Journeys Into The New Los Angeles

Times Staff Writers

They were thrown together as teenagers--immigrants and the children of immigrants, the displaced offspring of international strife.

Los Angeles' Belmont High, Class of 1989.

Their families--Salvadoran, Mexican, Filipino and Southeast Asian--escaped war, poverty and political turmoil. They landed with the great waves of immigration in the 1970s and '80s that changed the face of Southern California.

They crowded into old wooden homes, brick tenements and once-grand hotels in the harsh neighborhoods fringing downtown: Pico-Union. Westlake. Temple-Beaudry. Chinatown.

It was a time and place that symbolized Los Angeles' difficult transition into the most diverse metropolis in the nation: high poverty rates, low-skilled new arrivals, overloaded schools, heightened racial tensions and, ultimately, an anti-immigrant backlash.

By their senior year, gang warfare and crack cocaine exploded around the Belmont campus. Homicides climbed at their fastest rate in 20 years.

If there was any group of young people who faced daunting obstacles, it was the students in the Class of '89.

But now, a decade later, a Times study shows that most class members are grabbing hold of a better future, the promise that compelled their parents to leave behind family, friends and homelands.

Many have made significant economic, social and educational strides in just a few years. Sizable numbers are buying homes, moving to the suburbs, landing white-collar jobs, earning college degrees and casting their ballots in major elections. But, reflecting the region as a whole, many Latinos in the class still struggle with low pay and little or no college education.

The picture emerges from a Times study that polled 334, or 41%, of 822 seniors and conducted scores of more detailed interviews with class members. The triumphs and tragedies of the class are captured in the lives of six graduates who shared their stories with The Times.

The profiles and the poll results offer a unique and detailed insight into one of the critical questions facing Southern California: As immigrants and minorities form a new majority, what will become of the disadvantaged children of so many new arrivals?

Conventional studies, employing test scores, census data and other measurements, neatly categorize vast numbers of people, but they often miss the complexity of real people living real lives.

They miss Myrna Brutti, who navigated through a gang-infested neighborhood to obtain a master's degree and become a role model for a new generation of Latino students. They miss Janine Diep and Roselyn Tran, Vietnamese boat refugees who arrived with nothing but now have joined the region's burgeoning Asian middle class.

They miss others like Jose Munoz and George Acevedo, who are still struggling, their dreams put on hold by family obligations or wrenching setbacks. They miss Roberto Campos, who is rebuilding his life to craft a better future for his wife and two young boys.

Their lives are a story of the new Los Angeles, an odyssey of struggle and success among California's two fastest-growing groups, Latinos and Asians.

The Times study is believed to be the first to follow and survey one Los Angeles high school class composed almost entirely of immigrants or the first generation born here. Class members were polled and interviewed over the last several months.

The results challenge some of the conventional wisdom and political rhetoric surrounding immigrant families. Rather than being mired in poverty for generations, most of their children far outpace the education and occupation levels of their parents, the study suggests.

Among other things, the findings call into question assertions by critics of the massive school district that Los Angeles public schools have been failures. The school district clearly has problems, many of which are symbolized by the costly effort to build a new Belmont campus that may never open.

But The Times' findings, researchers say, highlight the importance of keeping children in school for 12 years, even at one of the region's most challenged campuses, which has more students and less space than any other high school in the city.

The 1989 seniors polled, 68% Latino and 26% Asian, completed high school at four times the rate of their mothers and fathers, the Times study shows. They are three times more likely than their parents to work in white-collar jobs, and twice as likely to be professionals.

More than a quarter of the class received at least a bachelor's degree. Three-quarters have moved out of the old neighborhoods. One-third own homes. Half now live in households with incomes above $40,000, nearly the Los Angeles County median.

Like generations of European immigrants before them, the Belmont seniors are moving toward the middle class, researchers say.

"The vast of majority of kids, even in poor neighborhoods, are fulfilling the American Dream," said David Hayes-Bautista of UCLA, a top researcher on Latino and immigrant demographics.

"They're not stuck in the mud," said USC professor Dowell Myers, another expert on immigrant mobility. "More can be done [but] they move up, by and large."

Class members say their biggest obstacles have not been discrimination or lack of English skills, but money for education and having to support family members.

