A Question of Hope

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

Unsure of Boy's chance for recovery, Cruz acts on instinct.

"Joseph's problem is that he can't speak," says Cruz. "He's never been evaluated properly, so I don't know what the potential is, but I do know that he understands, he knows what is going on around him, and I knew it would do him good to be out of there and to see his family and church friends in Flagstaff."

Cruz took on the bureaucracy controlling the decision on Joseph's transfer to Flagstaff. She also insists that Boy needs a longer bed.

George McCormick and Ricky, in Boy's room.
Paolo Vescia
George McCormick and Ricky, in Boy's room.
Top: "Smiley" Rivera during his second murder trial.

Bottom: Rivera's attorney, Carmen Fisher.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: "Smiley" Rivera during his second murder trial.
Bottom: Rivera's attorney, Carmen Fisher.

"And what do you know? They found a longer bed, on the premises. It's amazing what the right business card can do when you work for the state," says Cruz.

Adela catches another break, finding a nursing-home vacancy for Joseph in Flagstaff.

State authorities shatter Adela's triumph when, fearing the risks of movement, they veto the transfer.

As Cruz relentlessly hammers the health bureaucracy to reverse the decision, Adela finds comfort elsewhere.

The money from the Ramirez car wash and other donations are enough for Adela to purchase, if not a computer, at least a machine, "The Crespeaker," specifically designed to help the handicapped communicate.

Adela percolates with joy.

Now Joseph would speak with her!

"You see, Boy, our prayers were not in vain," Adela tells him. "Praise the Lord, hallelujah. Boy, can you say, 'Thank you Jesus?'"

Boy raises his hand to heaven.

But no. Joseph Jr. does not speak to Adela. Not then, not ever.

Boy cannot figure out the machine.

In April, Cruz learns that the state will not reconsider its refusal to transfer Boy north.

"My heart sunk to my toes," says Cruz.

Unable to face Adela with more bad news, Cruz bites the state on the nose.

Calling officials at the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, she flat-out bullies them with the threat of a lawsuit, a hollow pose since Adela does not have an attorney. Pushing harder, Cruz adds that a journalist is following the story of Joseph Ayala Jr. and his mother, a devoted woman forced to spend four hours a day on city buses, miles away from her family, because Arizona refuses to allow this boy into a nursing home in Flagstaff.

Cruz knows she is over the line, but she rationalizes her theatrics : "My drive to help was bigger than my sense of the rules."

The state of Arizona relents and transfers Boy to the Flagstaff nursing home in late April.


Every time Adela clutches her inert son in her arms, she also hoists the hateful weight of Michael "Smiley" Rivera. She never drifts far from a guttural loathing of the gangster from the West Side Chicanos.

Prosecuted for first-degree murder and aggravated assault in the Ayala shootings, Rivera was acquitted on Halloween day 1997.

The verdict consumed Adela.

The scale of the unrequited bloodshed in Adela's family is almost folkloric.

Before her ex-husband was butchered, and her son cretinized, Adela's nephew was shot in the back and paralyzed for life. Another nephew was stabbed near the kidneys.

All of these incidents happened at her ex-husband's house in 1996. All of the perpetrators were West Side Chicanos. No one was in jail for any of the carnage.

You'd have to live in a neighborhood dominated by a violent street gang, or read about the incidents in the newspaper, to understand how common such mayhem is.

But unless you're poor, you don't live in that kind of neighborhood. And the newspapers don't run those kinds of stories. In 1996, the year Joseph Ayala Jr.'s skull was blasted apart, the police recorded more than 600 arrests for drive-by shootings, aggravated assaults and simple assaults, including 16 homicide bookings. A zip code analysis of the violence found almost all of it in poor neighborhoods. Yet the press ignores almost all gang violence. The Ayala shootings were not covered in the morning newspaper.

For Adela, the discovery that Rivera was accused of murdering Megan Ramirez in the spring of 1998, less than six months after he was acquitted of shooting the Ayalas, was too much. She contacted Megan's mom, Rosemary. Together, just the two of them, they waited.

Michael Rivera's prosecution this month for the murder of Megan unleashed a torrent of frustration within Adela. She schemed with Rosemary to sit in witness at the trial and plotted with Boy to attend the sentencing. Adela's fury at Rivera's acquittal in the murder of her ex-husband and crippling of her son fell on his attorney, Carmen Fisher.

Nearly two years after Fisher won Rivera his freedom in the Ayala trial, she was caught on a county jail videotape locked in an intimate embrace with a prisoner she represented. The news set Adela off like a prodded viper.

"She is so plain, I'll bet she's messing around with Michael Rivera," hisses Adela.

She absorbed the heartache of her son's wounding. She wears it like a second skin she'll never shed. But she cannot find a place to put Smiley's freedom. Adela cannot understand how the laws that dealt so remorselessly with her son, a common thief, were useless when dealing with the West Side Chicanos. She is bitter, with cause. Adela hopes the new prosecution will put Rivera on death row.

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