At Magnolia Avenue Elementary School, two blocks from where gang members gunned down an 11-year-old girl as she walked home from a liquor store, third- and fourth-graders sat in a classroom recently and wrote to their senator.
“Dear Sen. Cranston,” wrote 8-year-old Martha. “I saw when they shot the little girl. I wanted to start to cry but first I went to see her so I won’t forget her face or how nice she was with me. . . .
“They killed my best friend named Jasmine Guevara, and now I am scared of going outside in the darkness. I’m afraid they will kill me, just like they killed her.”
Not all of the children in Room 35 knew Jasmine, who was killed Saturday when she walked into the middle of a gang war over territory in the Pico-Union area. The girl, whose aunt was critically wounded in the attack, did not attend their school.
But interviews with many of them on Thursday afternoon showed that the girl’s drive-by murder reaffirmed the worst fears of children who live in a neighborhood where gangs with names like Crazy Riders and Burlington Locos claim trash-filled streets as territory, and where drug dealers offer cocaine to children as they walk home from school.
It’s enough to give some of them nightmares.
“I’m dreaming that they killed my family,” said Martha, who lived across the street from the slain girl. “When I get up, I look for everybody.
“My mom gets up to go to work real early at 5:30 a.m., and when I look for her, I think the dream really happened. Then I remember she’s at work.”
Many of the children said they have had similar dreams every night since Jasmine was killed. Luis, 8, saw it happen.
“I was playing with friends,” he remembered. Now “I just see her all the time, lying in the street with all that blood.”
Eight-year old Hilda has a different problem. Since the shooting, she said, “I’m afraid to go to sleep.”
But although the children are frightened, they are not naive. An 8-year-old girl knows enough to ask a reporter not to put her classmates’ last names in the newspaper.
The children said they do not belong to gangs themselves, but they know the streets of the Pico-Union area and to whom they belong. They understand the significance of a line drawn through a name that has been spray-painted on a wall.
“They (gang members) cross out the names, and then they write the name of their gang next to them,” explained 10-year-old Michelle.
“It means they’re dead,” Hilda said.
And these children of Mexican and Central American immigrants are wise enough to see the irony of their families living in a neighborhood that is sometimes no safer than the war-torn homelands they came here to escape.
“In Nicaragua, they don’t have food, and the conditions are very bad,” said Hilda, who was born here but whose parents emigrated to Los Angeles from the Central American country. “But many of my parents’ friends, when they come here, just want to go back.”
Over there, she said, the shooting sometimes stops. “Here, you’re nervous all the time.”
The letters were the idea of a teacher who thought the visibly shaken children would feel better if they believed they could do something about Jasmine’s death.
Two 15- and 16-year-old Salvadoran gang members, charged with Jasmine’s murder and the attempted murder of her aunt, Blanca Guevara, 42, pleaded innocent at an arraignment Thursday in Eastlake Juvenile Court, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Barry Bradley. The youths, arrested earlier in the week in the shooting, also face charges that include assault with a deadly weapon and joy-riding.
Police also arrested two other gang members Wednesday, a 15-year-old, whose name was withheld because of his age, and 18-year-old Sergio Arriaga. Both were booked for investigation of murder, according to officials who are continuing their search for a fifth suspect.
The children at Magnolia Elementary found little solace in the arrests.
“I still don’t feel so good,” Luis said. “I know if they put some (gang members) in jail, they’re going to get revenge. Every night, I hear them breaking the windows of cars outside.”
And all the arrests in the world won’t bring Jasmine back.
“I feel guilty,” Michelle said, looking off into the distance. “If she was still alive I’d feel better. But she’s dead, and she’s never coming back.”