More than 70% of the seniors were foreign-born. Today, nearly three out of four class members are citizens.

Sixty-nine percent of those eligible to vote are registered, and most of them said they have participated in recent elections.

Overall, the class is optimistic about future opportunities.

The Class of '89, like many others, was a little more than half the size of the freshman group that began four years earlier. Students dropped out, transferred to other schools or obtained diplomas or high school equivalency certificates later, officials say.

The Times study focuses on one group that made it to the 12th grade, the minimum many say is needed for even entry-level jobs in the new economy.

Like other studies, the analysis shows sharp disparities in schooling and income between Latino and Asian students after they leave high school.

A majority of Asians in the class earned at least two-year associate arts degrees, while a majority of the Latinos obtained no college degrees or vocational certificates. Asians were also twice as likely as Latinos to live in households with annual incomes above $60,000.

The education gaps underscore warnings that Latinos are not being adequately prepared for jobs in the changing economy, which require some college.

"The question I have is whether this [Latino education] upgrading is fast enough," said the Rand Corp.'s Georges Vernez, who has studied the subject.

Researchers say the differences in the Class of '89 are partly explained by the backgrounds of the parents, which studies conclude are among the most powerful factors in children's educational achievements.

Nearly half of the Asian parents had some college education, and most of those had earned degrees, the study shows. A third of Latino parents had less than eighth-grade educations, and a majority never finished high school.

Moreover, Asian parents were more likely to work in white-collar, professional and administrative jobs. Latino parents were more concentrated in blue-collar jobs, the survey shows.

Although the gains of the Class of '89 are uneven, they should be viewed in light of where the students' American journeys began.

By the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, Central Americans and Asians were pouring into the Belmont area.

Virtually overnight, the Westlake district was emerging as the hub of the largest Salvadoran community in the United States. The main drags, just west of downtown, were blending influences from San Salvador, Tegucigalpa and Mexico City.

Ambulantes, or street vendors, hawked chili-flavored mangoes, homemade tamales and snow cones shaved from blocks of ice. Salsa and cumbias drifted from discotecas and Salvadoran pupuserias. On weekends, families and soccer players filled the few patches of open space.

The poverty rate was two to three times that of the region. The share of non-English-speaking homes was up to four times that of the county overall.

During the seniors' school days, the Belmont area was home to some of the nation's most crowded neighborhoods. People packed into many blocks at four times the rate of Manhattan, N.Y., and 10 times that of Los Angeles as a whole.

Students heading to class passed drive-through drug bazaars at what were some of Los Angeles' most notorious crossroads: 11th and Lake streets, 6th and Bonnie Brae streets, and MacArthur Park. Battles for drug sales and turf were fueling the rise of what would become two regional mega-gangs: 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha.

Some would eventually be swept up in the mayhem. One class member died in a gang-related shootout. At least five others served time in state prison for crimes ranging from robbery and kidnapping to manslaughter, a search of criminal justice records shows.

Perched on a hill near the middle of it all was Belmont High, an isle of education that opened its doors in 1923, a far whiter and more homogeneous era. Through the next few decades, the school's graduates included actors Jack Webb and Richard Crenna, comedian Mort Sahl and the late Times columnist Jack Smith.

By 1989, the school's profile had changed dramatically. Its nickname was United Nations High. There were clubs for Chinese, Cambodian, Korean and Latino students; they spoke more than 30 languages.

Some of the 1989 seniors came together last fall at the private Los Angeles Athletic Club, a place where few of their parents would ever have socialized. It was their 10-year reunion. As they mingled in evening attire in a wood-paneled reception area, it was evidence of how far they had come. Brutti was there. So were Diep, Tran, Munoz and Campos.

Near the registration table, names of several class members who had died or disappeared were etched on a small memorial.

As the former students shared experiences, it was a reminder of the importance of less-measured influences: fate, families and choices.

Some soar, others stumble. And some push forward, only to be thrown back, and to press ahead again.

In chapters, here are the stories:

THE SIX STORIES: THE BEGINNINGS...AND THE DREAMS / MYRNA BRUTTI, The High School Counselor

Myrna Brutti couldn't imagine it would come to this. Certainly not when she left the poverty of Torreon, Mexico, 25 years ago.

