On a recent Sunday morning, Brian Barajas, a mop-topped 8-year-old, stashed his bike against the wall and raced inside a tired little house, ducking under two withered fruit trees. The house was so close to the tracks you could hear the engineer call out the stops when the train went by. A police helicopter was overhead, just down the street, as sure a sign as any that the day was underway.
This is a forgotten corner of South Los Angeles, an immigrant neighborhood hemmed in by warehouses and gangs. There are no Scout troops here, no T-ball teams. So on Sundays, Brian’s aunt, Adela, gathers a bunch of kids in the house where four generations of her family have lived, just to talk.
She is equal parts counselor, preacher and interrogator. On this morning, she wanted to talk about fear.
“What are you afraid of?” she asked, pacing under a painting of “The Last Supper.” Ten kids stared back with varying degrees of indifference. After some coaxing, they began to reveal their anxieties: Fitting in. Money. Math.
Adela turned to her nephew.
“What are you afraid of?”
He smiled, all dimples.
There are four Barajas siblings: Brian, friendly and puckish; Michael, 15, bright and finicky; Denise, 17, pretty and shy; Joey, 19, stoic and thoughtful. They grew up in this house too -- playing football out front, walking to the swap meet to buy water pistols. But it is not their house anymore; they come here now only to visit, and only sporadically.
They have been exiled, in effect, from South L.A. -- banished by their family not because of what they’ve done, but because of what they’ve seen.
Their mother, Laura Sanchez, was just 17 when she married into the family. In 1990, she married Adela’s brother, Chino, and moved into the Barajas’ homestead on Long Beach Avenue.
She’d grown up right around the corner, off East Vernon, but she was not like them. The Barajas clan was big, boisterous, tight-knit. Laura was an only child. She never knew her father. She had just a handful of people in her family; most were alcoholics and addicts.
Laura dived into her new life and assumed a matriarchal role. She became the family event planner -- Christmas, birthdays. She learned the Barajas family recipes, mastering carne asada, which she made for everyone on weekends.
“I considered her a sister,” said Adela, 44. “She just had some sort of patience the rest of us didn’t have, with babies, with cooking, with family. Any time of day, if you were hungry, she’d have something ready to eat. If you were cold, she had coffee ready. Anything.”
The troubles started in 1998, on Thanksgiving. Somehow, they’d wedged three tables into the tiny front room of the Long Beach Avenue house. It was 6 p.m. They were all stuffed.
A couple of the neighborhood characters were out front -- harmless drunks. Laura was in the kitchen preparing them a plate of leftovers.
“That’s when we heard the shots,” Adela said.
Blocks away, off Compton Avenue, Laura’s mother, Irene Cruz, was in front of her house, smoking a cigarette. Gang members got into a dispute, and a stray bullet struck her in the head.
For months, Irene held on. On her birthday, Laura even hired a mariachi band to come into her recovery room. But her organs began to fail. Irene died the next winter.
Laura, Adela said, felt terribly alone.
“She kept saying: ‘I don’t have any family,’ ” Adela said. “We told her: ‘We are your family. We are your backbone.’ ”
A way of life
The Barajas house rests on a seam between a number of street gangs with a history of enmity: the Pueblo Bishops to the south; 38th Street to the north; Barrio Mojados and Playboys to the west. As Adela says: “When you want to shoot, you do it here.”
It is a way of life; indeed, when Adela was student body president at Jefferson High in the early 1980s, she also was affiliated with the 38th Street gang -- “a gang-hanger, not a gang-banger,” a real distinction around here.
In the spring of 2007, according to law enforcement officials, a gang called Athens Park got into a dispute with the Pueblo Bishops, the dominant gang in a public housing development just south of the Barajas’ house.
During a gunfight, a Pueblo was shot in the hand, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Chuck Fredgren. Driving three cars, Pueblos went to Athens, near Gardena, seeking revenge -- but the gangsters couldn’t find anyone from the Athens Park gang. Instead, the Pueblos decided to make some trouble in the territory of their more traditional rival, 38th Street. They headed north on Long Beach Avenue.
A little after 10 p.m., Laura and Joey, then 17, were headed home from her daughter Denise’s quinceañera rehearsal. Laura turned her blue van left onto Long Beach Avenue, passing in front of the three-car caravan. The Pueblos mistakenly took Joey for a gang member and closed in, Fredgren said.
“They have zero idea who they are shooting at,” he said.
