Dealing in Respect on Streets of Despair
As another summer arrives, the young drug dealers at the corner of Kewen and Kalisher streets in San Fernando are nearly as constant as the scorching sunshine. Before the weather cools, Suzy Rodriguez, who has spent most of her time there for three years, will be gone.
Rodriguez, a program supervisor in a Head Start office at the corner, is a thin, chain-smoking woman of 37 who has interwoven her life with a neighborhood that many people shun.
It is an enclave of despair no less than corners of inner-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Detroit or New York. There are the unemployment, the aimlessness, the fast, furtive drug deals, the violence, and the unending skirmishes between enforcers of the law and its violators.
Every day, sometimes on weekends, often long into the evening, Rodriguez has stayed here. She has convinced gang members who usually clutter walls with their spray-painted names to paint elaborate murals instead. She has acted as a self-styled intermediary in the criminal justice system for people whose lives it frequently touches. In word and manner, she has maintained a tone of sympathy and respect in a place where those qualities are mostly absent.
At the end of this month, Rodriguez will leave San Fernando for a job with Los Angeles County, helping to run drug counseling programs in the jails.
“It’s hard to replace someone like that,” said Ken Green, who is in charge of the Los Angeles County public defender’s office in the San Fernando Courthouse. “She served a very unique role. The kids trusted her and the police trusted her. She would always do what was in the best interest of the kids.”
Much of what she has done is to simply spend countless hours being a grown-up friend to neighborhood youths. Having received her master’s degree in social relations at the University of California, Irvine in 1982, she said she is a role model--someone who rose above hard circumstances in East Los Angeles and adopted ambitions that often exist beyond the barrio’s insular confines.
More concretely, she’s a one-woman legal aid society. When a local youth is arrested, she follows the case from beginning to end. She counsels youths about their rights, visits them in jail and gets them an attorney, which in this neighborhood usually means a public defender. She writes character references to judges and probation officers. She stays in touch with the families of youths and takes collect calls from prison, whether she’s at work or at home.
Her work on the streets of San Fernando is not what Head Start hired her to do.
She was hired in 1982 by Ralph Arriola, director of the San Fernando Head Start office, to oversee educational programs for the parents of children who attended preschool Head Start classes.
The Head Start office stands across from three garbage-ringed houses that San Fernando police say are used by heroin dealers and are often raided. The area had always been threatening to Head Start workers and to the parents and children who visited the office, Rodriguez said.
But before her first year in San Fernando ended, Rodriguez had struck up acquaintances with many of those who did their illicit business and led their gang-centered social lives on the corner. She said she liked their volatile energy and their street-wise humor, characteristics that are her own.
Rodriguez shuns the words “gang” or “gang member” when talking about these youths, although she admits that they do belong to gangs and that the San Fernando gang, or the “San Fers,” are locked in a perpetual battle with rivals in Pacoima.
She said she believes in what she calls the historical social role that the group affiliations have played for generations in giving young men of the barrio protection and a social identity.
“There’s something very, very positive about a young person feeling that he has someone he can count on, someone who can back him up,” she said. “The Elks Club is a gang. The police are a kind of gang. They kill to protect themselves. They have their territory. They all go to bat for one of their own.”
Remind her about killings and robberies involving neighborhood youths over the past three years, and chances are that the names of the accused will bring back an affectionate memory of a young man in prison.
To her, Raymond Parra, on the Los Angeles Police Department’s 10 Most Wanted List for the alleged kidnaping and shooting death of a Pacoima youth, is Little Ray. To her, Albert Medina, in prison for stealing guns from a local sporting goods store--guns police fear will be used in gang warfare this summer--is known by his nickname, Tito.
“There’s a dichotomy there,” she said, patting her chest over her heart. “There’s a part of me that says they need to be protected and I worry about them getting hurt, but I also worry about them hurting someone else.
‘A Ph.D. in Naivete’
“I’m very non-judgmental,” continued Rodriguez, the divorced mother of a 12-year-old son. “A lot of people look at these kids and say they’re never going to be productive members of society, they’re never going to be responsible. I just don’t believe that.
“That woman has a Ph.D. in naivete,” said Ernest Halcon Jr., a San Fernando detective who has a bantering relationship with Rodriguez that runs a fine line between kidding and disdain. “She’s a poor man’s Sister Theresa. She’s got real heart and she tries real hard, but the downfall is that I don’t think there are many turnarounds.”
Rodriguez said she doesn’t think she can work miracles. “If I can do a little bit of good for them, that’s enough. I’m an open door, that’s all.”
Rodriguez and city officials are quick to point out that there are families who have lived here quietly for generations in small, neatly tended homes a short walk from the corner of Kewen and Kalisher, people striving to live law-abiding, well-ordered lives.
But few lives Rodriguez came in contact with on one typical day were free of misfortune. Nineteen-year-old Chuco learned from Rodriguez that the police had a warrant for his arrest. His sister, whom Rodriguez helps with her drug problem, is alone because her husband is in jail for robbery. Chuco’s friend Little George, whose 19-year-old brother hanged himself in jail, is being helped by Rodriguez with his legal troubles. They are all part of Rodriguez’s world, along with a 55-year-old heroin dealer and self-taught philosopher whom she numbers among her friends.
A Visit With Chuco
The day is Monday. She starts it with a visit to Chuco.
His name on the drug-related warrant police had for him is Gabriel Felix, but he is known by the nickname, which he said friends gave him when he was 10 years old.