She has a master's degree. She is a counselor at San Pedro High. She and her husband, Richard, just moved into a two-story townhouse on a shady cul-de-sac.

The spacious home has oak furniture and cabinets and a brick fireplace. It's a long step up from the one-bedroom apartment she shared with seven family members during her days at Belmont.

"I sometimes sit in my living room and realize, 'I own this place.' It's so surreal," says Brutti, whose maiden name is Gonzalez.

She's among the 46% of the class who consider themselves middle class. Eleven percent say they are upper-middle class.

Brutti moved to San Pedro after marrying in 1993. Her husband is an optometrist. He is the son of Italian immigrants, and his family has been in the area for years.

Brutti is among a third of Belmont's seniors who now live in suburban or coastal communities, the Times study shows. Her education level and annual household income of more than $100,000 put her in the top tier of her classmates.

Her accomplishments are even more impressive when compared with those of other Latinos in her class. Just 3% of them earned a master's degree, and only 4% have six-figure household incomes.

A former member of the Belmont dance team, Brutti is an energetic woman with dark eyes.

She is also determined and ambitious. She was raised that way. Her mother and father, along with 56% of the parents of the Latino class members, never graduated from high school.

But they had a strong work ethic. Brutti's parents usually held down two jobs each--delivering tortillas, cleaning hotels and working in bars.

They were consumed by keeping the family financially afloat. That meant Brutti, her three sisters and two brothers were often left alone in the family's Westlake apartment near downtown.

Outside, 18th Street gang members lorded over the street in front of her building. One of her sisters hung out with gang members in high school, Brutti said. So did others in the neighborhood, some of them becoming full-fledged members, or succumbing to the ravages of the heroin and cocaine that flooded the streets.

Bad influences were abundant. "All the odds," she says, "were stacked against me."

THE SIX STORIES: THE BEGINNINGS...AND THE DREAMS / ROSELYN TRAN, The Social Worker, and JANINE DIEP, the Accountant

Roselyn Tran and Janine Diep's passage to the San Gabriel Valley's growing Asian middle class also was a longshot.

Their journeys, woven together since childhood, began on stench-filled refugee boats half a world away. The girls and their families crammed onto fishing vessels in south China and Saigon.

Tran and her relatives were fleeing Communist purges in North Vietnam. Diep's father was pulling his family out of South Vietnam as the last vestiges of the American-backed regime crumbled.

Like thousands of others escaping Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, they didn't know where they would end up.

Tran, then 8, remembers a two-week voyage of fear, seasickness, hunger and storms. She was shoe-horned with others into a small space beneath the deck, heavy with the smell of vomit and human waste.

The families wound their way through seaports, Southeast Asian refugee camps and finally, nearly a year later, into the milieu of Los Angeles' central-city poverty.

It was a path familiar to many in the Class of '89. About one in six immigrant class members came from Vietnam, Cambodia or China, the Times study shows.

Diep and Tran, both ethnic Chinese, found each other in an Echo Park grade school, through a language few other schoolmates understood.

The bond remains today between the two young suburban women who enjoy travel, nights out with friends, movies and shopping. Both are single, as is about half the class, the survey found.

They are part of a lopsided share of Asians who went to four-year colleges and received bachelor's degrees.

After work and on weekends, they help provide care and company for retired parents living in family homes in West Covina and Rosemead.

Both women are cautious and reserved, still emerging from an insular, driven world of family, traditions and study.

Their formative years were defined by parents worried about outsiders and afraid of unwanted attention.

"Their fear," Tran says, "was they'd send us back to Vietnam."

As the families headed to America, there was one thing they thought they knew: Everybody there was wealthy.

What they found was a trial to get by.

THE SIX STORIES: THE BEGINNINGS...AND THE DREAMS / JOSE MUNOZ, The Security Guard

The instinct to survive, honed on the plains of Jalisco, Mexico, saved Jose Munoz's family those first years in their new country.

To put meat on the table, his mother chased down pigeons on the roof of their crowded apartment, in a battered building down the hill from Good Samaritan Hospital.

