Home Life of a Homeboy

Rose Johnson

A son's aspirations
11 p.m., Sunday, June 6
12th Street and Mohave

Phoenix police Lieutenant Joe Klima stops his cruiser near 12th Street and Mohave, in the heart of the Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas gang turf.

A 14-year-old we'll call David is sitting on the curb, answering questions from two Phoenix gang squad officers, who saw David riding a bicycle and detained the youth on a curfew violation.

During a search, officers found rolling papers and eye wash. The officers tell Klima they suspect David has been smoking marijuana.

David is dressed in a blue Dickies shirt and dark shorts. His hair is cropped tight. He weighs maybe 90 pounds.

The letter "E" glistens from a chrome belt buckle, possibly indicating David's affiliation with the Eastside LCM.

"I'm not in a gang," David says. "I'm telling you the truth, too. I never even talk about a gang."

No one is buying David's story. The officers keep pressing the kid. Before long, he admits his affiliation with Eastside LCM.

"They are all I've got," David says.

The youth claims he never causes any trouble, but then he backs off that position, too.

"I got locked up a couple of times before," he says, reciting a series of charges.

"Attempted burglary, a couple of criminal damage. I broke a couple of windows," he says.

One officer who knows David's record reminds him of a recent fight.

"He started talking shit, he called me a bitch," David says. "He swung at me, but I ducked and I hit him and he dropped to the ground."

David says he doesn't live in this neighborhood anymore. He now lives a couple of miles north, near McDowell Road, with his mom and brother. His father died last winter from habitual drug and alcohol abuse. Richard says he rode his bike to his old 'hood to visit his friends.

The officers lecture David, warning him of the dangers of running with a gang. Klima tells David there are things he can do to better his life.

"I don't know what you are talking about," David says.

Making money is all that counts, he says. Especially when one doesn't expect to live past his mid-20s.

"Life is all about money," David says. "Money can get you bitches, girls."

A mother's lament

4 p.m., Saturday, June 19

central Phoenix

Maria sits at the kitchen table of her neat and modest home and begins to weep as she recalls her childhood -- her mother would beat her until she wet her pants.

The 39-year-old single mother then lurches forward through time to the moment she believes she lost control of her youngest two children, David and his older brother, Michael. (Maria, David and Michael are all aliases.)

"I was really mad at him [David]. I was yelling at him. I was cussing at him. And I told you, I was very abused. It was so easy for me to follow that pattern.

"And when I was hitting him, he was starting to cuss me out. 'Fuck you, you stupid fat bitch.' And I just thought, you know, 'Fuck you, punk.'

"And I told him, 'I'm the boss here. Not you guys.'

"I was hitting him, hitting him against the door, I was kicking him. You know. I was mad.

"I'm not no punk and I'm not a badass, either. But he had to push to that point where I was going to fuck him up.

"I didn't like that feeling, because I had been at the other side of that. I've gotten that before.

"I know that trail," she says softening her voice to a whisper.

And now she sees her sons on the same perilous path.

"I was hitting him -- and that's when I seen his eyes. I could see him wetting himself. I thought, 'My God.'"

That image nearly paralyzes Maria.

"My guilt got to me," Maria says, her voice barely audible. "My God, how could you do that? After everything you went through . . . how could you do that?"

So she gave up parental discipline as she knew it. She doesn't try to control her sons anymore.

"And I know, that's where I feel that I failed them. That I didn't beat the hell out of them like my mother used to beat me," Maria says.

Maria knows she's mired in psychological quicksand.

"It's kind of sick, but growing up abused like that, it was normal for me," she says.

"My mom says, 'Beat the shit out of them little assholes. Kick their ass. Fucking punks.' You know, because that's the way my mother talks," Maria says.  

"My God, Mom, I can't do that. . . ."

Maria's 18-year-old daughter, who is pregnant with her second baby, enters the kitchen with her husband.

"I used to beat the fuck out of her," Maria says, pointing at her daughter.

The young woman smiles and tells her mom that she's dilating.

