Ismael Cervantes' rise from immigrant poverty to ownership of a San Fernando Valley catering truck is the prototypical American success story, the dream that inspired generations.
His death this weekend at the hands of brutal killers, along with that of his 13-year-old son, Ismael Jr., and three employees, symbolizes something more sinister--the flip side of the American dream, according to the principal of the school that Cervantes' son attended.
"It's a violent society," said JoAnna Kunes of James Madison Junior High School in North Hollywood. "It's a shame."
"This was a hard-working family," added a distant relative, Fidel Juarez. "Everything they have, they have earned through hard work. This is the sort of thing that poisons your soul."
Ismael Cervantes, 43, came to the United States from the Mexican state of Guanajuato 20 years ago and worked as a cook, saving enough money to buy a large catering truck from which he ran Tacos Tlaquepaque. It became a fixture at Lankershim Boulevard and Vanowen Street in North Hollywood, where local workers knew it as the "neighborhood taco truck."
Cervantes was relatively prosperous and debt-free when he was slain, said his sister-in-law, Rachel Cervantes.
Little information was available about his three employees--cook Francisco Gasca, 31, of North Hollywood, and two handymen brothers, Heriberto Sandoval, 19, and Jesus Sandoval, 16.
But Pedro Ortiz, the principal of Hubbard Street Elementary School, which Ismael Jr. attended last year before graduating to Madison, remembered Cervantes as a "very serious man, extremely hard-working."
It may have been his dedication to hard work and long hours that exposed him to danger. He kept the truck open for business on the sometimes-violent nighttime streets of the eastern San Fernando Valley, drawing patrons of popular bars and nightclubs such as the nearby Palomino.
Manuel Lopez, another food vendor who makes stops on Lankershim, said after the disappearances were reported that he does not work at night from fear of robbers.
Those who work in the area and knew Cervantes question whether robbery could have been the motive. It was well known, they said, that he carried very little cash in his truck.
"What's the most cash he could have had, $200 or $300?" asked a cook at the El Mexicano restaurant nearby. "It had to be something more than a robbery," he remarked to two other cooks.
Cervantes was last seen Saturday night, doing a brisk business as late as 8:30. He made a date for later in the evening to watch a boxing match with a relative, but never showed up.
On Tuesday morning, detectives arrived at a small, neat house in Sylmar--where relatives said Cervantes lived with his second wife and his brother's family--to tell the family that all five were dead.
"They found them all, they've all been killed," Rachel Cervantes, Ismael Cervantes' sister-in-law, told another family member as the two women hugged and cried in the living room.
At one point, paramedics were called when a woman fainted in a back room of the home. She recovered without aid.
A young boy walked around the house crying, "I want my brother, I want my brother." Meanwhile, another younger boy played alone in the front yard.
Cecilia Cervantes, 18, the oldest of Cervantes' six children, said family members were too distraught to talk.
"We are just trying to be as calm as we can right now," she said.
Ismael Cervantes Jr., who lived with his mother in North Hollywood, had been visiting his father Saturday and often helped him clean out the truck, police said.
The younger Cervantes was apparently a lot like his dad, outgoing, warm, and the kind of person who stood out in a crowd, school officials said. When a sixth-grade classmate at the Hubbard school died of leukemia last year, Ismael gave a heartfelt speech about her at a graduation ceremony, recalling how important she was to him.
"I thought he would probably be President of the United States," a Hubbard administrator said.
Despite leadership qualities, Ismael Jr. was not an outstanding student, something that troubled his father, said Ortiz, the Hubbard principal. Cervantes was deeply involved in his son's education and "any time I called, he was right there," Ortiz said. "He wanted Ismael to do better and be a good student."
Ortiz said two of Ismael's brothers, Juan, 12, and Arthur, 8, are students at Hubbard. Juan was home, but Arthur was in school Tuesday when Ortiz was informed of the deaths.
At James Madison, Kunes remembered Ismael Jr. as "a nice young man" who was "friendly and happy-go-lucky, but absent a great deal."
She said the boy's mother blamed the absenteeism on health problems. He had a temporary knee ailment that hampered his ability to run and take part in physical education classes. He also had a heart condition that required daily medication to regulate blood pressure, police said.
The boy's mother and aunt went to the North Hollywood school Tuesday morning to ask teachers to check with students for any information about his disappearance. A few hours later, they were told that the boy, his father and three others were found dead.
Kunes said the school would make crisis counseling available to any student. "We have had incidents of violent death before and there are always students that are touched," Kunes said.