A Question of Hope

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

The Milpas neighborhood, which has pulled kids into LCM for generations since World War II, covers the area from Seventh to 16th streets, from Mohave to Buckeye Road. Sara's dad, who lived near 63rd Avenue and Thomas, was too far from the pull of LCM.

"I was never going to join anyway," says Sara. "I'm not really someone with a violent nature."

The Spiral Accelerates

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

In 1990, at the age of 17, Joseph Jr. was arrested when the authorities broke up the car-theft ring that kept him in fine clothes.

According to Adela, the tenuous strands that bound the family snapped once Boy was locked up.

"I was inclined to drink, and I was drinking every day once Joseph was thrown into prison."

Both girls were running wild, and worse, Yvonne, now a jumped-in gangbanger, had discovered drugs in a big way.

"I felt like they were all killing me at the same time," says Adela.

When Adela moved across town to get away from the drug dealers, she discovered it was too late. All of her daughters' friends lived in the Milpas.

"Yvonne felt like she was deserting the neighborhood. So she went back," says Adela.

Yvonne acknowledges that she was out of control.

"There were times when I was stuck on stupid for a month," Yvonne remembers. "I stopped doing sherm and started smoking crystal meth. I was all thin. I thought I was the bomb, wearing size 7. I'm good to go."

Yvonne's fascination with drugs would last more than a decade.

"When my dad got killed, that's when I stopped."

Boy's arrest and the spectacle of her daughters getting high with her ex-husband left Adela feeling that she had reached rock bottom.

She was wrong.

"I did the best I could," says Adela. "I don't understand. You sit there and wonder, 'What the hell did I do wrong?'"

Back From the Edge

Yvonne is 30 this year. She has worked at Burger King for 12 years and has been down with LCM longer than that. While she will always defend her "homies" in the Milpas, she has a stronger urge to protect her sons with a new life. She knows the older boy, Ricky, is safe with his grandparents in Flagstaff. But Ray-Ray pulls at her heart.

When her brother and father were cut down by the storm of bullets from one of the West Side Chicanos, Yvonne's baby boy, then 6, was present in her dad's house. He saw it all unfold.

"It could have been Ray-Ray," Yvonne says of the bodies crumpled on the street.

If the shooting did not kill her boy, it certainly changed his life.

Now 9, Ray-Ray is a beautiful youth with gruesome memories.

"My uncle jumped in front of my Ta-ta. He got shot in the head. It scared me," says Ray-Ray.

Yvonne says that since the shooting, her youngest son has had enormous problems with his temper and gets in too many fights at school.

"He asked a counselor how old he had to be to buy a gun," says Yvonne. "He wants to shoot all of them, Becky [Gutierrez] and all her kids. I try to tell him that I got over it and so should he."

While living in Sunnyslope and working as a manager at Burger King, Yvonne enrolled her boy in a Police Athletic League program. She says the after-school activity made a big difference.

This year Ray-Ray got a trophy. For anger management.

If Yvonne got over the killing of her stepfather and the maiming of her brother, she did not do it easily.

Shortly after the shooting, she moved to Flagstaff.

"All I was doing was plotting revenge for Becky and her kids," says Yvonne.

But she also remembers scenes from the emergency room.

"My mom told me, 'Don't do anything. Don't shoot anyone. You will finish me off.'

"My grandmother made me promise, too."

She will never get over the bloodshed, but there is a new maturity in her attitude.

"Mind you, I don't carry a gun anymore. And it's not worth going to prison over. The only person I have to prove anything to is my son. I have to be there for him. If I don't set the example, who will? That's why I am taking him out of the neighborhood. His dad just went back to prison for the third time. I don't want my son to grow up like that."

When her pay at Burger King was not enough to make the rent on her apartment, she moved back into the Milpas with Ray-Ray this fall.

"I don't want Yvonne in that neighborhood, and I don't want Ray-Ray in that neighborhood," says Adela, concerned about the danger.

Yvonne also worried about Ray-Ray's safety when the living arrangement proved erratic.

So Yvonne and Ray-Ray moved away from her friends in Las Cuatro Milpas. She found a new job in Tucson and boosted her pay from $7 an hour flipping burgers to $10 an hour as a cashier.

Yvonne's effort is paddling against the familial currents.

Her father and brother were cut down by gang gunfire. The same gang put one cousin in a wheelchair and stabbed another. The twins on her stepfather's side are in jail on car theft, drug and forgery charges. Another cousin, a member of Mexican Brown Pride, is in prison for shooting someone in a drive-by, while a third pair of cousins are both in prison for sticking up a gas station. The father of her youngest son is in prison. So are many of her closest friends from LCM.

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