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Tragedy thrusts young man into demanding new role

In the black before dawn, Adali Gutierrez has no trouble waking. He’s used to rising before the alarm has a chance to buzz.

It’s Friday, which means he’ll be supervising a crew sentenced to community cleanup.

He doesn’t mind the three-day weekend shift if it means $10 an hour —- better pay than at his other job emptying recycling bins.

Photos: Taking on a leading role

Yasmin is up too, taking advantage of a rare empty bathroom. She’s 17 and doesn’t like to be hurried when straightening her hair before school. In her bed, 5-year-old Roxanna will wake as soon as she notices her big sister has left her side. Adrian, 15, snores in the other bed crammed against the wall. In the living room, 18-year-old Guillermo stirs on the couch.

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Adali moved them into this bare-walled, two-bedroom apartment six months ago. El Monte’s not a rich town, and they’re living on its poorest side. At $800 a month, the rent is cheap.

Accustomed to dressing in the dark, Adali slips into navy pants and a blue T-shirt that conceals the ink splayed across his chest: his parents’ names. A framed picture of them sits on his dresser. He tugs on socks and a pair of black work boots and heads to the bathroom.

No matter how many times he’s stood in front of a mirror, the man who stares back is invariably a stranger. The chin pocked with shrapnel scars; the sagging lower lip; the flap of skin that hangs beneath his mouth — they are lesions that warp and age what should be a 20-year-old face.

He’s hopeful that one day a surgeon will offer to smooth his skin for free. Remove the markings of that early morning gunfire.

For now, the past remains a story etched into Adali’s face, the answer to how he became the patriarch of a family of five.

**

Adali remembers a staccato of gunfire and an occasional blast from a hand grenade but not the bullet that pierced his right lung. He can’t recall what it felt like when metal ripped through his chest or punctured his face.

He only knows that when he opened his eyes, he was in a hospital hooked to an oxygen tank.

It was the end of January 2010, and Adali was visiting Lazaro Cardenas, a small port city in the Mexican state of Michoacan to celebrate his 19th birthday with his parents and four siblings.

Once they had all lived in El Monte, but his father was deported for selling meth. The family had been struggling and Guillermo Sr., a welder by trade, was desperate for money.

Adali’s mother, Maria, packed up their kids, all born in America, and moved back to Mexico to keep the family together.

But Adali stayed behind and moved in with an aunt. He dropped out of school, took a part-time job loading containers for a shipping company and sent money to his parents. He partied on weekends, considered joining a gang, thought little about the future.

When he got to Michoacan, his mother flung her arms around his neck, and his father wiped tears from his eyes and hoisted the luggage out of his hands.

Adali hugged his brothers and sisters with a grin. They weren’t particularly close, but life without them had become lonely.

The family had been planning for his birthday. His grandfather had saved a pig to make carnitas, and that night Maria cooked pork chops and everyone reminisced until morning.

The next day they headed to a grandmother’s house to meet up with aunts, uncles and cousins. After an evening of drinking and eating, Adali borrowed his father’s truck to drive to the nearby market. On the road, the truck with the California license plate caught the attention of authorities, and Adali was taken into custody for drunk driving.

About 2 a.m. Adali’s parents arrived to post bail. Maria chastised her son, but couldn’t help herself and began excitedly discussing party preparations. She stopped to retrieve his things while Adali and his father headed out the door.

The crack of gunfire was startling. Bullets from a drug cartel waging war on police strafed the white walls of the station.

Guillermo Sr. hit the ground. Adali slid underneath a nearby truck, pressing his face in the dirt. He closed his eyes. He saw nothing, felt nothing, only heard the incessant rapping of gunfire. At some point, the shooting faded into darkness.

At the hospital, Adali slipped in and out of consciousness. His shaved head was cut and bruised. A tube ran through his chest. He had trouble forming words. The skin on his chin was detached from his jaw, exposing his gums.

Days went by. His brothers and sisters visited. Aunts and uncles too.

“Where’s Mom and Dad?” he asked.

“They’re filling out paperwork,” someone said. “You just worry about getting better.”

Adali lay in his hospital bed for weeks before he was told the truth. A handful of people had died that morning. His 37-year-old mother was one of them, shot multiple times in the back. His father, 40, took a bullet to the head. He lasted four days on life support.

