Guadalupe and Estella Rodriguez will be leaving their American dream behind when they board a plane to Mexico this morning--with their young son in a coffin.
Juanito, 8, was caught in the cross-fire of a shootout last weekend at a Paramount restaurant that also killed two combatants, both of whom had criminal records.
Typical of such crimes, there was a dearth of witnesses willing to help police. By the time officers arrived, the restaurant was empty except for the bodies and a few employees.
Guadalupe Rodriguez had left as well, but not to avoid authorities. He was rushing his only son to the hospital.
When the gunfire began, they dove under a table. When the firing stopped, the boy told his father: "They hit me. My chest hurts." The elder Rodriguez recalls replying: " 'No, they didn't shoot you. You're just afraid.' But then we took off his shirt, and there was blood."
The boy died several hours later.
It was only three months ago that Rodriguez had finally been able to bring his son, wife and daughter from Mexico to join him here, the trip financed by his job as a factory worker for the last two years.
Now he is returning with his wife and daughter--and the tiny coffin--for the funeral in Jalisco, their home state in Mexico.
"We are going to back . . . to stay," Rodriguez said.
Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators are still piecing together what happened about 2:30 p.m. Saturday at La Chiquita Restaurant. When deputies arrived, about 15 patrons had fled the Paramount Boulevard restaurant and two men were lying dead in opposite corners of the dining room, guns at their sides.
"We don't know if these two guys were shooting at each other or someone else, but there is evidence of a third gunman," Sheriff's Sgt. John Laurie said.
One report had as many as four assailants walking into the restaurant and firing on the two men who were found dead. That account has been hard to substantiate, however, in part because the three restaurant employees said they saw nothing.
A woman driving past was also hit, but she suffered only a minor wound to the hand.
The two dead men--Salvador Sanchez, 22, and Felix Corrales Arredondo, 34--had had run-ins with police but only misdemeanor convictions, Laurie said. Arredondo was convicted in April of carrying a concealed weapon. Sanchez, whose body bore several gang tattoos and who used eight aliases, was convicted in 1989 of lying to a Compton police officer, Laurie said.
Guadalupe Rodriguez said he does not care if the killers are found. All he can think of are the funeral arrangements and today's plane trip to Guadalajara.
"I just want to take my family away," he said.
Rodriguez arrived in Paramount in 1991. He stayed with cousins so he could save money from his job making metal castings in Commerce, dreaming of the day when his wife and children could join him.
His wife would send him snapshots of the children from the small town of Condiro.
In June, Estella Rodriguez made her way north with their son and 4-year-old daughter, Patricia. Two older daughters stayed behind with relatives in Condiro.
The newcomers crammed into the cousin's apartment. This month, Juanito entered the second grade at Los Cerritos Elementary School.
"He said he liked school very much. He already had little friends here," his father recalled this week, drying his eyes on a paper napkin. "I wanted to help him with his homework, and we were trying to do that every night."
Rodriguez knew about the violence that plagues the area, but said he believed that if "you care about your kids" they'll be safe.
He recalled that he had planned to go to lunch with just his brother and two friends last Saturday, but that young Juanito begged to go along. Rodriguez said no, but the boy pleaded until he relented. The restaurant was just a five-minute drive from their apartment.
They ate seafood, a specialty of the place. As they were preparing to pay their bill and leave, the shooting began in the dining room.
Moments later, Rodriguez and his brother were carrying Juanito to their car. Doctors at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood at first believed that he would live, but the bullet apparently nicked his heart.
"I asked him if he could recognize me, and he said yes," Rodriguez said. "He moved his head. I told him not to be afraid. He said he was thirsty, and I said I'll bring you some water. Then he died."
The family's plane leaves for Mexico at 9:45 a.m.
Rodriguez said he plans to become a corn farmer.
"We will be poor there, but we will be safer," he said.