A Question of Hope

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

"I didn't know. He never did it in front of me. When he was in bed and trying to kick the habit, I just thought he was hung over from all the drinking he did."

By the time he was murdered, Joseph Sr. was the custodian of his children's hearts.

"Their dad said he would hurt me by taking the kids away from me," Adela says. "And he kept his word. He was the good guy and I was the disciplinarian. He took all my kids and I was the one that supported them. He was a very selfish person. All I did was love those kids, but they couldn't see it."

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

Daughter Yvonne is intensely loyal to Joseph Sr. even though he was not her real father.

Yvonne's biological father had moved to Texas and abandoned Adela and Yvonne when she was an infant. Though she would see her father when he visited Arizona on the holidays, Yvonne never grew close to the man.

Joseph Sr., however, embraced baby Yvonne, in his own careless way.

"Joe chose me to be his child," says Yvonne. "He was always there for me. I knew my dad had my back. He was fun. He would take us to the park, take us swimming, take us to the river. My dad showed us affection though he was not the best example of a parent."

Yvonne was not blind, however, to her father's unfortunate habits.

"It pissed me off because he brought in these tramps," recalls Yvonne. "These women couldn't hang with my mother's toenail."

While Yvonne was scornful of Joseph Sr.'s women, her relationship with her mother remains brittle.

"Yvonne has lots of resentment towards me over my mothering skills," explains Adela.

"She didn't show us love," answers Yvonne. "She made sure there was food on the table, clothes. She made the effort. But she wasn't much for affection. We got that from our dad."

Adela does not argue.

"Where I made my biggest mistake, I never told them I loved them. I never heard it myself growing up. But I was shown it," remembers Adela.

"The only time I heard my father tell me he loved me was when Boy was shot. I guess he was saving it for when I needed it."

Growing Up

If Mars attacks, Yvonne Montiel could lead planet Earth to victory.

Although she draws admiring remarks in her Tommy Hilfiger jeans, she's as deadly as a fist to the Adam's apple. She is also the kind of leader that people willingly follow. That charisma, coupled with an easily offended and prickly personality, is volatile. She didn't get this way by hanging out in suburban malls.

Though she excelled in school, smart often took a back seat to pain.

Where do you want to begin?

Her biological father abandoned her.

"He up and left without ever seeing me," says Yvonne.

When his own mother did not get along with Adela, he took off and became remembered in Adela's household as "mama's boy." Not long after he went home to his mother, the company he worked for transferred him to Texas. Years later he would return to Arizona over the holidays and Adela would allow Yvonne a brief visit.

Her natural father left behind a legacy that troubled Yvonne every time she brushed her hair in the mirror.

"I always thought I was the black sheep in the family," says Yvonne, speaking literally.

"I came out dark, while Sara and Boy were light."

Even the stepfather she loved, Joseph Sr., had a nickname that reminded her of her status. He was called "Huero," Spanish slang for light-skinned Hispanics.

Where Yvonne grew up, near Fifth Avenue and Buckeye Road, she knew better than to complain about these things. You could not expect anyone to give a crap about your troubles. It was no place to mope.

As Yvonne looked around, it was obvious that her brawling stepfather knew how to survive.

"This black girl pushed me down in our front yard and I ran inside," remembers Yvonne. "My dad yelled at me so bad, he scared the hell out of me. I went outside and went to work on that girl."

Yvonne learned to fight and took to it. She enjoyed her class in karate and served as effective muscle to protect her kid brother and sister in a rugged neighborhood.

Adela says that Yvonne and she are too much alike, which may explain why they butted heads like prize rams.

"I saw her as a drill sergeant. I was the oldest child and she always made me watch Boy and Sara. I had to wash clothes, iron, make tortillas."

The mother-daughter conflict involved more than a dispute over chores.

"You know," says Yvonne, "she didn't send us to church to make us better people. She just wanted us out of her hair."

Adela confesses that she used the church as free day care, but it was safe and one of the few options available to her. Yet to Yvonne, it was just more of the same: rejection.

And when the kids were at home, Adela kept them in line by beating them. Yvonne is not someone who forgot when you put your hands on her.

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