David and Michael are in the living room. They're angry that their mother is talking to a reporter. They fiddle with a Nintendo game and occasionally yell profanities and insults about how Maria keeps the house.

It's too nice, they say. The trees and flowers she's planted in the front are an affront to their vision of Latino culture.

"You're trying to be like white people," David yells.

Maria says she stopped beating David and Michael about four years ago. She says her decision has consigned her and her boys to a different kind of hell. She's turned them loose to the discipline of the streets.

She knows most of the kids her boys run with in the Milpas. Once they played softball and soccer in the afternoon.

"Now they are like homeboys. It means everything," Maria says.

"They put them over everything and everybody. You know?" she says.

She knows loyalty to the homeboys means trouble.

"I'm not the type of mom that says, 'Oh my boys, no.' No. I know what I have sitting over there," she says, gesturing toward the living room. "I don't like it."

She's certain that the eventual outcome will be more sorrow.

"Any mother whose kids hang around with gangs or wanna be a badass or be in a gang has to look at things realistically because they are going to end up dead, paralyzed or in jail," she says.

"I know that the only way they are going to survive is if they do get locked up."

Maria grew up in the Los Cuatro Milpas neighborhood near 16th Street and Buckeye Road in a home built by her grandfather. Most of her relatives still live in the area. She moved from the neighborhood two years ago, after getting off welfare, keeping a steady job and qualifying for a low-income mortgage.

Maria says she wanted her family to escape from the gunfire, violence, drugs and drinking that dominate life in the Milpas. But the new home is nothing more than a closet and a fast-food stop for her sons.

"It's just like a freight train," she says, describing her sons' determination to run with their homies in the Milpas.

"They will come home for a while and then, boom, before you know it, they are right back over there. They are like little boomerangs. They come over here to change, shower, get dressed, maybe eat something and then they are right there again. I don't like it," she says.

Stopping the boys is too much for Maria.

"I tell them they don't have no business out there. And I could go in front of them and stop them, and kick them in the ass, but you know that's bullshit. . . . It's not that it's not worth it. But it's just so emotional. Then it turns into a fight. Then it turns into a physical, verbal thing, so I say okay."

So the boys run free. They go to school when they want, for as long as they want. Michael is sticking closer to home in recent weeks, Maria says, but only because he's on probation for joy riding and wrecking a car. Maria must cover the $1,500 in damages.

The last time she thought that David was safe was a couple of years ago when he was sent to the Arizona Boys Ranch by the juvenile court after repeatedly being caught shoplifting, she says.

"He spent a year there," says Maria. "I thought it was great. I thought it was outstanding. They were strict."

David thrived at the Boys Ranch, she says.

"He was supposed to go into eighth grade. He advanced so that he [went] into ninth. He's a good kid," she says. "He's a smart kid. Mathematical like boom, boom," she says, snapping her fingers.

Maria knows the boys need strict discipline, but she has no one to help her. Her husband died in November from complications stemming from heroin and alcohol addictions.

She says her husband "never worked a day in his life. Since he was 16 or 17 years old, he was in and out of jail, prison. He ran drugs, was a thief. I finally threw him out of the house.  

"He died because of his own doing."

Maria says David refused to visit his father when he was dying.

"David said, 'I don't care if he dies. I hate him anyways,'" she says.

With no father and an exhausted mother, David intends to live life day by day.

"He's told me, 'I don't plan to live past 25 years old,'" Maria says.

As the interview draws to a close, the front door slams as David takes off down the street.

"Fuck you, white boy," he yells to the reporter.

Maria sits in silence at the table for a moment, her eyes looking away.

"I hate that," she says. "God, I hate that. I don't like that. You know what? I'm not disrespectful. I apologize."

Maria is asked what kind of help she would choose, if given a choice.

"I wish I had a stronger male role model for them," she says. "I think [what] has probably been the hardest thing, is no man."

Monday, October 18

After the June interview, Maria declined to return subsequent calls and requests for additional interviews left at her work and home. On several occasions, her sons hung up the phone when they learned a reporter was calling. Last week, one of her daughters told New Times that Maria, David and Michael all are doing well.

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