A Question of Hope

One family's struggle to escape the devastation of gang culture

In separate conversations, both women volunteer the same wound as the scar that separates them, even today.

"I wet the bed until I was 13," says Yvonne. "She would beat my ass and I will never forget it. She'd tell me, 'You must like getting your ass kicked.'

"She'd tell me this as she was whacking me with a hanger."

Adela dotes on Boy.
Adela dotes on Boy.
Top: Yvonne Montiel and son Ray-Ray

Middle: Sara Ayala

Bottom: Adela McCormick
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: Yvonne Montiel and son Ray-Ray
Middle: Sara Ayala
Bottom: Adela McCormick

Adela remembers with sadness that she was so frustrated and angry with the bedwetting that she sent her teenage daughter outside with nothing on except a towel fashioned into an oversize Pampers.

Yvonne's memory is more vivid.

"She held matches to my butt over the bedwetting," says Yvonne.

When the teenager told her grandmother what was going on, the older woman made Adela take the girl to the doctor, where a bladder problem was discovered and medication prescribed.

In time, the physical confrontations between mother and daughter became more serious. Yvonne was knocked to the ground, unconscious, when her mother hit her in the head with a grocery sack that contained a six-pack of beer. When Yvonne recovered, she attacked her mother and threw her to the ground, stomping her boot into Adela's chest with such force that Adela's breath exploded from her mouth.

But it would be years before Yvonne was big enough to back her mother off.

When Yvonne was caught shoplifting a pack of cigarettes, she was afraid to give her mom's name and address; instead, she gave the cops her grandmother's phone number in Tempe. Rather than face her mother's temper, Yvonne ran away to Texas to live with her biological father.

As a junior high student in Arlington, Yvonne attended classes for the first time in an overwhelmingly white school, an experience she found intimidating initially.

"I was used to classes with all blacks and Chicanos," says Yvonne. "But I liked school there. I played clarinet in the school band."

At home in Texas, Yvonne's father behaved like Santa Claus, buying his daughter whatever she needed. Clothes, school supplies -- you name it, she had it. But the bliss of money and attention did not last long. His largess with Yvonne created constant friction with his live-in girlfriend and her daughter. After four years of tension, Yvonne's father was caving in to his girlfriend and not supporting his daughter in the domestic squabbles. He'd gone from being a "mama's boy" to henpecked. Yvonne returned to Arizona.

Sara, seven years younger than Yvonne, was still no more than a tag-along when her sister came home. But she and her brother picked up as if she'd just returned from a four-year errand to the corner convenience store.

"Boy was real happy to see me," recalls Yvonne. "When I got back, all he said was, 'What's up, punk? Why'd you leave?'

"Every Friday, we were right there under the mulberry trees with a can of pop and a bag of Salditos [dried, salty prunes]."

What innocent time remained slipped away without notice. When Yvonne returned, Adela had divorced Joseph Sr. and, claims Yvonne, taken to drink.

While Sara was too young to make much in the way of choices because of Adela's strict oversight, both Boy and Yvonne began to make decisions on their own.

"Boy hung around with gang guys," says Adela. "He had cousins in Garfield Gang. But he, himself, never joined. Gangbangers would ask him who he claimed and he would tell them, 'I claim myself.'"

Girls showed an interest in Boy, in part because he was a natty dresser who insisted on top-of-the-line shoes, a predilection his mother encouraged by buying his Nikes.

"He was spoiled because he was the only boy," says Yvonne.

But there was only so much Adela could provide. Boy found his own source of cash.

Surrounded by some of the toughest gangsters in the Valley, Adela insisted on an old-fashioned code of conduct. She wouldn't let hoodlums into her house, even though her kids knew them.

"I made guys come to my house and ask permission to take Yvonne out," says Adela. "I told her, 'If they are not man enough to ask me, they couldn't take her out.'"

Yvonne didn't have a lot of dates under this system, and when she did, she dragged Sara and Boy along as chaperones.

Increasingly, Adela was alarmed by what she saw going on in the neighborhood. Drugs were everywhere and the dealers even threatened Adela and the kids when she told them to take their business away from her house.

"First I got a gun. Then I moved," says Adela.

But it was too late. Adela's kids just returned to visit childhood friends in the old neighborhood rather than try to make new friends in a strange area of town.

"My mom did not know what I was up to," says Yvonne. "She didn't know I was smoking sherm [PCP]."

Yvonne had begun hanging out with kids in LCM when she was only 11, well before she ran away to Texas. Upon her return four years later, she resumed where she'd left off. After all, her best friend, Myra Rosales, had even been born into LCM.

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