Grief propels an Echo Park community


Araceli Gonzalez Rojas’ grief breaks forth in fractured sentences. A year later, the two- to three-word shards choke her as she speaks.

Ever since her playful 4-year-old son -- who loved to dance in pajamas and cowboy boots -- was gunned down by a gangster a few feet from their Echo Park home, she and her husband, Roberto Lopez, have mourned mostly in silence.

They built colorful altars in his name, using marble, wood and wrapping paper: one in the bedroom where Roberto Lopez Jr. slept curled up beside his older sister and brother; one in the living room where his grandparents tenderly talk to his framed photograph; and one outside their duplex where neighbors pause now and then to reflect.

Howard Astorga, a known gang member, was convicted last week of Roberto’s murder. When a judge asks the couple a month from now to address him at his sentencing, they will hand over a written note for someone else to read out loud.

“We can’t do it,” said Gonzalez Rojas, 26, sitting in her living room. “But I want to tell him, ‘See. . . . See what you’ve done . . . to us. Please . . . tell your friends . . . tell the gangs . . . to stop. Please. Let us live in peace.”

When gang violence erupts in the neighborhood, as it has for generations, people often hide. They close their doors. They avoid police and don’t go out after sundown.

But many broke their silence after Roberto’s death. They called police to offer tips that helped catch Astorga. They gathered at the boy’s makeshift memorial and vowed to make the neighborhood safer.

In the last year, some started to attend monthly community meetings organized by the city and police. A group of mothers toured City Hall and gathered for a meal. In one longtime hot spot for Diamond Street, the local gang, a 35-year-old mother of three began to do something she had never done before. When she saw gangsters doing drugs or gathering late at night in her building’s courtyard, she called police.

“They know me so much now, they know my mole,” she said proudly.

City workers passed out hotline numbers for residents to post on their refrigerator doors. They had trees trimmed to give gangs fewer dark corners in which to deal drugs. They organized events -- a science fair, a resource fair, concerts -- to keep young people busy. A local community center where Roberto played -- and which he was walking by when he was shot -- plans to expand in the coming year.

Astorga was on parole Jan. 13, 2009, when his bullet hit the 4-year-old boy. Police said he was aiming at a rival gang member in a passing car.

Fear of gangs hovers over everything here, despite the organizing, despite Astorga’s conviction.

Residents often withhold complaints at community meetings, afraid that gangsters might lurk in the crowd. The community center, an orange house covered with whimsical murals, was temporarily shut in November because children in gang families were acting up and scaring other kids. And just recently Roberto’s sidewalk altar had to be moved to his family’s frontyard because gangsters and drunks had started loitering around it.

Passersby now view the shrine -- with the boy’s framed photograph, his wooden cross and his favorite race cars -- from beyond a fence.

“There’s a strange kind of entitlement the gangsters have,” said Tricia Ward, founder of the community center, which is run by Art Community Land Activism. “They think because they live here, they should be in charge.”

Nearly 50 people gathered at the latest community meeting this week, held at Roberto’s preschool. Gonzalez Rojas and her husband joined the group for the first time. They sat somberly in the front row with their 11-month old boy, Yair, who was born shortly after their first son’s death.

As they watched, officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and city officials took turns on the microphone, directed by Councilman Ed Reyes, whose office has organized the gatherings. A 911 dispatcher explained what happens when a resident calls police. A prosecutor from the city attorney’s office described the legal process after charges are filed. And a police captain urged anyone mistreated by an officer to file a complaint.

For a moment, everyone bowed heads in silence to mark the anniversary of Roberto’s death.

“Roberto’s passing was not in vain,” said Capt. Steven Ruiz, who oversees the Rampart area. “It’s been a blessing in getting people to come out here and talk.”

Sometimes only a handful of people show up at the meetings, but what matters is that they continue to attend, said Officer Lewis Ford.

Since Roberto’s slaying, he said, there have been no other homicides in the four-block area dominated by Diamond Street. The gang once known for killing drivers who wandered into the wrong territory has lost significant ground in recent years, Ford said. Some gangsters were jailed; others moved away. New construction has chipped away at their home turf.

“That’s one reason they’re really sensitive about their area,” Ford said.

Tere Hernandez, 41, considered leaving the neighborhood with her three children after the shooting. But where would she go? Anything she could afford might be just as unsafe, she said as she prepared to leave the meeting.

Several times, Hernandez said, she tried to approach Roberto’s mother to offer her condolences, but she knew she would just break down and cry.

“Change is coming, but it’s painfully slow,” she said. “And it shouldn’t have come at the cost of a 4-year-old’s death.”