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Lace, Love and La Vida Loca

The photo album is fat, dressed up in frilly lace and adorned with an arrangement of plastic sea pearls. Once, the cloth must have been as white as the billowy gown worn by the teenage girl kneeling before a priest in the photograph framed on the cover. Now the lace is gray with grime, and as for the girl, the album suggests that she has gone through some changes as well.

Her name is Claudia, that much is clear. Beneath the cellophane on the first page is an invitation to her quinceanera, the traditional Mexican celebration of a daughter’s 15th birthday. Her parents, Rayo and America, did not scrimp. Images of the church service and party fill the next 20 pages, teenagers in tuxedos and formal gowns, a white-frosted cake as tall as the beaming birthday girl. Scattered among the photos are a certificate noting Claudia’s First Communion and a souvenir birth certificate from Long Beach Memorial Hospital, complete with tiny footprints. Claudia was born at 7:14 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1978. She measured 21 inches and weighed 8 pounds, 8 ounces.

Without question, Claudia is the album’s rightful owner, but somehow it wound up at a swap meet in the Cypress College parking lot. A man with no emotional attachment to what he was selling had placed it in a row of goods priced at $1 apiece. My sister opened the book and wondered how something so personal, so precious, could end up there. The mystery deepened as she turned the pages, especially when she got to the first newspaper clipping:

SP gangs exchange fire; 2 die

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The turn is abrupt, from the festive, ritualized innocence of the quinceanera to the hard reality of la vida loca, the crazy life of Latino gang culture. Claudia’s life happens to be centered in Long Beach and San Pedro, but her kindred spirits are scattered in barrios throughout Southern California and beyond.

Could Claudia’s life have changed as radically as the album implies? Scores of photos show homeboys and homegirls proudly flashing gang signs for the camera; of shirtless men showing off tattoos and muscles that suggest prison life; of a young man in a wheelchair with a baby in his arms.

There are more clipped newspaper articles describing homicides, robberies and other crimes. She saved programs from five funerals between June ’93 and July ’96. The causes of the deaths are not readily apparent, but four were buried while still in their 20s. Among them was a woman who shares Claudia’s last name. A sister? A cousin? Pressed inside the pages are two flowers that may have been saved from the funerals.

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There are more personal mementos as well, including envelopes addressed by young men behind bars, the letters still inside.

The letters contain nothing so dramatic as a confession of a crime. Sometimes Claudia is addressed as “Pebbles.” Three or perhaps four were sent from a prison inmate named Jimmy, another from a Fernando in a county lockup. Jimmy’s full name also appears in the first newspaper clipping. He was arrested in connection with a gang conflict that left two dead. In signing one letter, he added his nickname: “Danger.”

His first letter, postmarked in July 1994, includes this passage, addressing her with the affectionate word for “my daughter”: Remember mija I can still be the same loving homeboy that I was when I was out there. Just because I’m away for a lil time doesn’t mean things have to change . . .

Jimmy skillfully decorated his correspondence with pencil drawings of women, a butterfly, a couple embracing, hearts. When Jimmy expresses his love, sometimes the tone is passionate, sometimes platonic. The hand-drawn valentine from 1995 appears to feature Jimmy’s artwork and handwriting, but a new nickname: “Lonely.”

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Other mementos reflect happier occasions, such as a one-day pass to Disneyland. There are photos of a friend’s baby and photos that seem to depict a bachelorette party featuring a male stripper. She also saw fit to save seven labels from 40-ounce bottles of Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor. Two marijuana leaves are also pressed inside for posterity.

There are photos that show homeboys tossing a laughing Claudia into an inflated plastic swimming pool set up in a housing project. Or at least it appears to be Claudia; she looks quite different from the 15-year-old who began this album--new hair color, new hairstyle, more weight.

Images of Christ and the Virgin Mary appear here and there. Toward the end is a copy of the Lord’s Prayer:. . . lead us nt into temptation, but deliver us from evil. . . .

Firearms are brandished in a couple of photos. Three husky young women strike a menacing pose, two crouching as they flash a gang sign, the third standing behind them and hoisting a pump-action shotgun. The gunslinger resembles Claudia. Could it be?

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Remove the photo and the answer is found written on the back.

To my carnalia “Pebbles,”

Well mija here’s how the photo came out of us. . . . Well carnalia hope you liked it cause i sure think it came out firme. Yupp we’re just living the vida loca y firme tambien. Take real good care of it. . . .

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Sorting through the artifacts of a stranger’s life creates a certain voyeuristic intrigue, especially if it’s a life as strange as Claudia’s. Strange, but sadly not that uncommon. My sister spent $1, thinking her brother the newspaperman might be able to solve the mystery. Where is Claudia and why did this album wind up where it did? And she thought I might be able to return this property to its rightful owner.

The most recent mail in the album shows that Claudia lived in Long Beach two Decembers ago. There is no phone listing for her and the Department of Motor Vehicles no longer releases addresses to the media. A clerk there did tell me that her license was suspended 2 1/2 years ago after she failed to appear on a warrant in juvenile court. What the original charges were, the clerk didn’t know. Another lead prompted me to leave a phone message for a San Pedro man who might be Claudia’s father. So far, he hasn’t called back.

So the best hope of resolving the mystery is for somebody out there who recognizes Claudia in this story to have her contact me. What is rightfully hers but technically my sister’s will be returned.

And if by chance Claudia is reading this and feeling exploited, her privacy violated . . . well, Claudia, that’s why only first names have been used in this column. If that still offends, understand that I’m in the business of storytelling.

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And though I’m not sure what the moral of this story may be, perhaps Claudia and kindred spirits would accept some friendly advice.

Don’t just take real good care of your photos and keepsakes. Take care of yourselves.

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Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com Please include a phone number.

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