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As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve

Elvira Evers recalls the mayhem on the street and the rising fear that she and her daughter — who clung to her — were in danger.

Lionela, almost 6 at the time, remembers people running by with liquor and furniture looted from stores along Long Beach Boulevard in Compton.

It was midafternoon on April 30, 1992, the second day of rioting in a city ablaze after four white LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.

“Go on,” Evers ordered Lionela, who had wrapped herself around her mother’s right side.

“Go upstairs,” Evers said, pushing her daughter toward their apartment. They had ventured out to look for Evers’ son, worried about his safety. Evers, a cashier at a McDonnell Douglas cafeteria, would have run, too, but she was due to deliver in two weeks and was afraid she’d fall.

The sound of a sharp blast rose above the din. Lionela ran home and her mother followed, suddenly aware of a strange sensation in her abdomen.

“It didn’t hurt,” she says. “It was more of a stinging.”

Back in her apartment, a neighbor who happened to be a nurse came to have a look.

“She said, ‘Oooh, Elvira, that’s a bullet.’ I said, ‘What?’”

Evers feared not for herself, but for her unborn child. They called for an ambulance but were told that because of the mounting number of emergency calls, it would take about 45 minutes.

So the nurse drove, and a bleeding Evers walked into St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, where doctors determined that a 9-millimeter bullet was lodged in her womb.

When Evers recovered from the caesarean section, she was under the impression the baby had died.

No, a nurse told her. The bullet had grazed the baby’s elbow, leaving a scar visible to this day. But she was alive and well, at 6 pounds, 12 ounces.

“I started to cry,” said Evers, who was raised in Panama and thought about calling the baby Milagro, which is “miracle” in Spanish. But she decided to stick with her plan and call her Jessica.

For the history books, this is the 25th anniversary of the King riots.

For Jessica Glennis Evers-Jones, this is her 25th birthday.

She doesn’t connect with the events that led to that day, said Jessica. But more than 60 people died and 2,000 were injured, and no one has a story quite like hers.

“I’m a part of history,” said Jessica, who has been sharing her story this month as L.A. marks the anniversary of the riots. “It’s cool.”

Lionela, now almost 30, seems to have been more affected by the drama, which she recalls in detail. She wonders whether the push from her mother saved her life.

“I was out of my mind. Like borderline traumatized,” she said, and the fear she felt 25 years ago has her still clinging to her mother. “I have to talk to her every day, so I know she’s all right.”

The first thing Elvira Evers did after recovering from the gunshot was move the family out of Compton, where there had been too much violence even before the riots. Her family had been victimized once before, with even more tragic consequences.

Evers said that just two years before she was shot, her husband, Percy Harden, was shot and killed in a drive-by while walking to the store in their neighborhood. She said to this day, she is unaware of a motive or the identify of her husband’s assailant, just as she is unaware who shot her, or why, or whether it was simply a stray bullet that found her.

Evers settled in Gardena and remains there, with Jessica and Lionela living in an apartment just a block or two from their mother. The two girls own a clothing boutique on Western Avenue, but it’s a struggling start-up, so they have other jobs to cover their bills.

Lionela is a medical assistant, and Jessica works full time at Ralphs and an additional 10 or 20 hours weekly at Macy’s. When neither of them can be at the store, their mother — retired from a post office cafeteria job — covers for them.

If Elvira Evers has taken something from her brush with death and passed it along, it’s a spirit of resolve. When she’s frustrated, Evers told me, she thinks to herself that if a bullet didn’t take her or Jessica, nothing will. She repeats that to her girls, telling them that opening their own store was a longtime dream, so they can’t give up on it.

“I could’ve not been here,” said Jessica, so if her life was a gift, she can’t waste it. What she really wants to do, having attended El Camino College and Los Angeles Southwest College, is go back to studying criminal justice and become a parole officer.

“I just want to help people do the right things in life,” she said, and she has someone pushing her. “I have my mom in my ear. When I’m discouraged, she just keeps saying, ‘No, you can do it.’”

Jessica said she has not seen her father since she was a toddler. She searched for him once, about 10 years ago, then gave it up.

Full Coverage: L.A. Riots: 25 Years Later »

Although Lionelas is too young to have long-term perspective, she said her impression is that many of the social and economic problems that precipitated the rioting 25 years ago still exist.

“People are still dying,” she said. “People still believe in racism.”

True enough. A quarter of a century post-King, we’re a long way from post-racial. But to me, Los Angeles seems more blended with time. Evers and her brood are something of a poster family in that regard.

“By color, I’m black,” said Elvira, who told me she has French and German blood.

“By language, I’m Latina,” she said, though she speaks mostly English to her family.

Lionela, who speaks Spanish, doesn’t think of herself in terms of ethnicity, and she said she is raising her son, Christian, to see people before color.

I like her thinking. Los Angeles remains in many ways a city divided, with epic inequality in terms of income, education, resources and opportunity. But out of that horrible time 25 years ago came some healthy self-examination and an ongoing campaign to build stronger alliances between police and the people they are sworn to serve and protect.

In Gardena, one family will mark the anniversary with deep personal reflection, and with a celebration of life.

Happy 25th birthday, Jessica.

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

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