Chuco is skinny with a loping gate, deep-set eyes and a sly sense of humor. He does pencil drawings (“I draw barrio life, girls, everything.”), but also designed large murals in the neighborhood under the direction of Rodriguez. He said he also has a knack for using drugs at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I get caught every time,” he said, shrugging. In May, he was arrested for possession of PCP, or phencyclidine, and for being under the drug’s influence. Police tested a jar of the substance they found in his car. When the test came back positive for PCP, they issued a warrant for his arrest.
Normally, the police would go looking for him, in the kind of search that often leads into a family’s home and into ugly confrontations with parents, siblings or friends. Sometimes, fights ensue.
‘A Warrant for You’
But, in the San Fernando barrio, the police often call Rodriguez when a warrant comes in. She does the rest. On Tuesday, it meant waiting 30 minutes outside Chuco’s house while he finished his morning shower.
Rodriguez had brought Chuco’s friends, Little George and Lorenzo, to guide her to his house. “There’s a warrant for you,” Rodriguez told him when he emerged, his black hair still wet. “They say that they’ll sit on it if I say I can bring you in by noon.”
“Ohhhh,” he said, sounding surprised. He looked at the ground.
“The bail is $2,500. That means you have to get $250 to stay out until you go to court,” Rodriguez said. “Come on, say something, Chuco. What are you going to do?” Little George and Lorenzo watched him from the back seat of the car. Chuco took a deep breath.
“I’m going to stay out until they catch me,” he said. “Where am I going to get $250?” He cast a glance at his impeccably maintained white Chevrolet Impala parked in front of his family’s pretty little adobe-style house.
“How about the car?” Rodriguez asked.
“Nah, I can’t sell the car,” Chuco said, patting its hood with the palm of his hand.
‘I’ll Be There’
“They had riots over there, huh?” he said to no one in particular, referring to the recent disturbance at County Jail. Then, more decisively, he turned to Rodriguez: “I’ll come to your place at 4. I got to find someplace to get $250.”
He started to walk back up the driveway, where one of his six brothers and a friend were working on a car.
“Four” Rodriguez called after him.
“I’ll be there,” he said.
“I want to know who did my shooting,” said Detective Halcon when Rodriguez walked in to tell police she would be meeting Chuco at 4 p.m. at the corner of Kewen and Kalisher. Halcon was talking about the previous day’s shooting in San Fernando of a gang member from Pacoima.
The following day he would discover that the young man, who survived, shot himself upon learning that a girlfriend planned to leave him. But on Tuesday, Halcon still suspected the shooting was gang-related.
“I don’t know who it is,” said Rodriguez. She said she never gives away information about participants in crimes unless the person involved gives her permission to help smooth an inevitable arrest.
Halcon is a barrel-chested veteran who is feared in the barrio as a relentless and unforgiving hunter of local lawbreakers, Rodriguez said.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said of himself. “I’m responsible for the investigation of all violent crime here. I’m not here to win a popularity contest. I have a reputation for being hard-nosed.”
Halcon said that, if Chuco arrived before 4 p.m. or after 8 a.m. the next day, he could be transferred to County Jail without having to spend a night in San Fernando Jail.
But Rodriguez said she thought that extending Chuco’s reprieve to the following morning might make it harder to convince him to come in voluntarily. With lingering reluctance, Halcon agreed it could be later than 4 p.m. And if Chuco had to spend the night in the local jail, so be it.
A man police say is perhaps the leading heroin dealer around the corner of Kewen and Kalisher is a 55-year-old addict who speaks with paradoxical concern about the effects that heroin has wrought. On his arms and about his wrists are the scars of hypodermic needles.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing, the dope,” he said. “I always go back to my old ways, but I tell people it’s not something they should do.”
Because of his openness, he asked that his name not be used. He was born and raised in San Fernando and lives alone in motels, or stays with friends, sometimes in one of the houses across the street from the Head Start office. He considers Rodriguez, who has put him into the drug counseling programs without results, a close friend. “When you’re in jail, she’s the only one I know who lets me reverse charges for a call,” he said.
At 4 p.m., Chuco’s white car appeared on Kalisher Street heading toward Kewen Street. He’d brought a friend to drive it home for him, stepped out in front of the Head Start office and handed over the keys. With his swinging, devil-may-care walk he came to the doorway, where Rodriguez was waiting. “Ready?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” he answered nonchalantly. He hadn’t gotten the $250 for bail. There was not much conversation in the car as Rodriguez drove him to the station. “I heard they got riots in there, huh?” he said, half to himself. Was he frightened? “No. I know people in there I can be with. Some big guys. I’m not such a big guy. I’m small. There are a lot of people from San Fernando in there.”
‘They Got Riots?’
When Rodriguez took Chuco into the detectives’ office, he was led off to a holding cell whose bars face a small office where his paper work was being done. The officer asked for all his belongings and, through a small window in the mesh covering the bars, came a wallet containing two dollar bills, a few cents in change, a hairnet and some bits of paper.
“They got riots in there, huh?” Chuco said. The officer said nothing.
“Let me have your belt,” said the patrol officer who was booking Chuco. “We don’t want you killing yourself in there.”
“I’m not going to kill myself,” replied Chuco.
“I need some money,” Chuco said to Rodriguez, who had entered the booking room.
“OK. I’ll come in the morning and bring you some money,” she said.
Someone was unlocking a door on the far side of the holding cell and getting ready to move Chuco deeper into the jail.
Rodriguez turned to leave. “I’ll be back,” she said. “In the morning.”
And she was.