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Reeling From a Mother's Death

Karla Becerra, just 18, vowed to raise her six younger siblings after their mom was killed in an accident. But reality is more complicated.

October 15, 2005|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

With her mother dead and her six younger siblings suddenly left without parents, 18-year-old Karla Becerra's first instinct was to cry and grasp for answers. Her second instinct was to steel herself, get to her brothers and sisters in South Los Angeles and take over.

Karla raced back from Santa Barbara, hugged her brother Juan Carlos and made a vow.

"You know what? You're going to be OK," she recalled saying. "I know I'm 18, but I'm here for you guys. I've been taking care of you since we were in Mexico. I can do it again. And I can do it millions of times, and you guys are going to help me."

"She wants us to all be together," 17-year-old Juan Carlos said in front of his uncle Ricardo's home, near where a wreath of pink roses stood. "Because that's what our mom wanted: for us to all be together."

But the aftermath of this family tragedy would be more complicated.

To Karla, it was clear: She would step up to lead the shattered family, keeping all the siblings together.

But some in the extended family were not so sure. Could this kid, a new single mother who had experienced so much trouble in her own past, really become a mother to seven overnight? Wouldn't it be better for all if the children were divided up among family?

The answer came slowly and painfully over the last week, after much debate and some tears.

*

Rosa Carrera, 34, and her husband, Daniel Dorantes, 35, were killed last week when a parolee just out of prison allegedly plowed a stolen tow truck into people waiting for a bus in Vernon. Another woman, Juana Rios, 43, also died.

The couple left behind seven children, six of whom Rosa had from a previous, turbulent marriage in Mexico. The parents died just days before they were to move to Bakersfield to start a new life in a larger apartment in a more tranquil neighborhood.

In many ways, Karla's proclamation was like a prodigal child returning to try to wrap her arms around a situation and make things right. In the cramped living room of the home of one of her uncles containing a table with votive candles and walls decorated with crucifixes and a painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the teenager recalled memories of their mother that were not pleasant -- involving many tears, recriminations and disappointments.

Rosa Carrera wanted her daughter to study, to reach higher than she had been able to in her native Irapuato, Mexico. Instead, Karla said, she skipped classes, hung out with gang members and ran away. She left to start anew with an aunt in Santa Barbara, then got pregnant in her senior year, putting her graduation in peril.

"I was the most rebellious of the family," Karla said. "I remember seeing my mother sad and crying. She said, 'I feel sad because I want you to do well. I brought you here so you could succeed, and you're not giving me that joy.' "

But as much as the self-styled rebel wanted to carry her siblings on her shoulders, the reality of the situation was sinking in.

A day later, on Wednesday, as she picked through belongings in her mother's and stepfather's home on East 46th Street, the street-tough teenager looked shell-shocked and confused. Her young face looked hard.

"I can't do it," she said, her eyes diverted. "They told me that can't be."

As family and friends mourn the couple, everyone seems to agree on what Rosa Carrera wanted for her children: an education, and for them to keep together, even for the most routine family rituals. Exactly how it's going to be done is the subject of many talks that will have to take place amid a consuming grief.

As neighbors and co-workers at the seafood packing company that Rosa toiled long hours for sat in the hushed waiting room of the Biby and Belyea Mortuary in South Gate, they recalled her determination that her children stay close in a tough neighborhood.

"She didn't even want them to eat apart," neighbor Elena Fernandez said. "She was a real woman. She was a real mother. That lady struggled very hard for her children and her family."

Rosa Carrera had left Mexico more than nine years ago. She worked more than two jobs in the garment industry, as a waitress and cleaning houses for two years before she was able to bring her first three children to the United States.

With Daniel Dorantes, whom she met about a year after coming to the U.S., she had a boy, Daniel. Karla had learned to care for her brothers and sisters in Mexico -- dressing, feeding and bathing them -- while under the guardianship of her grandmother.

She did well in school when she applied herself, but she was increasingly falling under the sway of gang members and troubled girls. At times, Rosa would have to leave her job to tend to her daughter after another report from school.

When two of their other daughters started to have some of the same problems, Rosa quickly got them into a youth camp, though she cried about it.

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