Every parent knows what it's like to fail his or her child in some important way. We speak a hurtful word. We are absent at a critical moment, or we simply fail to hear what our children are telling us.
The three moms I met this week at the Homegirl Café know this feeling well. It was a few days before Mother's Day and we sat down together for lunch and talked about the many sorrows they've inflicted on their children.
"You make wrong choices, and your kids pay for them," Veronica Duran, a 39-year-old mother of two, told me.
The personal histories of these three moms include drug abuse, homelessness and stints in prison that caused them to miss many, many of their sons' and daughters' birthdays. All three have, at different times, lost custody of their children.
This month all three are up on a big downtown stage, acting out the story of their lives, a lyrical, gut-wrenching tale of love, violence, regret and redemption.
It's called "Café Vida," a play produced by L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater Company in collaboration with Homeboy Industries. Founded by the legendary Father Greg Boyle, Homeboy operates the Homegirl Café, a place of work and healing for former gang members looking to escape "the life."
Most of the cast members of "Café Vida" are Homegirl employees, including the lead, Lynette Alfaro. A loquacious and philosophically inclined woman of 30, Alfaro learned many of her lines while living in a homeless shelter.
"It's our story, the story of where we come from, the true essence of who we are," Alfaro told me.
On stage, Alfaro becomes Chabela, reading lines crafted by the playwright Lisa Loomer. Like the character she plays, Alfaro has lost the right to be a full-time mom. Any hope of permanent reunion with her daughter requires Chabela to break with her past.
"I'm trying to change!" Chabela cries out on stage. "For my daughter! Because it's better to have a [expletive] mother than no mother at all."
The fictional "Café Vida" gives Chabela a job, but requires that she take regular drug tests, attend anger management classes and sessions of "Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous" — all are real-life requirements at Homeboy Industries.
As Chabela, Alfaro recites a long monologue in a 12-step meeting that ends with her character relating a gruesome crime she committed against another woman. "And I will regret that my whole life," she says, breaking into tears.
Regret is an emotion that Alfaro, the actress, taps into with ease, summoning the memories of her own life growing up in Northeast L.A. After her mother abandoned her for drugs, Alfaro became a "tomboy" sister-in-arms to gang members, and joined them in assorted crimes, she told me. When she became a mom, she too neglected her child.
"I was running amok," Alfaro told me. "I was homeless, on drugs, gang-banging. The undercurrent was taking me…. But for all the pain I was in, I knew there had to be something beautiful for me. By the grace of God, I found it."
Go see "Café Vida" and you'll see Alfaro being the smart and angry woman she's always been. She was that person even when she was homeless, a few months back, sunburned the color of cherry wood, giving everyone the hard, angry stare of a street fighter.
"On stage, people get to feel who I am, and accept me," she said. "I'm the same, open person when I'm walking on the streets, but people don't see that."
The amazing, unforgettable thing about "Café Vida" is that it's a work of art about personal transformation, performed by people who are working to transform themselves.
Much of its power comes from the hard work of Loomer, a veteran writer for stage and screen who spent weeks interviewing Homegirl Café employees. In her capable hands, the street lexicon of L.A.'s barrios is transformed into a poetry of rage and yearning.
During rehearsals, Loomer got to know the actresses, most of whom had answered a call on the Homegirl bulletin board for auditions.
"Almost to the one, these girls had missing mothers," Loomer said. "And their biggest regret is not being able to be there for their children because of gang-banging and addiction."
The sense of loss, and of fighting to remake themselves, was palpable as I sat with the three "Café Vida" cast members at the lunch table. As we waited for our enchiladas, the conversation turned to their own, mostly absent mothers.
"It's funny how we all ended up tattooed and gang-banging and hardcore, and deep down all we wanted was a mom," Duran said.
The third mom at the table, Natalie Venegas, 33, said she couldn't judge her mother — especially when she thought about how she'd treated her own two kids.
"I chose to get loaded and spent most of my life in and out of prison," she said.
Venegas remembered being behind bars and getting a letter from her adolescent son. "I used to think you were mean," the letter said. "But now I think you're the greatest mom ever…. You're the biggest person in my world." It didn't make any sense to Venegas then. How could he believe in a mom who was an inmate?
But now she understands: They were words written by a young man who desperately needed to have a mother, even one behind bars.
"I want to be a better woman, so I can be a better mom," Venegas said. "I don't lie to them about who I was. I want them to know they have choices, that they have a voice, and that their voice matters."
Alfaro agreed. In the end, the best example you can give your children is to take control of your life and take responsibility for what you've done. You can't make excuses. You can't blame the man who abused you, the dealer who sold you the drugs, or the mother who wasn't there.
"When you take accountability for your actions, the sky is the limit," Alfaro said.
A parent must be present, strong, honest and responsible. The moms of the Homegirl Café shared these lessons with me over lunch. It's a wisdom born of suffering, regret and the realization of just how precious a gift motherhood is.