A Question of Hope

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

Yvonne is a courageous woman whose struggle to build a better life for Ray-Ray will always be complicated by her love and respect for Las Cuatro Milpas.

"I was one of the first in my neighborhood to get away," says Yvonne. "I was never jumped out. To this day, they don't pressure me. I have so much loyalty to that neighborhood."

Could anything have stopped her from banging?

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

"I think if I would have had my real dad I might not have been in a gang. His stepdaughter went to college. All his kids are doing well. My dad knows everything I've done. He probably thinks I'm . . . I don't know."

If he knows Yvonne at all, he knows that this woman survived and learned something on the way.

The day before she loaded her U-Haul for the drive to Tucson, she said something that explained just how far she'd come.

"I don't hit Ray-Ray," says Yvonne. "I swore when I had kids that I wouldn't beat them and that I would never forget to tell them that I loved them."

And she hasn't.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't tell Ray-Ray, 'I love you.'"

Boy Goes Home

After Boy is transferred from Phoenix to Flagstaff in April, he suffers a seizure. State authorities who had fought the transfer for more than two years had warned that Joseph Jr. was not strong enough to travel. It appears they were correct.

When Boy recovers from the seizure, he appears comatose.

With his own room and a view into the courtyard, Boy's surroundings seem greatly improved. But something is fundamentally wrong.

Bulletin boards in his room are crammed with family photos and posters brightened up an already sunny room, but Boy is oblivious to the round-the-clock religious TV programming. His mouth hangs open, spittle stretched from an upper canine tooth to his lower lip. One eye stares blankly at a visitor, the other eye roams lazily toward the ceiling.

On the wall, the words from Psalm 46:10 admonishes, "Be still, and know that I am God . . ."

But Adela cannot be still.

"Ever since we got here, he's been so lethargic," says Adela. "I keep telling people here that something is wrong, but nothing happens."

While Boy's condition worsens, Adela is at the end of her strength.

She has refused to admit how burned out she had been in Phoenix. But back in her own home for the first time in more than two years, in her own space, she collapses.

By nature a perfectionist and a stickler about cleanliness, she has returned to a domain that for two years had been solely male-occupied, and she feels powerless to restore her home to its former tidiness.

"If I didn't have to come to the nursing home, I wouldn't leave the house. I don't go to church. It's too much of a chore to get dressed and put makeup on to go to church."

She takes Prozac "to keep from crying every day," as well as anxiety medication and sleeping pills. It is not enough.

Her husband likens the effect to postpartum depression.

"You know," he says, "she geared herself up for years with this ordeal. Then she fought and fought to bring Joseph to Flagstaff, and she just kept moving forward all the time. Then one day the battle was over, she'd won. The air just went out of her. I've been depressed myself, and I work with people who have real problems with substance abuse, and SMI [seriously mentally ill] patients. Even so, it's been an adjustment to have her back in the house."

At the beginning of the summer, Adela picks up the phone late at night and leaves messages on the voice mail. She discusses her son's condition and invariably her own mood: "I just want it to be over with. I don't care anymore. I can't stand it."

But she does stand it. Adela decides that her son needs better medical attention.

She finds a specialist in Flagstaff who diagnoses Boy's vegetative state, and it has nothing to do with the rigors of the trip from Phoenix.

Fluid has built up in Boy's skull because a shunt in his head is not draining properly.

The change following corrective surgery in July is stunning.

Sitting up in a wheelchair, Boy recognizes a visitor and signals a greeting by reaching out and kissing his guest's hand.

But this touching gesture is only a prelude to something wondrous, a conversation.

After an hour, Adela decides that Boy should nap, but her son is reluctant. She needles him that if he doesn't go to sleep, she will give him a knuckle sandwich.

Joseph Jr. smiles at her joke.

Fifteen minutes later, when Boy is still awake, his mother says to him: "So, you don't sleep? You want to be a sneaky Pete and listen in on your mother's conversation?"

He raises a single finger to say, "Yes!"

Another Phone Call

The next day, Adela calls. All the good cheer in her voice has evaporated. The specialist that diagnosed Boy's problem says that her son will die soon.

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