Juan Moreno-Fuentes, a 9-year-old who prefers to go by “Juanito,” says he doesn’t remember the flames that chased his family, screaming and crying, from their rented room in a shabby downtown residential hotel Nov. 15.
On Thursday, six weeks after Juanito, his mother and two brothers were burned in an arson fire that killed three of their neighbors, the family thanked the people who opened their hearts and pocketbooks during their time of trouble.
The boy’s father, Juan Fuentes, and his family occupied one of three tables tucked away in a cozy back room of the Smoke House, a Burbank steakhouse owned by newfound benefactor Jim Lucero. Representatives of more than a dozen agencies and corporations that contributed cash, goods and services to the family occupied two other tables.
Everyone dined on a special dish prepared by the chef to mark the occasion: “Fuentes Carbon,” a small top sirloin marinated in wine and garnished with salsa.
Juanito wore a baby-blue plastic crucifix he wore outside his 49ers jacket for the special lunch. A baseball-style cap atop his head declared him a member of the “Little Hero Fire Dept.”
Even though he doesn’t recall how it happened, the flames scarred Juanito’s face and body in ways he’s still discovering.
Juanito and his brother, 2-year-old Isaac, are undergoing the rigors of physical therapy to coax burned skin and muscle back to flexibility. They refuse to be tucked in to donated bunk beds in their new home because they are afraid to sleep more than a few feet from their parents.
But good fortune often springs from trouble and hardship, the seven members of the Moreno-Fuentes family have come to believe. This Christmas, thanks to the kindness of strangers, Juanito and his brothers and sisters--Isaac, Jose, 6; Rosemari, 11, and Jessica, 14, opened more packages than they had ever seen before.
This Christmas, Juan Fuentes had two job offers to consider. The family is living, rent-free, in a mid-Wilshire apartment. People have taken them shopping for clothes and shoes.
The thank-you lunch was arranged and provided by the Smoke House restaurant and Lucero, who says he learned to read and discovered the satisfaction of charitable deeds while serving a three-year sentence in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan., during the early 1980s.
“We give thanks to God and to Jim Lucero because he has a big heart to help us like this,” Melida Moreno, Juanito’s mother, said in Spanish. “We ask God to bless Jim Lucero.”
As for Lucero, he said he was touched by news reports of the family’s plight, and by Juan Fuentes’ “humility.” He has offered Fuentes a job as a kitchen worker so the family will finally have health insurance.
“For two years now, we’ve been screaming about rebuilding L.A., and we’ve forgotten about the most important factor, which is rebuilding people,” Lucero said.
Lucero personally agreed to pay six months rent for the family’s new apartment and donated another $3,300 to the family to ensure a happy holiday. Trans American Insurance Companies chipped in another $2,500, said Carol Adams of St. Francis Center, a downtown social services center.
There were even brightly wrapped presents for Juanito and his brothers and sisters at Thursday’s lunch. In all, Adams said, about $13,000 has been raised for families displaced by the fire. The center has received $7,000 especially for the Moreno-Fuentes family, which faces staggering medical bills since four family members were burned.
Ten years earlier, the family had been burned out of another downtown hotel, recalled Moreno, who was pregnant with Juanito at the time. But, she said, the older children still carry memories of their father, Juan, lifting them through a window.
Volunteers from the St. Francis Center had taken a census of building residents before the fire, and was able to coordinate relief efforts, Adams said. One of the women who died, Rebecca Salazar, had complained about drug trafficking, fights and substandard conditions in the building three years ago, when the census began, she noted.
But for 14-year-old Jessica Moreno-Fuentes, junkies, winos, fights and shootings were just a part of life in the building that burned on Grand Avenue in November. She says she misses that life sometimes.
“We used to see people killed,” she said, mimicking the action of firing a pistol with her hand as she spoke. “At first we were scared, then we got used to it. We used to see it almost everyday. We got used to seeing people kill each other.”
Before the fire, their mother spoke of moving out of the room the family rented for $380 a month. But, Jessica said, the children always overruled her. “We had a lot of friends there. We miss our friends,” she said.
She added that she doesn’t believe that the man charged with setting the fatal fire is guilty. “I think the guy in jail didn’t do it,” she said. “He was really nice. He always gave us presents.”