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PERSPECTIVE

Changed -- and now gone

After gangbanging, Alex Renteria had turned his life around

April 08, 2013|Kate Linthicum
  • Cecilia Renteria, right, looks into her father's coffin with a friend on Friday.
Cecilia Renteria, right, looks into her father's coffin with a friend… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

Terrible things are documented in the newspaper every day.

A child kidnapped and assaulted. A family drowned. A 9-year-old girl forced to hike through the desert for help after surviving a car crash that killed her father.

We read those stories and we feel for the victims, but for the most part they're just names in another, unimaginable universe we're just glad isn't our own.

And then one day, you recognize a name.

Alex Renteria. That was the man who was driving with his daughter near Acton last week when their car veered off the road and rolled several times before landing at the bottom of a canyon. Cecilia, 9, walked for help, but he had died by the time rescuers arrived.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 09, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Alex Renteria: An article in the April 8 Section A about the funeral of Homeboy Industries worker Alex Renteria misspelled the name of his 9-year-old daughter. Her name is Celia Renteria, not Cecilia.

Like a lot of people who spend time at Los Angeles City Hall , I knew Alex. He worked at Homeboy Diner, the small cafe on the second floor run by Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit group that provides counseling, tattoo removal and job training for former gang members.

When the diner opened two years ago, I wrote about Alex and his story of transformation. He had been in prison and had battled addiction. Through Homeboy, he found work and the 12-step program.

During our interview, as he stacked bags of chips at the diner, he told me: "I'm just happy to be here."

If this had been any other news story, that would have been the last time I saw him. This is one of the odd qualities of the journalism profession: It's your job to ask probing questions of strangers you may never speak to again.

But I worked at City Hall, so I encountered Alex every time I went to Homeboy for a salad or a cup of coffee. He was a real charmer, always quick to tell me how nice I looked, and never failing to ask about my day. When I was going through a hard breakup, he made me hot chocolate and offered advice.

Alex had expressive eyebrows that arched comically when he told jokes. He loved old-school R&B and freestyle music and was proud of his weekend job as a mover. He adored his daughter, Cecilia, and was saving up to take her to Disneyland for her birthday next month.

Alex, 35, a single dad, often brought Cecilia with him to work. She got to know a number of city workers who would sometimes take her on tours of their offices. I shouldn't have been surprised by the number of City Hall employees who made the trek to San Fernando for Alex's funeral Friday. Or by the proclamation sent by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Capri Maddox, the president of the Board of Public Works, gave Cecilia a commemorative egg from the White House Easter Egg Roll a few weeks ago.

Of course, none of us knew Alex as well as his colleagues at Homeboy did. Gabriel Morales carpooled with him from the San Fernando Valley. When they were feeling ambitious, they made the commute on bicycle.

At the cafe, the pair competed over who made the best lattes, and Alex reminded Morales to stay focused on his goal of becoming a firefighter. "He told me not to be lazy," Morales said.

Nelson Moran bonded with Alex when they were both new at Homeboy, assigned to maintenance work at the organization's Chinatown headquarters. Moran said they volunteered for the lowliest assignment: cleaning the bathrooms. That won them notice from higher-ups, who hired both men to coveted positions at the new diner at City Hall.

"Aren't you glad you scrubbed those toilets?" Myrna Tellez teased Moran after the funeral Friday.

Tellez, who has been a mentor at Homeboy for two decades, is the general manager of the diner. Her workers view her as family, and the feeling is mutual. "When I got them they were like toddlers," she said of her City Hall staff. "Now they're all grown up."

There are difficult questions about the accident that killed Alex. We know the crash happened after midnight, as he was on his way back from a friend's party. The toxicology report hasn't been released, but the California Highway Patrol said alcohol may have been a factor.

We don't know whether that's true. But we do know that recovery from addiction is rarely a linear process. "That's why they say, 'Take it one step at a time,' " Father Gregory Boyle said.

Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founded Homeboy in 1988. He seemed very comfortable presiding over the funeral service. I asked him about that, and he said he has attended more funerals than he can count, including nearly 200 for people killed in gang-related homicides.

Alex, who had tattoos up and down his arms, escaped that fate. He did the hard work to make a better life for himself and his daughter, who shook with tears throughout the service. An older cousin, who plans to raise Cecilia, kept her arm squeezed tightly around the girl's narrow shoulders.

Sitting behind them, I thought about all those other tragedies I've read about -- and sometimes written about. Each of them must leave behind these waves of hurt, rippling for years through universes we're relieved aren't our own. But at the funeral there was more than just hurt. After Alex's friends and family members prayed together and cried over his casket, they went outside to talk. It was a bright afternoon. The Homeboy Diner crew shared jokes about Alex's love of energy drinks and a funny cartoon he once drew. Laughter rang out.

--

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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