His parents had already been buried. Two more casualties in the battle over Mexican drug territory. Five children instantly orphaned.

Adali remained in the hospital for nearly six months. He was 19, badly injured, did not have a high school diploma, no savings, no house and no real prospects.

In the past, he had been told he was self-absorbed and wouldn’t amount to much. He had the uneasy feeling it might be true.

“There’s a reason I didn’t die there,” he finally told himself. “Time to man up.”

**

Adali moved everyone back to the U.S and into a one-bedroom apartment in South El Monte, using money from selling his parents’ furniture as a deposit.

His brothers and sisters had fallen far behind in school. So Guillermo enrolled at an alternative high school and Yasmin at a continuation school for at-risk students. Adrian started classes at El Monte High, but discovered that decent grades were harder to come by than before.

Adali had lost his job at the shipping factory. He searched for employment but found his limited skills and lack of education worth little in a tough economy.

His aunt offered to take them in, but he was reluctant to burden her with five new roommates.

Bills loomed and the monthly food stamps didn’t stretch far. Adali felt overmatched.

**

The family was slow to share details about their past. It was easier just to tell people that Adali was the father, and leave it at that. The risk of being separated made them wary.

But word got around and the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, a nonprofit that works with disadvantaged youth, offered him a job in its recycling program. Eight bucks an hour. He was grateful.

Adali proved to be a solid employee, showing up on time, sweating for hours under the sun without complaint. Self-conscious about his disfigured chin, he would hold his hand in front of his face when he talked.

Eventually, he was recommended for a supervisor position with the El Monte Police Department’s community cleanup division and encouraged to enroll in a high school program to earn his diploma. It would mean going to school, continuing his work in recycling and holding down the supervisor job on weekends. Adali accepted without hesitation.

A local councilman and a police captain heard his story, and they arranged for the family to move into renovated transitional housing.

The brothers and sisters crammed inside the two-bedroom apartment and did their best to fill it with donated furniture. Before long, a routine took shape. Yasmin cooked after school and lugged baskets of dirty clothes to a neighborhood laundry. Adrian swept the stairs and sidewalk outside the building and watered the grass — chores that were rewarded with a rent discount. Guillermo took a full-time job with the recycling program. Everyone took turns baby-sitting Roxanna.

Together most weekends, the family is careful about who they socialize with and the choices they make, aware how quickly things could fall apart.

“They know it’s only us now,” Adali said of his siblings.

Because they live paycheck to paycheck, there is no money for computers or the Internet. At times they’ll splurge on chips and ice cream, but they mostly stick to beans, rice and meat. Last Christmas, they skipped gifts and instead bought dishes with the Wal-Mart gift cards someone from the conservation corps had slipped them. This year, Adali used his tax refund to buy a 12-year-old Crown Victoria to shuttle around the family.

Roxanna, a kindergartner, is the lone member who seems to bear few scars of the past. “Mommy and Daddy are in heaven,” she says. She is easy to appease with a bowl of arroz con leche and her favorite cartoons.

Yasmin mothers Roxanna, walking her to and from school, but aches to be a daughter again herself. Being parentless has left a void. “You just feel like you’re nothing,” she said.

Sometimes it’s hard to find comfort in a household of boys.

Adrian and Guillermo, soft-spoken like their brother, keep their emotions to themselves and reminisce about family fishing trips and lazy days spent together at the beach.

For Adali, there are demons. If I hadn’t gone out that January night, if I hadn’t been jailed, if my parents hadn’t come for me.... The lacerations marring his face don’t help the memory fade. Then again, he’s the one who had his parents’ names and the dates they died tattooed on his chest.

He tried talking to a therapist provided by the welfare office, but it felt awkward to confide in a stranger. Hard work, it seemed, was a better way to do his penance.

So he rises early, puts in a good eight hours and comes home exhausted. Going grocery shopping, paying rent, mundane chores — that’s what makes sense right now.

If his brothers and sisters can one day manage on their own, Adali will have done his parents right. Sometimes the greatest dream you can have, he’s learned, is one for someone else.

corina.knoll@latimes.com


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