________. When I went to the front porch, I noticed that someone had graffitied over the house number (which was just spray painted onto the front of the house), crossing out both the 13 and the 38 with marker. The 13 probably represented the local Surenos sets, and the 38 was a reference to a specific Surenos gang, 38th street. I'd seen graffiti crossouts before, but never a cross out of a house number on the front of somene's house.

I didn't know who'd crossed those numbers out, but gang members had definitely been in and around this house.

Cecelia came to the door, and with her came the standard scent of the neighborhood: Old musty house, dirty carpet, unchanged diapers, and the smell of old cigarette smoke ground into all of it.

Cecelia, like most gang members, smelled of soap and tres flores. She was Chicano. Tall, dumpy and overweight, she was dressed just like a homeboy in a a baggy black t-shirt and oversized dickies, creased sharp and held up with a black cloth belt with two metal buckles with punched out initials: LR. The dickies fell low on her hips, and her hair was pulled back tight and hard away from her face. If you didn't know she was a girl, you'd have passed her on the street thinking she was a 16-year-old boy. No makeup, nothing soft about her, aside from her belly.

Her voice was low and rough, and just as masculine as her appearance. I'd worked with homegirls before, but she was the most masculine girl I'd ever spent any time with.

We slid into the brown naugahyde booths, facing one another, and I started trying to make small talk with her:

"Do you go to school?" No. She'd been expelled at least 6 months earlier and had not re-enrolled. The school had made no effort to re-engage her, either.

"Do you have any brothers and sisters?" Yes, she had two little half-sisters and a younger brother from the same father who was 14, and already a member of QVO.

"Who do you live with?" She lived with her mom and siblings, but her mom worked several jobs as a cleaning lady, mostly motels, and was almost never home until 8 or later. Cecelia was the main person responsible for her siblings.

Getting answers from her was like trying to pull pennies out of a coke can with your fingers...a consistent effort marked by grunting responses, silence, and sharp edges.

Finally, she asked, suspiciously: "Why are you doing this, why are you here talking to me?"

I told her: "I'm here for you. Your judge thought you might need someone just for you, someone to talk to, someone to help you, someone who mainly cares just about you."

She stared down at the table, sullenly, and then looked up, and I was shocked to see tears in her eyes.

And, that was the beginning of my relationship with Cecelia.

Part 2


Post a Comment