A Question of Hope

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

"When you're a kid," explains Yvonne, "you want friends."

Yvonne got into a fight with another girl while riding the bus home from high school. When Adela learned that the other kid had a gun and a knife, she panicked.

"That scared my mom so bad she took me out of school. I never went back."

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

Yvonne insists that she never heard a moment's worth of instruction inside her high school classroom about the downside of joining a gang, not that it would have done any good at that point. By high school, she'd been running with LCM for years.

Her daughter was close to her friends in LCM, but Adela claims that Yvonne did not join the gang until she was 18 and recovering from a disastrous love affair.

"She went on a tear," says Adela.

Yvonne refused to let the women jump her into LCM.

"I wanted to be above the girls," says Yvonne. "I wanted to have the utmost respect."

And so Yvonne Montiel was beaten into Las Cuatro Milpas by the men in the gang.

"I was drunk and I was high," says Yvonne, "but it still hurt. I remembered what my dad told me about if I ever had to fight a bunch of people. He said to pick one out and focus on him, and that's what I did."

And so Yvonne kicked and punched and got in close, grabbing her target in a death grip so that the gangbangers hit him as often as they hit her.

Bloody, but not subdued, Yvonne earned everyone's respect.

Since joining LCM she has been shot three times and stabbed twice. One summer she was arrested 18 times for fighting.

"Your parents can be bad, your parents can be good," observes Adela. "It doesn't matter. In the end, the gangs win."


If Sara's older sister had anything to say about it -- and Yvonne has always been a woman that people listen to -- Sara would not join LCM.

Yvonne says, "I told Sara I'd kick her ass if she hung around LCM. I didn't think she was tough enough to handle it. Some girls get jumped in by getting trained [having sex with every man present]. That was my fear."

For a time, Sara seemed like she might be the gang's next recruit. School held little appeal.

"I thought it was all so boring. It was just all this stupid memorization in school," says Sara.

Growing up, she'd known several people in LCM and everyone knew she was Yvonne's kid sister.

"There were lots of gangs at North High. There would be fights after school and we'd have little riots every once in a while, but it was okay. The kids I knew in LCM were very nice to me."

At the age of 19, during the first semester of her senior year, Sara left North High. Sara would get her GED without studying for the exam, which left her wondering why she'd bothered with high school in the first place.

"If I could get my diploma without opening a book, I just felt like I wasted all that time in school."

She could have been partying.

And for several years, she made up for lost time. She discovered the thrill of substance abuse.

"I've done a little bit of everything," says Sara.

By the time she was 16, her mother could no longer control her. Adela's doorbell would ring and there'd be Sara, accompanied by a cop, busted for curfew violation. It happened so often that the police demanded an explanation from her mother. And what do you say when your kid runs the streets?

Adela told the officers that she put tacks on the window sill where her daughter was climbing out of the house in an effort to catch Sara when mom heard a yelp. It didn't work.

"What am I supposed to do," Adela asked the cops, "tie her to her bed?"

Although her older sister was in LCM and she herself had friends in the gang, Adela felt that no matter how difficult the teenage troubles with Sara got, her youngest daughter would not end up a gangbanger.

"She was never as tough or mean as Yvonne," says Adela.

And Sara agrees.

"When I was a teenager, I hung around with my friends in LCM. People might be in gangs, but they are still just people. But joining was not my thing. I wouldn't want to do the things they have to do, the gangbanging. To me, how I think of it, it's something you might do when you were young."

It would be easy for Sara to look back as a 23-year-old mother and believe that sagacity kept her from joining a gang. But she will tell you that there was another factor that kept her out of LCM.

"I moved away and didn't have as much access," says Sara.

After spending a night in jail for curfew violation, Sara informed her mom that she was going to move in with her father on the far west side.

"Mom was very strict," explains Sara. "I knew I could get away with things if I was with my dad."

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