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East L.A.'s patron of souls lost and found donates coffins to families who can't afford them

East L.A.'s patron of souls lost and found donates coffins to families who can't afford them
Juana Juaregui goes over homework with kids who congregate at her East Los Angeles home after school every day. J (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

She is called "Mom" by some of the kids, "Grandma" by others. Juana Jauregui answers to both at the daycare center she runs at her East Los Angeles home.

Most of the kids speak Spanish at their own homes, Jauregui told me one morning as she supervised four little ones, with eight more scheduled to arrive later in the day. But at daycare, she speaks and reads in English and expects the kids to do the same, so they'll do better in school and beyond.

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A couple of years ago, I had a student at Cal State L.A. named Daniel Noriega who wrote a beautiful paper about his mother. He called it "La Mama de East L.A.," and it was about Jauregui and her dedication to children. With Mother's Day on the calendar, I thought this would be a good time to meet the woman I had read about, and learn the full story of the nonprofit she began after losing someone she had tried so hard to save.

"Every child that enters her home is fed, clothed, bathed, cared for," Noriega wrote of his mother. "Mario … was no different."

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As Noriega told it, his sister and Mario became a couple, Mario began hanging around the house, and they had a baby. Mario was a smart young man, but deeply troubled after years of parental abuse and neglect, and he was in and out of jail.

The more Jauregui found out about the abuse Mario and his siblings had suffered, the more determined she was to try to help him kick drugs and straighten out his life, even after Mario and her daughter broke up. She wouldn't let him come to the house, because she didn't want his problems around her daycare kids. But when he was at his lowest, he reached out to Jauregui, who has worked with youngsters for 29 years, and whose first instinct is to try to understand rather than judge.

"He craved the stability, the comfort, the guidance and attention she offered," Noriega wrote. "She would make care packages with Tupperware full of food so that he could survive at whatever location he was staying at that night."

Jauregui keeps a letter Mario wrote to her saying he hoped she and her family would be blessed by God, and telling her he believed he would one day be the man she told him he could be.

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"I want to thank you," he said, "for always being there when I had no place and no one to depend on."

In August 2014, Jauregui got a call from the county morgue. Mario, 28, had been struck and killed by a Metrolink train — to this day, the circumstances are unclear — and her name and address were the only contacts he had left behind.

It was up to Jauregui to locate Mario's mother and discuss funeral arrangements. She says the mother had no money at first, though she later raised a small amount. Jauregui bought a pale blue coffin at Continental Funeral Home on Beverly Boulevard in East L.A., paid several thousand dollars for the services, and donated one of four family plots she had purchased years ago at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. Mario was laid to rest in the Autumn Terrace section of the cemetery.

"When he was in the system and he would sleep here, I would hear the nightmares he was having," Jauregui told me. "He was raped, he was hit, he was left without food. I never gave up on him because I don't think it's fair for kids to have to go through this, and I'm learning there are a lot of kids like him. There are gaps in the system that these kids fall into, and nobody cares. Nobody cares."

Juana Juaregui welcomes the children who congregate at her East Los Angeles home after school every day.
Juana Juaregui welcomes the children who congregate at her East Los Angeles home after school every day. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Jauregui also learned, in handling Mario's services, that families often struggle to pay for the most basic burials. She decided to start a nonprofit, Mario's Caskets, to raise money for such families and donate caskets to them. Three years ago, her son Daniel registered the nonprofit and gave his mother the paperwork for her birthday.

When he was growing up, Noriega said, he marveled at how his mother seemed to work daily magic in her kitchen. No matter how many daycare kids, former students or family and friends might show up throughout the day, there was enough to feed everyone. So it made sense that such a good cook might raise money for her nonprofit by catering parties and other events. The problem is that Jauregui, whose daycare business is open seven days a week because many parents work weekends, has so little spare time.

"It's been slow this year," she said of the fundraising. But she has been putting a portion of her daycare earnings aside and hopes to have the total above $2,000 by the end of this year and begin donating caskets.

When I stopped by Continental Funeral Home, director Magda Maldonado showed me the range of coffins, including the model Mario was buried in, and said $2,000 would pay for several. Maldonado and Mikaela Ornelas, who has discussed the nonprofit with Jauregui, told me they have had foundations help pay for funerals in the past, but they've never had an individual offer to buy caskets for strangers.

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They were struck by Jauregui's generosity, they said, and they currently have a grieving family that could use the help. That's pretty common, said Maldonado, who told me that 70% of her business involves flying bodies from the U.S. to Mexico. Most of those families make that choice because overall costs can be much lower, she said.

As I found out during my visit, there's a lot of coming and going at Jauregui's home, which has several back units. Noriega lives in one and his two sisters each live in one. Mario's son, now 14, lives here with his mother. And so does Mario's little brother, who was removed from his mother's care and placed in protective custody. Jauregui, who couldn't bear to see him bounced around the way Mario had been, adopted the little brother, who is now 11.

As Jauregui and I spoke, a young woman appeared at the door with a bouquet of flowers. She came in and handed them to Jauregui for Mother's Day.

Anissa, 19, told me her mother has drug and alcohol problems and has been in and out of jail. Anissa spent 12 years at the daycare center with Jauregui, and two of her siblings spent time there, too.

She calls Jauregui "Mom."

"This had a huge impact," Anissa said of the time she spent in Jauregui's care.

She's now in college, works as a judicial assistant and plans to become a lawyer.

Noriega said he never felt overlooked by a mother with such a broad definition of family. The way he grew up was just the way things were.

"She's an inspiration," he said.

Noriega is about to leave Cal State L.A. with a master's degree. He's on his way to Chapman University, where he'll study for a doctorate in education, with plans to become a college professor.

In the paper he wrote for my class, Noriega said his grandfather rides through the streets of East L.A. on his bicycle, collecting discarded toys. He keeps some in a backyard shrine and says the toys represent the spirits of lost children. Others, he fixes, and they end up in the daycare center.

"Souls don't become lost on purpose," Noriega wrote. "They are neglected, pushed away, never given proper guidance. But in East L.A., there is a woman providing care for those souls, both lost and found."

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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