Beans and tortillas were bought with money from selling bottles and cans. Leaving each day before sunrise, 3-year-old Jose and his family scoured downtown with shopping carts and plastic bags. They ate cinnamon rolls and scraps of food tossed into trash bins by restaurants. At night, he and 13 others slept in a one-bedroom apartment.

Now 28, Munoz is still struggling as a security guard in Los Angeles. He and hundreds of thousands of other Latinos--including 12% of the Belmont class--form the backbone of the region's low-paying service economy.

Along with nearly a quarter of the other Latino students surveyed by The Times, Munoz has a household income of less than $30,000 a year. Supporting five people, his earnings place the family near the bottom of Los Angeles' economic heap.

Wearing his blue and white uniform, Munoz hunches over a table at a Mexican restaurant near his old apartment. He's quiet and unassuming. His eyes are red. He has just pulled a double shift.

This is Munoz's lot, in part because he is in the 21% of Latinos surveyed whose education stopped at Belmont.

He wanted to go to college, he says, a desire inspired by an art class he took during his junior year. It opened his eyes to a new world. He found that he could express himself through abstract sketches and acrylic portraits.

His art teacher, Betty Yoshimura, recalls that "he was really talented."

So talented that he received a summer scholarship to study at the California Academy of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

He returned to Belmont his senior year with the ember of a dream. He would be an artist.

THE SIX STORIES: THE BEGINNINGS...AND THE DREAMS / GEORGE ACEVEDO, The Would-Be Cop

George Acevedo also had a dream.

He wanted to become an undercover detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. It seemed a natural choice for Acevedo, 29, an athletic, hard-working guy who left his Rampart Boulevard neighborhood and never looked back.

"What for?" he says. "Not much over there."

Acevedo and many of his friends had to maneuver through competing worlds of self-made opportunity and self-defeating crime and violence.

He was a Boy Scout who loved camping and his tan uniform. He earned the organization's highest honor, Eagle Scout. It was a rare achievement in the poor neighborhoods of the central city.

His parents still recall proudly the swanky ceremony at downtown's Bonaventure Hotel, where then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro presented the awards.

"We had seen the results of our sacrifice," says his father, Jorge Acevedo, who brought his children from Colombia.

But George also had a rougher side, his brother says, running for a time with gang members on the crime-washed hillsides behind the high school.

Still, with his parents pushing, Acevedo became the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.

He went on to Glendale Community College, where he pulled down A's in his criminology classes. But he did not complete his degree.

Indeed, while almost a third of the Class of '89 went to community colleges, The Times' study shows, only 12% of those who continued their education after Belmont received associate arts degrees.

Acevedo worked security jobs for the Kmart and Jon's Market chains in Los Angeles.

Posing as a janitor or shopper, he nabbed shoplifters and often testified in court. He got to know a lot of cops and had them over to the family's house to barbecue carne asada and watch boxing.

He lifted weights, studied for months and last year took the LAPD exam. He said he was waiting for a background check.

His future, and hopes of joining the LAPD, looked bright.

THE SIX STORIES: THE BEGINNINGS...AND THE DREAMS / ROBERTO CAMPOS, The Construction Foreman

Roberto Campos didn't know what the future would hold when his mother fetched him from a remote, war-scarred village in El Salvador. His last memories were the bullets flying overhead one night, his father disappearing the next day and the decapitated body of a man lying in the street. He was 10.

Transplanted to a studio apartment in Hollywood, he entered a new world. He had never lived in a place with indoor plumbing. Or electricity.

Today, Campos is at home with the toys of upwardly mobile Los Angeles. "This is my office," he says before dawn, wheeling his beefy Dodge Ram Club Cab pickup onto the northbound Glendale Freeway, leaving his central-city neighborhood behind.

A cellular phone sits on a wide center console between the bucket seats. He talks about his 401(K) and the apartment investments he wants to make. He has worked his way up to foreman at a large construction firm. He thinks he will go further.

Under the ball cap and jacket, he is lean and intense. Work begins and ends about 5 each day, and can take him from Oxnard to south Orange County.

He uses words sparingly, with little hint of bravado. It sounds like simple self-commitment when he says: "Twenty percent of the people run the country. Eighty percent of the people provide the labor. . . . I want to be in the 20%, and I want my kids to be in the 20%."