Laura looked in the rearview mirror.
“I think they’re following us,” she told Joey.
One car blocked their path; directly in front of the house, two gunmen started shooting.
“I got away,” Joey said. “But they got my mother.”
One bullet, fired from a .44 Magnum, passed through Laura’s heart. She was 34.
Wounds are deep
The children soldiered on as best they could.
Four young Pueblos were convicted of first-degree murder and given lengthy prison terms. The trials required repeated trips to court; Joey, after all, was a key witness.
Laura’s kids were deeply wounded, Adela said.
Joey developed a nervous tic of looking in the rearview mirror to see who was behind him, he said. Denise got pregnant and now has a baby of her own; her relatives say they believe she would have waited had her mother been around to offer counsel. Michael said he missed his mother’s cooking; Adela said she started to worry about his weight.
One day, in a fit of anger, Brian told his teachers he was going to shoot up his school, Adela said. At home, he kept insisting that it was his mother who was supposed to tuck him in at night. It was hard to argue.
Joey had been working as a cashier but felt he should quit so he could spend more time at home with his siblings. He’s adopted Laura’s rules; homework, for example, is done immediately after school, before video games or anything else.
“I tried to be like her, like I was their mother,” he said. “It was hard. But we were doing all right.”
Their troubles, however, were not over.
A breaking point
Chino -- Laura’s husband, Adela’s brother -- had struggled with a deep sadness after Laura’s death, Adela said. Then, early last year, he decided to have something of a coming-out party on his birthday.
The party went well; the Long Beach Avenue house was bursting with fun again. Having a party in this neighborhood, however, comes with complications: “The homies come at the end,” Adela said.
Gang members showed up as the band was leaving. There was an altercation, then gunfire. Bullets penetrated the metal fence; everyone in the courtyard next to the house hit the deck. Suddenly, Joey’s voice rang out: “My dad’s been shot!”
The bullet had passed through Chino’s pelvic bone and then his small intestine. Rehabilitation took months.
By July 4 -- Laura’s birthday -- he was feeling better.
That day, the four children were waiting for him in the car outside the house. They were headed to the cemetery, where they planned to put flowers on Laura’s grave.
Chino was approached by a man on a bicycle -- another neighborhood character who had struggled with mental health issues. Chino thought the man had stopped to say hello; instead, while the kids watched, the man head-butted Chino, stabbed him in the arm and then fled, family members said. “They’re killing him!” Brian screamed.
Chino would recover from those wounds too. But for the children, that was it for South Los Angeles. No one in the family had any misconceptions about where they lived. Even with a significant drop in violent crime recently, this pocket of South L.A. was still one of the most dangerous and gang-plagued in the city.
At some point, the family decided, enough was enough -- even here.
“When you live here, it catches up with you one way or another,” Adela said. “But we felt that we were losing control. It was like: What else could happen? You couldn’t even comprehend it. The things these kids had seen . . .”
She wiped away a tear.
“There had to be a breaking point,” she said. “We decided: You guys are moving. Right now.”
They all moved to South Gate, to a house owned by Adela’s sister.
“I did not want to move,” Michael said. None of them did.
It was all of five miles away. But it was a new world.
It was not paradise; South Gate has gang issues of its own. But the house was on a wide, tree-lined street. It had a swimming pool, a little cabinet full of crystal figurines in the living room, refrigerator magnets from San Francisco.
It was not home. But it was somewhere new.
“It was the right thing to do,” Joey said. “The other place was like marked territory. Here I can actually take a walk.”
Adela has become a prominent civic activist in the wake of Laura’s death. She registers new voters, holds toy giveaways at Christmas, lobbies for more park space for kids in South L.A.
She has named her youth group L.A.U.R.A. -- Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts. It is growing quickly; the kids have visited art galleries and gone horseback riding. Some even got to meet Desmond Tutu at a conference. At their weekly meetings, they talk about the importance of going to college, about racial stereotypes, about the importance of punctuality and good nutrition. But in the end, Adela said, it remains “kind of a support group for Laura’s kids.”
“Your mom is not here,” Adela told Brian at a recent meeting. “You have a void.”
“What’s a void?” Brian asked.
“It’s like an emptiness.”
Brian munched for a bit on lemon cookies and fidgeted.
“Can we leave?” he asked finally. “This meeting is boring.”
Adela chuckled and told him to go ride his bike. For now, she said, maybe being bored is the best anyone can hope for.