Sheer will and determination took Juana Valdez and her daughters out of the cotton fields and poverty of El Salvador and guided them to the Pico-Union area, where they have owned and operated a popular restaurant for 13 years.
And a week after the middle daughter, Yesenia Rodriguez, and a customer were killed by a suspected gang member in the eatery at 8th and Alvarado, the family said the only way to move on was to reopen the Flor Blanca.
"People have asked me whether we're going to stay or leave," said Marlene Castellon, the eldest sister, who turned a $25-a-day waitress job into a family-owned enterprise five years after coming from El Salvador as an 18-year-old. "We're not going to give him nor any other gang members the satisfaction of leaving. We broke our backs too long working for what we've achieved."
Their restaurant is nestled in a crowded neighborhood where honest people work, dine and stroll amid a sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle network of gang bangers, extortionists, drug dealers, prostitutes and illegal-document peddlers.
The family has learned to take the good with the bad. But last Saturday, the delicate balance was disrupted.
During Rodriguez's afternoon shift, with Castellon nearby and Valdez in the kitchen, an alleged gang member shot her and Manuel DeJesus Rivas Carrillo .
Shortly after 4 p.m., a man walked into the crowded restaurant with a visible semiautomatic gun. Rodriguez told him to stay out and Carrillo told him not to play around. The gunman shot Carrillo three times and grabbed a waitress, who quickly slipped from his hands.
The gunman then grabbed Rodriguez and shot her under the chin. As the shooter and others scrambled out of the restaurant, Valdez cradled Rodriguez.
"I sucked the blood out of her mouth with my mouth. When I did this, she seemed to breathe. I said, 'You're alive mi hija!' "
Rodriguez died on her way to the hospital.
The gunman and three other men, all believed to be in their 20s, fled in a gray 1980s Datsun or Nissan. The dozens of patrons and other people who were outside have not volunteered information, police said.
Police are looking for a suspected gang "rent collector" -- someone who collects a portion of proceeds from illicit activities -- who walked into the restaurant before the shooting; he may have been the original target, police said.
"It's frustrating. Outside of the family and the people working there, nobody has come forward," said Det. Jeff Brewer of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The criminal underclass in the area in many ways is more insidious, more woven into this densely packed community's fabric of life than in neighborhoods with higher homicide rates, police said.
"There is a culture of gangs here that is not only involved in homicides, but in extortion, narcotic sales, you name it," said LAPD Capt. Charlie Beck, the Rampart station's commanding officer. "It's what many people think about when they think of classic Mafia, organized crime controlling a community."
The Pico-Union area comprises about seven square miles, with about 375,000 people, police said. Three and four families live in some apartments, police, residents and neighborhood activists said. Many are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and other Central American countries.
In this sometimes tumultuous, yet vibrant, neighborhood, the Valdez family planted roots in a new country.
In 1985, single mother Valdez left the small village of San Carlos Lempa for Los Angeles. She took Castellon to work alongside her. Rodriguez continued to pick cotton in El Salvador against her mother's wishes. Yanira Valdez, the youngest daughter, and Rene Valdez, the only son, also stayed behind with their grandmother.
Valdez borrowed money in 1988 to bring Rodriguez because she feared the 14-year-old would be taken by guerrillas waging war with the government. After a year in the United States, Rodriquez quit school and began working to help the family save money to bring the two left behind. Yanira and Rene came in 1991.
In 1991, Castellon bought the Flor Blanca for $15,000, which she had saved mostly from her tips. Her mother cooked and ran the kitchen. Castellon ran the business; Rodriguez and sister Yanira waited tables.
At the Flor Blanca, as at other businesses, gang members are part of the clientele because they are part of the neighborhood. The family has stood up to them and weathered threats, they said.
"They say it's their neighborhood. I tell them, from this door inside, it's my barrio," Castellon said.
On Friday, police and family members gathered at the restaurant to announce a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the killings of Rodriguez and Carrillo.
Carrillo was a construction worker who had befriended the family after years of eating there with cousins and friends. The 24-year-old moved to Los Angeles from San Jose Las Isletas in El Salvador three years ago, said Oscar Mauricio Carrillo, 25, his cousin.