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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Cinema Verite

Filmmaker Longinos Aquino Wants to Document His Parents'Struggle to Raise Good Kids on Mean Streets.


What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.


Movie camera in hand, Longinos Aquino heads upstairs to a loft in a warehouse-like building at South-Central's Thomas Jefferson High. The 18-year-old filmmaker pops in a tape of his documentary, "The Art and Sport of Lowriders," which he presented at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The 10-minute flick took a year to complete and was a crowd-pleaser, one of many shown by students invited to the festival.

Aquino is put on the spot. Let's suppose he had to make a movie about his life in L.A.

"I'd call it 'Struggles for My Children,' " he says. It would be about his mother, Emma, 40, who grew up on a ranch in Oaxaca, Mexico, and immigrated here in 1980 with her husband, Longinos Sr. For more than 20 years Emma has cleaned houses--six days a week. "I'd show my mother working hard because through my eyes, my mother has worked hard cleaning people's homes and then coming to her own home to do the same, to cook for her family, to take care of her kids. That's my reality. Growing up in L.A. has taught me about hard work, about my mother."

Aquino, tall and soft-spoken, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, sweatshirt and jeans, talks about his community, his school, the streets of South-Central--all places, he says, that are surrounded by drugs and gangs, "but mostly poverty--one of the biggest problems for a lot of kids like myself."

Yet Aquino knows better than to be a joiner. His mom and dad, 48, a cook for California Pizza Kitchen, are "very strict" parents. They have taught him and his sisters, Erika, 15, and Brenda, 8, the difference between right and wrong, to decline gang affiliations, refuse narcotics and "resist any kind of temptation that will bring us down. That's why my parents work so hard, so that we can have it better than they have."

Aquino grew up watching how people who can afford a housekeeper live. "I didn't grow up living the glamorous life in L.A.," he says. "I don't know that kind of life, middle class or better. But I do know that I want it because my parents want me to have it." He hopes to leave South-Central someday. He'll take his family with him. "I want to be the first one to go to college in my family, let me put it that way." He plans to attend community college before transferring to a university.

To accomplish that, Aquino says "my mind-set is on education. No chicks," at least for now. He's seen too many pregnant girls at school and he can't fathom fatherhood at such a young age. He says growing up in a community "contaminated with poverty, drugs and gangs" contributes to kids having kids, to dropping out of school, to crime.

At 14, he had a knife pulled on him while walking to a neighborhood grocery store. The four thieves wanted Aquino's week-old Michael Jordan basketball jersey. "They pulled me over and told me, 'You have a nice shirt. Can I have it?' I said, 'No.' Then one of them took out a knife and said, 'Can I have it now?' What could I do? I said, 'OK. Here you go. I'd rather give up my jersey than get shanked."

Four years later, Aquino says "that fear of danger is still in me." Even at school, where he often stays until 6:30 p.m. working on his film projects, "I fear that one day I might walk out of here and get shot accidentally."

He has learned not to give up. He lost confidence in his first film. But with the second "I said, 'No, I have to finish. I want to show it to my parents.' " That film, his lowrider documentary, his parents got to see at a screening in Hollywood.

Afterward, they asked, " 'You did that?' I said, 'Yeah.' And my mom was proud. I think when she saw the film, she saw a way out for me--for us, my family. My mom is tired of cleaning other people's toilets. She inspires me a lot."

Maybe Aquino will make a movie about his mom. He'd film her having coffee and a pastry in the morning. He'd follow her to Santa Monica jobs, film her walking into swank houses, opening the bleach, shaking out Ajax, scrubbing sinks, folding underwear.

As the camera rolls, he would ask her, "Why are you doing this? Are you getting any health benefits? Retirement? Social Security? Is it worth it?"

Then he'd follow her back home, interview her as she does more work until she falls asleep at 9 p.m. watching Spanish-language soap operas.

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