He is among the more than 70% of the Class of '89 members surveyed who say they are doing better than their parents, the Times study found. In fact, he helped his stepfather land a better-paying job with his construction company.

For now, he remains among the 58% of the Class of '89 still renting, and the one in four still living in the Belmont High area.

Like Campos, roughly a quarter of the immigrants in the class are Salvadoran. They formed the largest foreign-born group.

Campos lives a few blocks from where he grew up. He returns every few days to the family home on a hillside dead-end splashed with gang graffiti. He thinks of his days hanging with the neighborhood homeboys, and how natural it seemed to fall in with them. "That's your life. Right there."

Looking back gives him a chill. The nights on the street, the lure of the gang action. "I was that close. . . ."

THE SIX STORIES: WHERE THEIR JOURNEYS HAVE TAKEN THEM / MYRNA BRUTTI, The High School Counselor

In her San Pedro High office, Myrna Brutti counsels students, some of them close to dropping out or joining gangs.

It reminds her of her days at Belmont High. She asks a 15-year-old boy to explain why he missed class. He shrugs.

"This is the last time," Brutti says, signing a slip so he can return to the class. "Next time, we're calling your parents."

The phone rings. A student tells her he was in a fight and that his face is bruised. He is too embarrassed to come to school.

"Don't worry about how you look," she says. "I want you in class tomorrow."

Brutti is trying to do for her students what a legendary Belmont High counselor did for her.

Sal Castro saw potential in Brutti, an outgoing student often in the thick of campus activity. He became a trusted mentor.

"She was running upstream like a salmon," says Castro, who helped lead massive Chicano walkouts for better education in the late 1960s at Eastside high schools.

Today, many of Brutti's young charges are Latino. Some are from homes headed by single mothers, or absentee parents.

The lack of parental involvement is tough for Brutti to watch. She credits her parents for much of her success.

They were strict. She and her five siblings were not allowed outside alone. They ended up spending most of their time with one another.

Brutti also saw how hard her parents worked and remembers their worries about covering the rent. "I couldn't disappoint them," she says.

The poverty around her ignited a fire inside, a desire to get out.

"I always wanted to live in a place where I wasn't ashamed to bring my friends," she says.

Brutti also was motivated by people who ridiculed her--like one Belmont teacher.

"You poor Mexicans. You don't speak English. You'll never make it. . . . You're lucky. You get to be illiterate in two languages," Brutti recalls the man saying.

"That pushed me harder," Brutti says. "To me, it was a big deal to show what this Mexican kid can do."

She wasn't an outstanding student at Belmont, but she worked hard. She took Castro's advice to go away to college and enrolled at Sonoma State in 1989. Financed by state grants, she earned a psychology degree in four years. "I applied for every penny they could give," she says.

After college, she married and worked full-time as a counselor and teacher in the Compton School District. She also enrolled in a graduate program at the University of La Verne.

She would leave her San Pedro home at 6:30 a.m. and work eight hours in Compton. Then she would drive 30 miles, often battling traffic, to attend classes. She usually got home about 10:30 each night.

It took her 18 months to get a master's degree in school counseling. Brutti is still moving up. She plans to have children. They will attend San Pedro High because public school worked for her.

"There were some people who didn't have any hopes for us. . . . [But] I wanted a better life for myself," she says. "I knew early on that it was possible."

THE SIX STORIES: WHERE THEIR JOURNEYS HAVE TAKEN THEM / ROSELYN TRAN, The Social Worker, and Janine Diep, the Accountant

Filled with hope as they stepped off airliners from Southeast Asia, the Dieps and Trans soon found themselves getting by on government aid and low-wage jobs. They worked on assembly lines and waiting tables, in small Chinese shops and garment factories.

"We had a lot of misconceptions about America," says Roselyn Tran.

Reality set in fast. Tran's "rich aunt in America" collected the family at Los Angeles International Airport in an aging Chevy Vega. The families squeezed into tiny Chinatown hotel units. Homeless people wandered the streets.

But they had food, shelter and opportunity. And, along with more than 40% of the other families of the Class of '89, they knew relatives or friends who also began in the Belmont area.

