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When a Mother and Daughter Can't Escape Broken Circle

March 13, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Last week I met a San Fernando Valley woman who is sending her teen-age daughter back to El Salvador in hopes the girl will have a better life.

Carmen is a 34-year-old who supports her disabled husband and four children with the $1,300 or so a month she earns cleaning houses six days a week.

She told me her story in precise, carefully chosen words as we sat in the lovely Los Feliz home of one of her employers. Carmen's home is a big apartment building in an unlovely part of the Valley, one of many such buildings crammed together near the turf of two rival street gangs.

Her story is one of bewilderment, frustration and regret, of the woes faced by every parent of a rebellious teen-ager, complicated by a convoluted family background.

Carmen did not come to California to escape a war, but to liberate herself from a family who suffocated her, who shamed her for bearing a child out of wedlock at 18, who made her feel as though she had no future.

She was also terrified of running into the man who fathered her child during an act, she says, that was not consensual. She prefers not to elaborate.

"It was the desire to change everything," she says.

Carmen believed the journey was too dangerous for a 7-month-old, so she left baby Maria at home until she could send for her. That would not happen until the child was 4, until Carmen's sister threatened to forge adoption papers to make Maria her own. By that time, Carmen was married with two more children.

She returned to San Salvador, gathered up the child to whom she was now a stranger, took a bus to Mexico and paid a coyote $600 to lead her in a hair-raising daylight sprint across the U.S.-Mexico border.

"It was," says Carmen, "a desperate act."


Lest you find yourself thinking bad thoughts about illegal immigrants, let me just say this story is not about immigration. It is about adolescence and rebellion in the age of the spray-paint can, the accessible gun, the crack pipe and the drive-by. This is a story about a mother who is trying to keep her increasingly troubled teen-ager alive.

And anyway, Carmen became a legal resident in 1991.

The trouble with her daughter began about the same time, when Maria, whose name I have changed for this story, started junior high.

"I should have been aware of it," Carmen says, "but I closed my eyes. There were little signs. She stopped wearing dresses. She said she liked to climb trees. But if a girl is going to be in a gang, she cannot wear a dress if they have to do something in a hurry."

Maria was caught stealing candy from a teacher and confessed later that her "crew" had put her up to it to see if she had "enough guts," Carmen says.

Maria skipped school and vandalized her apartment building with graffiti--first in her own closet, then on the outside walls.

"I forced her to clean the building with Comet and a sponge," Carmen says. "I told her, 'I did not bring you to the United States to do this. I brought you to become someone, not to become trash.' "

Maria told her mother that she did not belong to a gang, but that she was a "trainee." She said she did what the gang members told her so that she wouldn't get "jumped in." The girl has brought home stories of bloodied students, beat up in school hallways, set upon by members of rival crews. Carmen is not sure what this means. All she knows is that her daughter seems both attracted to and terrified by the group.

I asked Carmen if Maria would consider telling me about her involvement with the crew. But when her mother asked, Maria was appalled.

"She said, 'Mami, you don't know who you are dealing with. They kill if they are betrayed.' "

Carmen discovered in Maria's diary that her daughter had been hanging out at Hansen Dam with a much older boy. She believed that she had only one alternative, one that painfully echoed her decision to leave her home and her child so many years ago: Carmen must send Maria back home, to live with another sister, in a place without gangs, in a place, she hopes, where fear and temptation will not overwhelm her daughter.

But the girl bitterly resisted.

In December, Maria was caught shoplifting a $15 necklace at a Sherman Oaks department store. The store sent Carmen a letter in which it demanded payment of a $275 fine, allowable under a state law to help stores pass on the cost of security to shoplifters or their guardians.

The night that Maria had called her mother to deliver the bad news about getting caught, Carmen could not talk. She put the phone down, rushed to the bathroom and threw up.


A few weeks ago, Carmen fell apart. Maria's problems had become too much for her.

"I said, 'I have done so much trying to help you. I have treated you so different from the other ones, because I always thought I owed you something--my time, my love, I don't even know what it was. And everything I have done is wrong.'

"And she looked at me and said, 'OK, I am going. I am not going to fight anymore. Do whatever you want. I am going home.' "

When school ends, Carmen says, Maria will be on a plane the next day--bound for home, bound for safety, bound for what her mother only prays will be a brighter future.

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