Longform

Mrs. Phelps' Kids

Page 3 of 6

When Haracely graduated from high school a few years ago, Mrs. Phelps helped her financially so she could buy a school ring. She says it was an easy call.

"That girl works and works and works at improving herself," Mrs. Phelps says. "She never asked for a penny. I just heard about it. Of course, I helped her."

For a time, she adds, she wasn't certain Walter would follow in his big sister's successful footsteps.

"Walter came to me a little spoiled," Mrs. Phelps recalls. "First, he comes from a home where two parents are there for him, and he has a sister who's a role model. He's quick-witted, and that always had gotten him a long way. But he needed to settle down and learn some things--like how to read and write better. It was a battle, but he came around."

That year, 10-year-old Walter analyzed himself in a journal.
"I get in trouble when I pull tricks on people," he wrote early in the 1990-91 school year. "But the best thing about me is that I am funny."

Then, as now, Walter was a big, soft kid who doesn't look as if he'd harm a soul.

"I'm not a fighter," he says. "If I don't mess with nobody, then nobody messes with me. My thinking is, don't bother no one. I don't have time to get into trouble."

That's no exaggeration. In the fall, he played tackle on Central High's freshman football team. After practice, Walter took a city bus home, trudged a few blocks, showered, ate, studied a little and fell into bed.

Last summer, he and others from his neighborhood (including Machy Cabada) worked long days doing landscaping in a Mesa-based program for poor kids. The work earned Walter much-needed pocket money, and helped pay for school clothes.

"Working outside isn't easy," says his father, Ramon. "It's hard. The better he does in school, maybe he won't have to work outside his whole life."

Walter Martinez, once the class clown, is growing up.
"I'm still funny, I hope, but my main concern right now is to get my education," he says. "I have no other obligations. My mom is always saying that she's not gonna be around forever to take care of me."

Machy
Five years from now? I don't know. I'll be playing basketball, I guess.
Machy Cabada,
November 15, 1990,
in Mrs. Phelps' fourth-grade class

Like Walter Martinez, Marcial Cabada III is a work in progress, but with a major difference.

Machy's father is in prison, and the 15-year-old has no dominant male figure in his life. But Machy is blessed with a strong-willed mother who is trying to keep him and his younger brother on the right track.

Elia Cabada knows, however, that there are no guarantees.
She grew up near Yuma, one of five children of Mexican immigrants. She and her siblings joined their parents in the fields as teens, picking tomatoes and vegetables in unthinkable heat.

Elia's own mother was uncompromising--"She'd let us girls go to a dance maybe once a month"--and loving. Elia is much the same with Machy, and with good reason.

First, there's history: When Machy was 5, a car struck and nearly killed him. Though it wasn't her fault, the event traumatized Elia, and led her to what she calls "overprotective thinking" toward her sons.

Then, there's the neighborhood: A rash of gang-related shootings has plagued the area.

"Sometimes, I think I'm too strict," Elia says, as Machy sketches in a pad at the dining-room table of their home. "If I let him go his own way, things can happen to him--people can hurt him. He's avoided the VSP gang and Southside Posse so far, and I want to keep it that way."

In truth, Machy isn't on as tight a leash as Walter Martinez. Elia works long hours as a housekeeper for a Phoenix family, and it's difficult for her to keep tabs on Machy as much as she'd like. So far, though, he's stayed out of harm's way.

Machy is enrolled in a magnet program at Alhambra High School, and he says he wants to be an athletic trainer someday. But his true knack is for sketching and playing basketball.

"My dad taught me to draw before he went away," Machy says. "We used to draw together, and he still draws us stuff from where he is. In basketball, I'm gonna be good enough to play high school, but the NBA? No way. What is it, 300 out of how many thousands get to play up there? I better learn something else."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin