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The tragic intersection of 2 families

Taggers in a turf war and the woman who died trying to stop them shared decades-old roots in Pico Rivera.

August 27, 2007|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

For years the 40-foot-long cinder-block wall at the entrance to Durfee Village in Pico Rivera stood largely untouched.

Then the graffiti began appearing. PV. BXA. The city painted over it, but the graffiti reappeared. The city planted ivy. It died; the graffiti returned.

Neighbors thought the scrawling was the work of taggers.

But the graffiti was a sign of the ongoing war between Pico Viejo, a street gang that dates to the town's inception, and a longtime rival it was trying to suppress, Brown Authority.

On Aug. 10, Maria Elena Hicks, a 57-year-old medical secretary and grandmother who had lived in Durfee Village all her life, found herself at the center of the feud when she spotted a youth spray-painting the wall and attempted to stop him.

Hicks honked and flashed her car lights at the teenager. Suddenly, another car pulled up behind her, a gunman emerged and fired into her rear window, hitting her in the head. She died three days later.

Since her death, another story has emerged in the tight-knit community. It is the tale of two longtime neighborhood families: the Quinteros -- Hicks' family -- and the Tafollas.

Both had lived in Pico Rivera for decades. Their children played sports there and attended local schools together.

But while the Quintero family worked to better their community, the Tafollas' neighbors campaigned to force them out.

The Quinteros pushed their children to go to college. Some Tafolla kids went to Juvenile Hall.

Of the four youths charged in the murder of Hicks, two are Tafollas: Jennifer Tafolla, 19, and the accused shooter, Angel Rojas, 16, who will be tried as an adult.

The other defendants -- Cesar Lopez 19, and Richard Rolon, 21 -- are members of Brown Authority, a gang allegedly formed by Tafollas, whose house was the gang's hangout.

Although the two families lived six blocks apart, they were only vaguely aware of each other.

Then "their paths crossed in such a tragic way," said Gregory Salcido, a city councilman and high school history teacher raised in Pico Rivera. "It makes you want to holler."

Vigilant residents

Ray and Mary Tafolla arrived with their family from Compton in 1965, moving into a four-bedroom stucco house on Greenglade Avenue. Their oldest son, Tony, was 18 at the time.

"Where we lived there was all these shootings," said Tony Tafolla, now 59, "then the Watts riots happened."

Ray was a hardworking man, a radiator refurbisher. Mary was a housewife. They were typical of the young families moving into the new subdivisions of north Pico Rivera.

The family settled in as the rural county outpost was just beginning to take shape. In 1958, unincorporated Pico merged with nearby Rivera. East Los Angeles was a main tributary at the time, but people now mostly migrate to Pico Rivera from the heavily immigrant southeast cities of Huntington Park, Maywood, Bell and South Gate.

Though Pico Rivera was a predominantly Latino suburb, sweet sixteen parties were as common as quinceaneras and football was more popular than soccer. Most families spoke English and owned their own homes.

When the city began publishing a small part of its newsletter in Spanish in 2005, several Mexican American families complained.

Although the city has 12 gangs, it is generally free of graffiti, partly because of the vigilance of residents. The city pursued taggers, increasing penalties and recouping thousands of dollars from their families.

In this city, the Tafolla family grew. The Little League field at Streamland Park became their social center. Tony was a coach for 14 years; other family members also participated.

Although he admits to spending little time at El Rancho High School before dropping out, Tony said he vaguely remembers a pretty, cheerful girl everyone in school called Quita, as Maria Hicks was known to friends and family. But Tafolla never spoke to her.

In the 1970s, Tafolla's younger brother, Joe, and a few others tried to start a small gang, Pico Flats, according to neighbors. They had run-ins -- including one or two shootings -- with Pico Viejo.

Joe was given the choice of joining the Army or going to jail; he chose the Army, Tony said.

His troubles, however, were a sign of things to come.

Slowly, Tafolla's parents seemed to lose control of the family. Their house got more crowded. Generations of Tafollas lived with them, including their son, Tony, whose daughter, Mary, got into drugs and disappeared, leaving him and his wife to raise two grandsons, Angel and Bubba.

It's unclear when, but Tony said Brown Authority was formed at the family's Greenglade house. He said he didn't know much about their activities and there wasn't much he could do about it anyway.

"You can't tell them to get out," he said. "It's all family." Besides, "it wasn't my house. I was just there. It's my mom and dad's."

Neighbors remember gang members congregating outside. There were loud late-night parties. And the house and driveway were painted with graffiti.

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