Tattoos on the chest of Adali Gutierrez memorialize his parents, who were… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
In the black before dawn, Adali Gutierrez has no trouble waking. He's used to rising before the alarm has a chance to buzz.
It's Friday, which means he'll be supervising a crew sentenced to community cleanup.
He doesn't mind the three-day weekend shift if it means $10 an hour —- better pay than at his other job emptying recycling bins.
Photos: Taking on a leading role
Yasmin is up too, taking advantage of a rare empty bathroom. She's 17 and doesn't like to be hurried when straightening her hair before school. In her bed, 5-year-old Roxanna will wake as soon as she notices her big sister has left her side. Adrian, 15, snores in the other bed crammed against the wall. In the living room, 18-year-old Guillermo stirs on the couch.
Adali moved them into this bare-walled, two-bedroom apartment six months ago. El Monte's not a rich town, and they're living on its poorest side. At $800 a month, the rent is cheap.
Accustomed to dressing in the dark, Adali slips into navy pants and a blue T-shirt that conceals the ink splayed across his chest: his parents' names. A framed picture of them sits on his dresser. He tugs on socks and a pair of black work boots and heads to the bathroom.
No matter how many times he's stood in front of a mirror, the man who stares back is invariably a stranger. The chin pocked with shrapnel scars; the sagging lower lip; the flap of skin that hangs beneath his mouth — they are lesions that warp and age what should be a 20-year-old face.
He's hopeful that one day a surgeon will offer to smooth his skin for free. Remove the markings of that early morning gunfire.
For now, the past remains a story etched into Adali's face, the answer to how he became the patriarch of a family of five.
Adali remembers a staccato of gunfire and an occasional blast from a hand grenade but not the bullet that pierced his right lung. He can't recall what it felt like when metal ripped through his chest or punctured his face.
He only knows that when he opened his eyes, he was in a hospital hooked to an oxygen tank.
It was the end of January 2010, and Adali was visiting Lazaro Cardenas, a small port city in the Mexican state of Michoacan to celebrate his 19th birthday with his parents and four siblings.
Once they had all lived in El Monte, but his father was deported for selling meth. The family had been struggling and Guillermo Sr., a welder by trade, was desperate for money.
Adali's mother, Maria, packed up their kids, all born in America, and moved back to Mexico to keep the family together.
But Adali stayed behind and moved in with an aunt. He dropped out of school, took a part-time job loading containers for a shipping company and sent money to his parents. He partied on weekends, considered joining a gang, thought little about the future.
When he got to Michoacan, his mother flung her arms around his neck, and his father wiped tears from his eyes and hoisted the luggage out of his hands.
Adali hugged his brothers and sisters with a grin. They weren't particularly close, but life without them had become lonely.
The family had been planning for his birthday. His grandfather had saved a pig to make carnitas, and that night Maria cooked pork chops and everyone reminisced until morning.
The next day they headed to a grandmother's house to meet up with aunts, uncles and cousins. After an evening of drinking and eating, Adali borrowed his father's truck to drive to the nearby market. On the road, the truck with the California license plate caught the attention of authorities, and Adali was taken into custody for drunk driving.
About 2 a.m. Adali's parents arrived to post bail. Maria chastised her son, but couldn't help herself and began excitedly discussing party preparations. She stopped to retrieve his things while Adali and his father headed out the door.
The crack of gunfire was startling. Bullets from a drug cartel waging war on police strafed the white walls of the station.
Guillermo Sr. hit the ground. Adali slid underneath a nearby truck, pressing his face in the dirt. He closed his eyes. He saw nothing, felt nothing, only heard the incessant rapping of gunfire. At some point, the shooting faded into darkness.
At the hospital, Adali slipped in and out of consciousness. His shaved head was cut and bruised. A tube ran through his chest. He had trouble forming words. The skin on his chin was detached from his jaw, exposing his gums.
Days went by. His brothers and sisters visited. Aunts and uncles too.
"Where's Mom and Dad?" he asked.
"They're filling out paperwork," someone said. "You just worry about getting better."
Adali lay in his hospital bed for weeks before he was told the truth. A handful of people had died that morning. His 37-year-old mother was one of them, shot multiple times in the back. His father, 40, took a bullet to the head. He lasted four days on life support.