Within months, both families made their moves up, renting small apartments in Echo Park.

Diep and Tran met there, in third grade at Elysian Park Elementary School.

Fear, cultural tradition and embarrassment about their financial misfortunes turned both families inward. Tran and Diep became close friends and lived only blocks apart, but never visited each other's homes.

"I was very conscious that my parents didn't have money," Diep recalls over dinner in Monterey Park's thriving Asian American business district.

Diep and Tran are meeting after work, as they often do, at one of their favorite Chinese restaurants. They reminisce about how far they have come, the things that made a difference along the way.

Diep lingers on a mental picture: A white-haired woman at her grade school, possibly a volunteer. The name is gone, but the image of the woman reading to Diep remains strong. "I remember her vividly. . . . A sweet little old lady. She helped me with my first words of English."

Conditioned not to call attention to themselves, the young friends turned to studies.

At Belmont, they avoided dances and parties. Diep didn't go to a movie until she was 18. She took classes year-round, including courses at Cal State L.A. She accumulated nearly a full year of college credits before graduating from Belmont. Both joined the Academic Decathlon team.

"Study. Study. Study," Diep says ruefully of her school days.

Today, she faces different challenges. Learning to relax and take a break, for one. And sorting out just where a Chinese-raised Vietnamese American fits into the Southern California cultural tableau.

"I don't really identify with Vietnamese. I don't really identify with Chinese. And I don't really identify with Americans. Where does that leave me?" she asks. "I feel an emptiness sometimes."

Her professional path is clearer. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara on a combination of work study and grants and is an accountant for a business software firm. She hopes to become a CPA, and maybe write a book about her experiences.

Tran received a psychology degree from Pitzer College in Claremont, and manages services for disabled clients at a large nonprofit agency.

The women fall into the 46% of their class working in administrative and professional jobs.

In the families' suburban homes, shrines prominently honor deceased relatives and microwave ovens heat old-world Asian dishes. The talk includes overseas trips, career moves and family members' business ventures.

"It's been very good, looking back," Tran's mother, Phuong The Quan Tran, says softly in Chinese as she gazes through the lace front drapes of her three-bedroom home near the West Covina mall.

In his Rosemead living room, beneath a large, formal portrait of his impeccably dressed family, Diep's 75-year-old father talks of a simple hope he took with him when he walked away from his small business and slipped his family out of Vietnam.

"Get a good education. Make a better living. Buy a house," Cam Diep says as his daughter translates.

"And that's what we did."

THE SIX STORIES: WHERE THEIR JOURNEYS HAVE TAKEN THEM / JOSE MUNOZ, The Security Guard

Jose Munoz's father often comes up when the would-be artist talks about his family. They came from Mexico, as did a quarter of Belmont's foreign-born seniors.

His father was a hard-working man who wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. He sold homemade pork rinds and cleaned hotel rooms.

He also had a serious drinking problem. It's a legacy that weighs heavily on his son to this day.

Motivated by his summer studying art in Oakland, Munoz's goal was to attend the Otis Parsons Art Institute in Los Angeles.

First he needed to strengthen his sketches of moving objects. He won a scholarship to pay for his art supplies and classes at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. The school was one of the top destinations for the Class of '89.

But shortly after Munoz graduated from Belmont, his father was jailed for drunk driving and fired from his job, Munoz says. His family was evicted from their apartment and stayed with friends.

When the father was released, he told his son he couldn't go to college, especially to study something like art. He had to work, help support the family and learn how to be a man.

"I begged him to let me go. . . . He thought it was a waste of time," recalls Munoz, then 17. "I had no say."

Munoz's experience wasn't uncommon. Supporting family or lacking money for education have been the class members' biggest obstacles, the Times study shows.

Munoz's father had already picked out his son's new line of work--boxing groceries for minimum wage. After several low-paying jobs, Munoz was hired in 1995 by the security company where he still works. A year later, he and his dad scraped together $3,000 and qualified for a low-income mortgage on an old duplex.

The modest stucco home, with its iron gate and barred windows, is in a Southwest Los Angeles neighborhood dragged down by gangs and cheap motels.

Nearly two years after moving into his home, Munoz had saved a little money and bought a computer. He decided to enroll in community college and study graphics.

