Growing up poor in South Gate, Luis Ayala was one of three sons raised by a single mother, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
For Ayala, the Army seemed like a path to a better life, a way to pay for college.
One day, after meeting with recruiters at his high school, he came home with dreams of the money he would make by enlisting, said his mother, Livier.
“When the recruiters went to speak to him,” she said, “they showed him videos of all they were going to give him.”
She said she felt only pain at her son’s excitement.
“This was fantasy,” she said. “They’re so young that they’re easily convinced.”
Shortly after graduating from South Gate High School in 2003, Ayala joined the Army. After serving a year in Iraq in 2004, he returned to the war in October.
On Dec. 28, Ayala, 21, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near him while on patrol near Taji, north of Baghdad. He was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.
Ayala left behind a German wife and son that his mother has never met.
“I’ve just spoken to her over the phone and seen the photos,” his mother said of her daughter-in-law.
After basic training in Georgia, Ayala was sent to Germany. On his free time, he and another soldier frequented a park near the base. It was there that Ayala met a German girl named Deniz, his mother said. She still doesn’t know Deniz’s last name.
Soon, she was hearing all about Deniz from her son in Germany.
Deniz spoke little English and no Spanish. Luis spoke no German. But he and another soldier from Michoacan took German lessons. In time, Luis and Deniz fell in love.
Despite Ayala’s 2004 tour in Iraq, the couple’s romance endured the distance and the war.
“He came home again, but he was so much in love with the girl he returned to the base” in Germany, his mother said.
There, Luis and Deniz were married. Both were 20.
In May, the couple had a son, Miguel Luis Ayala. The three of them lived for a while at Ft. Hood, and then were transferred back to Germany, as Luis again prepared to go to war.
“He was very happy,” his mother said. “He didn’t want to go back to Iraq.”
From Germany, Luis wrote to an immigration judge to say it was unfair that he should be fighting for the United States while the government denied his mother legal residency.
The judge agreed and gave his mother her legal papers last year.
Livier Ayala still lives in South Gate, where Luis was buried. Her youngest son, Juan, lives at home, while her oldest, Sergio, is married.
She works as a cashier. The little in life that she has includes photographs of her son, the woman who was briefly his wife and the knowledge that somewhere far away she has a grandson she’s never seen.