A Real Life ‘West Side Story’ on the Streets of La Verne
Jason and Yolanda fell in love last February.
He was an 18-year-old high school dropout and former neo-Nazi “skinhead” working the counter at a fast-food outlet in La Verne.
Then Yolanda walked in, a pretty girl of just 15 with a frizzy mane of teased hair looking for part-time work, something to distance her from the street gang that, despite her protests, still considered her one of its own.
Jason trained her to ring up sales and take food orders from customers. One month later they were living together with Yolanda’s mother in a humble house by the railroad tracks that pass through this San Gabriel Valley city.
But members of the 1st and B Street Boys, a small barrio gang that Yolanda has tried to flee, have not given their blessing to the budding cross-cultural romance. Bristling at the sight of an Anglo youth with a Latino girl, they have hurled bottles and epithets and threats. They have made so much trouble for the pair, in fact, that Jason and Yolanda’s affair has now become a regular entry in the La Verne police log.
Officers--who have likened the romance to a street-gang version of Romeo and Juliet--are so concerned that someone might get badly hurt that on Tuesday night a patrol car was cruising past the couple’s house every few minutes. On Wednesday, Jason was given a police escort while driving in and out of town. And on Thursday, charges of prowling were filed against four of five youths suspected of pounding on the windows of the couple’s house two weeks ago.
In all, officers have made 10 arrests of gang members in the neighborhood this month for a range of misdemeanors against the couple, including prowling, inciting a fight and hurling an object at a car.
“What it comes down to is that this couple has got two choices,” said an official in the district attorney’s office who asked not to be identified. “They can wait for somebody to try to kill them or they can move.”
Two weeks ago, Jason and Yolanda, who are engaged to be married, had been awakened about midnight by five gang members who surrounded the house, pounding violently on the window screens. Jason, who has been made muscular by a new job as a gardener, grabbed the aluminum baseball bat that he keeps by the bed and called the police, who arrived before there was a confrontation.
But the gang did not relent.
“Watch your back, white boy,” one of them shouted to Jason last Friday after spotting the couple driving through town. Bolstered by at least three other gang members with him, the youth spat out the window toward the couple, hurled a beer bottle that sailed over Jason’s car and warned: “We’re going to get you for taking our home girl away.”
Police say the 1st and B Street Boys, also known as La Verne Rifa, or La Verne Rules, is the only gang in this city of 30,000, a bedroom community 45 minutes from Los Angeles. They form an occasionally violent, multi-generational family of about 15 to 25 active members whose history can be traced to the 1930s.
“I’ll stand up to them,” said Jason Mavers, talking earlier this week at the couple’s home, where a flower arrangement wrapped in cellophane, some photos of Yolanda and a small wooden cross decorate the living room. “I’m not going to run from anybody. Nothing’s going to keep us apart.”
Yolanda, whose mother asked that her last name not be used, is hiding for now at a relative’s house.
“I’m kind of scared for Jason,” said Yolanda, a sophomore in high school with dreams of attending beauty school. “But I tell him not to worry about it--just think about us.”
Not that Jason or Yolanda have any pretensions of glamour.
A big night out means hopping in Jason’s purple ’55 Volkswagen bug, driving to Hollywood, grabbing a Big Mac and cuddling in a movie theater. For their one-month anniversary, they went for the first time to Magic Mountain where Jason won Yolanda a giant black teddy bear that nearly dwarfed her. Later, he had “Yol” tattooed on his chest.
“She’s the best,” Jason said. “If it weren’t for her, I don’t think I would be able to handle something like this.”
Jason, a lanky youth with huge blue eyes, was born in West Germany while his father was stationed at a U.S. military base, and grew up in East Los Angeles, where, at 13, he joined a group of guys with shaved heads who called themselves the Nazis of L.A. He wore a Mohawk haircut and patrolled the streets in steel-toed boots.
“We were kind of like a neighborhood watch,” he said. “I thought being in a gang would change things. I guess I thought I was a man.”
But he says he never sympathized with the group’s bigotry and abandoned them after a few years when they shot and wounded a black friend of his. He then moved to Pomona with his mother and began high school, but dropped out just two months before graduation.
“I just said, ‘The hell with everything,’ ” said Jason, whose hope is to someday work as an auto mechanic on big diesel rigs.
Yolanda grew up in La Verne, around the corner from the house where her mother, a 34-year-old unemployed secretary, also grew up. By 11, she had her first of a half dozen or so tattoos--including one on her chest naming an old boyfriend--and had already begun befriending the gang members on her street.
“I wanted to be popular and hang out with a cool crowd,” she said. “I wanted to feel a part of something.”
But she, too, grew repulsed by the violence she witnessed and says last summer she stopped spending time with the gang. Her mother says that Yolanda is mature for her age, although some of that was earned the hard way--an abusive father, easy access to drugs.
“Sometimes I still think they’re both just kids,” her mother said about the young couple. “But if I don’t allow it, I know she’ll just run off with him. So, I just tell her, if that’s what you want, fine.”
It is not, however, an arrangement that the 1st and B Street Boys are so willing to accept.
On Monday, another member of the gang approached the couple at their front door and allegedly told Jason that he was going to “end up in the hospital or some place worse.” He was arrested Wednesday and remains in custody.
And of the four gang members arrested in the bottle-throwing incident, only one, a 16-year-old, has been charged with hurling the object and provoking a fight. All four have been released from custody.
“Frankly, it does sort of harken back to the Montagues and Capulets or a ‘West Side Story’ kind of thing,” said La Verne Police Sgt. John P. Hackworth. “We have had incidents where people are harassed by gang members, but not with this kind of twist to it.”
Jason and Yolanda, who say their plight has brought them even closer together, are not yet ready to run.
“I love her,” said Jason. “We’re not going to let nobody bother us.”