But in January 1998, his dad took off to visit friends. He wasn't supposed to be out of the house because of repeated drunk-driving arrests. He died in a freeway accident with alcohol in his blood, Munoz says.

The son was left with the mortgage and thousands of dollars in other debts.

Today, the roughly $26,000 he makes annually is consumed helping support his 57-year-old mother and his unemployed sister and her two small children, as well as paying off the house loan.

Like Munoz, Latino immigrants have pooled family resources and flocked to low-down mortgage offers to buy homes, the traditional hallmark of the American Dream.

But as the security guard's story shows, home ownership alone is not necessarily an accurate measure of entry into the middle class, as some researchers argue. Munoz, along with 37% of the class, describes himself as working class.

Outside his home, he opens the trunk of his rusted 11-year-old car and fishes through a clutter of magazines, wrinkled clothes and bags of belongings.

He pulls out his high school art portfolio and slowly fingers through the pages. The penciled sketches and finely colored Cubist designs carry him back to that high school period of possibility.

"Sometimes I get bitter," he says. "Everything would have been better."

THE SIX STORIES: WHERE THEIR JOURNEYS HAVE TAKEN THEM / GEORGE ACEVEDO, The Would-Be Cop

Things were heading in the right direction for George Acevedo.

Like seven in 10 other class members, the former Belmont High football player was pursuing his major goal--wearing the LAPD badge.

Last Christmas, after an evening out with friends, Acevedo was returning to his home in northeast Los Angeles. He and his two younger brothers had bought the spacious Mount Washington residence to get their parents and 6-year-old sister out of their old neighborhood.

As Acevedo paused at a stop sign that night, a car cruised alongside. Gunfire exploded. Two slugs ripped into Acevedo's legs. A third smashed into the base of his skull.

He was apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to investigators, who suspect gang members were responsible for the attack. The Los Angeles City Council has offered a $25,000 reward for information on the attackers.

"It's just a crying shame," says LAPD Det. Richard Ortiz.

Acevedo wanted to become a cop to help control the sort of street crime that had surrounded him much of his life. Now the lawlessness has left him struggling to speak and walk again.

"My brother just couldn't get out of the whole atmosphere of violence . . . the reality of being in a low, low-income area," Frank Acevedo says.

Most of the class steered clear of such problems, but at least half a dozen met tragic fates.

One former student put a gun to his head and killed himself. Another, a onetime football star, died in a motorcycle crash.

And on a cool October night in 1992, David Lepe, George's high school friend and a member of the same Boy Scout troop, was gunned down during a gang shooting near Echo Park. He was hit by a shotgun blast to the head, according to records and interviews. The case remains unsolved.

"The difference between the guy that makes it and the guy that doesn't is very small," says homicide Det. Andy Cicoria, a 17-year veteran called to the scene of the Lepe shooting.

George's parents insist that he was a straight arrow who steered clear of gangs and violence.

"He's a good son," says his mother, Alcira Acevedo, keeping a vigil at his hospital bedside.

The gray walls of his room are decorated with cards from Acevedo's friends and co-workers. "Hope you're home soon," says one.

His once-muscular body, sculpted by weightlifting and jogging, is rail thin.

But Acevedo is slowly fighting back. At first he was in a coma. Then he couldn't speak, and communicated primarily by nodding his head or with hand signs. Now he visits home on the weekends, and can carry on a simple conversation in hoarse sentences.

Acevedo's parents wonder how their son, once the family's main breadwinner, could be cut down so suddenly and horribly.

His mother and father are again struggling to cover expenses, less sure than ever about what the future holds for them.

Standing over his son, Jorge Acevedo's eyes grow wet and his resolve begins to waver. "His dreams are broken. I wish those bullets hit me."

THE SIX STORIES: WHERE THEIR JOURNEYS HAVE TAKEN THEM / ROBERTO CAMPOS, The Construction Foreman

Roberto Campos has had his own hurdles and setbacks.

A backward Salvadoran country kid, he was among a majority of Class of '89 members who came to the United States as adolescents, the Times study shows.

He didn't feel comfortable speaking English until his sophomore year at Belmont.

