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A Call From Claudia: She’s OK and the Crazy Life Is Over

There were people who wondered if Claudia was in prison and people who thought she might be dead.

For a month all I could say was that she remained a mystery--that I had learned nothing more since I had written about the grimy, forlorn photo album that was obviously precious to a stranger named Claudia, but had somehow wound up in a junk pile at a swap meet before it found its way into my hands.

I wrote about the souvenir birth certificate, the photos of the beaming 15-year-old at her quinceanera, and the chilling chronicle of la vida loca, the crazy life of gangs--images of young gangbangers, letters from inmates signed “Danger” and “Lonely,” funeral notices for the young.

Finally the phone rang.

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Claudia Maribel Trejo, 19, wants everybody to know that she is alive and well and the crazy life is behind her.

*

Claudia told me how embarrassed she had been after her mother’s boyfriend, George, showed her the story in the paper. Her sister Blanca saw the story and wept.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Blanca reminded me later.

That certainly was true of the album, wrapped as it was in frilly lace and adorned with the image of a girl kneeling before a priest. Among the artifacts collected inside, one stood out: a photo of three young women in a menacing pose, two flashing a gang sign, one hoisting a pump-action shotgun. A note written on the back clearly indicated that Claudia was in this picture, but her penchant for heavy makeup and changing hairstyles left me guessing: Was Claudia holding the shotgun? Were the other two just homegirls?

They were homegirls, all right. Now the girls are women and I was meeting them--Claudia and her older sisters Blanca and Maria. It was Maria, in fact, who was holding the shotgun. I didn’t recognize Claudia because she was only 12 when the photo was taken.

We sit around the dining room table of the handsome, well-kept old home two miles from downtown Long Beach that George shares with Claudia’s mother, America, and three of America’s nine children, and one grandson. Life now, they say, is much better than the life they knew a few years ago in a San Pedro housing project, when the girls ran with a gang called the Young Crowd.

One word keeps coming up in conversation about those years: “Stupid.”

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The story that unfolds begins with America, who was raised in Sonora, Mexico, and came north at age 16, already married. Her daughters proudly describe how their mom, after bearing five children by her first husband, got fed up with his abusive ways, packed up the kids and left him. Blanca was just a newborn. Later America married Rayo, who would father Maria, Esmerelda, Claudia and Jesse. She and Rayo split up years ago.

*

Now Blanca and Maria are mothers themselves. Blanca’s husband’s name, Luis, is tattooed on her wrist. They’ve been together since she was 13 years old; she moved in with him at 16. Blanca, now nearing her 25th birthday, has two daughters and a third child is on the way.

Maria was born less than year after Blanca. She was, as Blanca puts it, “the pretty one” who took modeling classes. She would pose and her sisters would take her picture. It was her idea, they say, to pose with the shotgun and send the photo to Teen Angel magazine, popular among Latino youths.

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Maria smiles wanly and hugs her 3-year-old son. Yes, it was a stupid time, she says. She often ran away from home and spent a year “in juvie.” What happened? “I stabbed a girl and they pressed charges.” Incarceration, Maria says, helped her straighten out her life. Now she works at Chief Auto Parts and looks forward to her wedding. And she clips “Love Is. . .” cartoons from newspapers.

*

Claudia, the baby sister they call “Pebbles,” now thumbs through her scrapbook and points: “This guy here, he’s going to be in prison for life. . . .” But she points to other friends who, like her, have also grown out of the stupid phase. I ask about the funeral programs. The young woman, she says, was a cousin who committed suicide, leaving two children motherless. The young men were homicide victims.

Claudia, who works with Blanca as a cashier for Five Star Parking, still experiments with her appearance. The makeup is still heavy but now her hair is bleached blond and she wears contacts that make her eyes violet. When gang guys ask her out, she says, she turns them down.

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America frowns and shakes her head. She is seeing much of the scrapbook for the first time. I ask America how she coped with her daughters’ wild years.

“I cried,” she says. “I cried and cried and cried and cried.” And with that, the tears well up and she leaves the room in sobs.

A rival gang of the Young Crowd dominated the projects where the Trejos lived and so there was always trouble. A couple of times gunfire hit their home. America remembers running when a boy pointed a gun at her. Another time she was leaving a grocery store and her daughters’ enemies pelted her with bottles and rocks. Mothers of the rival gang members circulated a petition seeking the Trejos’ eviction. She was glad to leave.

*

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The Trejo sisters worry about their own children, and the time when they’ll rebel, and the lure of la vida loca. “It all depends how you raise your kids,” Blanca says.

The sisters catch themselves and say their mother did the best she could. And Claudia remembers something she would tell them.

“She used to say, ‘The way you treat your mother, your kids are going to treat you worse.’ ”

Maria, holding her son, says, “We’re kind of scared of that.”

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