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PROMISE AND PERIL IN SOUTH L.A.

Sending them away -- for their own good

In a gang-plagued immigrant neighborhood, four children have in effect been banished by their family to another city -- not because of what they've done, but because of what they've seen.

October 18, 2009|Scott Gold

On a recent Sunday morning, Brian Barajas, a mop-topped 8-year-old, stashed his bike against the wall and raced inside a tired little house, ducking under two withered fruit trees. The house was so close to the tracks you could hear the engineer call out the stops when the train went by. A police helicopter was overhead, just down the street, as sure a sign as any that the day was underway.

This is a forgotten corner of South Los Angeles, an immigrant neighborhood hemmed in by warehouses and gangs. There are no Scout troops here, no T-ball teams. So on Sundays, Brian's aunt, Adela, gathers a bunch of kids in the house where four generations of her family have lived, just to talk.

She is equal parts counselor, preacher and interrogator. On this morning, she wanted to talk about fear.

"What are you afraid of?" she asked, pacing under a painting of "The Last Supper." Ten kids stared back with varying degrees of indifference. After some coaxing, they began to reveal their anxieties: Fitting in. Money. Math.

Adela turned to her nephew.

"Brian?"

He shrugged.

"What are you afraid of?"

He smiled, all dimples.

"Getting killed."

Sporadic visits

There are four Barajas siblings: Brian, friendly and puckish; Michael, 15, bright and finicky; Denise, 17, pretty and shy; Joey, 19, stoic and thoughtful. They grew up in this house too -- playing football out front, walking to the swap meet to buy water pistols. But it is not their house anymore; they come here now only to visit, and only sporadically.

They have been exiled, in effect, from South L.A. -- banished by their family not because of what they've done, but because of what they've seen.

Their mother, Laura Sanchez, was just 17 when she married into the family. In 1990, she married Adela's brother, Chino, and moved into the Barajas' homestead on Long Beach Avenue.

She'd grown up right around the corner, off East Vernon, but she was not like them. The Barajas clan was big, boisterous, tight-knit. Laura was an only child. She never knew her father. She had just a handful of people in her family; most were alcoholics and addicts.

Laura dived into her new life and assumed a matriarchal role. She became the family event planner -- Christmas, birthdays. She learned the Barajas family recipes, mastering carne asada, which she made for everyone on weekends.

"I considered her a sister," said Adela, 44. "She just had some sort of patience the rest of us didn't have, with babies, with cooking, with family. Any time of day, if you were hungry, she'd have something ready to eat. If you were cold, she had coffee ready. Anything."

The troubles started in 1998, on Thanksgiving. Somehow, they'd wedged three tables into the tiny front room of the Long Beach Avenue house. It was 6 p.m. They were all stuffed.

A couple of the neighborhood characters were out front -- harmless drunks. Laura was in the kitchen preparing them a plate of leftovers.

"That's when we heard the shots," Adela said.

Blocks away, off Compton Avenue, Laura's mother, Irene Cruz, was in front of her house, smoking a cigarette. Gang members got into a dispute, and a stray bullet struck her in the head.

For months, Irene held on. On her birthday, Laura even hired a mariachi band to come into her recovery room. But her organs began to fail. Irene died the next winter.

Laura, Adela said, felt terribly alone.

"She kept saying: 'I don't have any family,' " Adela said. "We told her: 'We are your family. We are your backbone.' "

A way of life

The Barajas house rests on a seam between a number of street gangs with a history of enmity: the Pueblo Bishops to the south; 38th Street to the north; Barrio Mojados and Playboys to the west. As Adela says: "When you want to shoot, you do it here."

It is a way of life; indeed, when Adela was student body president at Jefferson High in the early 1980s, she also was affiliated with the 38th Street gang -- "a gang-hanger, not a gang-banger," a real distinction around here.

In the spring of 2007, according to law enforcement officials, a gang called Athens Park got into a dispute with the Pueblo Bishops, the dominant gang in a public housing development just south of the Barajas' house.

During a gunfight, a Pueblo was shot in the hand, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Chuck Fredgren. Driving three cars, Pueblos went to Athens, near Gardena, seeking revenge -- but the gangsters couldn't find anyone from the Athens Park gang. Instead, the Pueblos decided to make some trouble in the territory of their more traditional rival, 38th Street. They headed north on Long Beach Avenue.

A little after 10 p.m., Laura and Joey, then 17, were headed home from her daughter Denise's quinceanera rehearsal. Laura turned her blue van left onto Long Beach Avenue, passing in front of the three-car caravan. The Pueblos mistakenly took Joey for a gang member and closed in, Fredgren said.

"They have zero idea who they are shooting at," he said.

Laura looked in the rearview mirror.

"I think they're following us," she told Joey.

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