He and his buddies on Firmin Street, overlooking the downtown four-level interchange, weren't serious about high school.

"We didn't think about the future. We thought about the moment," Campos says. Like the night, on a dare, he got a tattoo. It was his mother's name, and she has never forgiven him, he says.

Her vigilance and threats kept him from tumbling headlong into the street life. She had worked most her of life in factories, and wanted him to be a professional, an engineer.

His passion was soccer. He played on Belmont's winning varsity team and parlayed that into a Cal State scholarship.

He left college without getting a degree to play ball in Los Angeles' booming Latino club leagues. He says he was close to a Los Angeles Galaxy tryout when he ripped the ligaments in his foot and was sidelined for two years.

The blow was devastating.

Returning home, he worked a series of minimum-wage jobs as a messenger, delivery boy and security guard. He also married a woman from the neighborhood and had two sons. He is now among the 50% of his classmates who have become parents.

When he finally landed an apprenticeship in a plasterer's union, he began earning his first decent wages. He was making more than most of the men in the neighborhood and became a popular guest at baptisms, birthdays and weekend parties. He would foot the bill for the beer.

He was drinking often until two years ago, when he got nabbed for driving with an open container and spent four days in jail. That was enough.

"I was really pathetic," Campos says one morning, as he readies a Pasadena office building for a new coat of stucco. "I was wasting time and money."

Campos is a blur of well-rehearsed motion as he moves quickly down a long outer wall. He is hanging massive sheets of plastic, securing strips of red masking tape, tucking the covering around windows. A few feet behind him, a plasterer keeps pace with a buzzing spray gun.

Campos always seems to know his next move.

He said he is now pulling down about a $30 an hour. One day, he could become a regional supervisor, overseeing dozens of workers on multiple construction sites, a job that pays considerably more.

"In this country you have opportunities," he says. "If you want it, it's there."

For now, he's building his savings and retirement accounts. One way or another, he will get a house soon. It will be big enough for his sons to have friends over. And, he says, it will be far from the street trouble that almost claimed him.

A supervisor, Don Knox, drops by the job site. He often teases Campos about his intensity, and worries that he is a little too serious.

But it's also why his foreman is so dependable and valued, Knox says. "He's exactly what we're trying to cultivate."

Campos' optimism is shared by a sizable number of his classmates.

More than 90% say they are "somewhat," "mostly" or "entirely" satisfied with the way their lives are going. Seventy-five percent say they have "much better" opportunities for the future than their parents.

Knox watches as his foreman hustles to finish his work, hoping to wrap up in time to spend an afternoon with his family. As he prepares to leave, the boss offers his take on Campos. It's an assessment that might apply to much of Belmont's Class of '89.

"He seems like he wants to be somebody."

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Class Notes

A survey of Belmont seniors in 1989 finds 40% plan to go to four-year colleges. The Times survey 10 years later finds 38% did.

In their senior year, only 3% of class members plan to enroll in a vocational school. A decade later, Times finds 13% did.

In 1989, SAT scores for Belmont High graduates are about 150 points below the average for college-bound students.

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Class Notes

Most Belmont students in 1989 list a language other than English as their best or first language.

More than 30 languages are spoken on Belmont campus in 1989. Its nickname: "United Nations High."

Los Angeles City College is top destination for Belmont seniors in 1989, a school survey finds. Other top choices are Cal State L.A., Glendale Community College and Los Angeles Trade-Tech

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Class Notes

The estimated value of grants and scholarships awarded Belmont seniors in 1989 is $6.1 million over four years.

In November 1999, the class holds its 10-year reunion at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Nearly 150 class members attend.

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Class Notes

More than half of Belmont's students in 1989 receive federally subsidized lunches.

Approximately 4,000 students are enrolled at Belmont in 1989. To relieve crowding, the school operates all year. Students attend on three overlapping schedules.

The Class of 1989 logo is a crown. Classmates call themselves "The Majestics."

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On the Internet

The Times Web site has more on the Belmont Class of '89:

* Video interviews with Roberto Campos and Myrna Brutti

* A multimedia retrospective of 1989's major news events

* Additional photos by Times photographer Wally Skalij

Go to http://www.latimes.com/belmont

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