Carlos, Sr., and Adriana could see their next-to-youngest child coming on the sidewalk from “The Compound,” a locked enclosure with a tall metal fence topped by razor wire, across the green quadrangle lawn. A single guard was behind him. Except he wasn’t really walking straight up like a normal person. No, he was bent over a little, and his walk was more like a shuffle.
But they, of course, knew why.
His hands and ankles were bound with white ties on this Sunday morning in February at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. Every Sunday since Carlos, Jr., was arrested on a murder charge 2 1/2 years ago when he had barely turned 16, they drove from Pico Union in Los Angeles to visit here in Sylmar.
So when their son came into the visitors’ center, they did not rush up and hug him. They held back until the guard took off the wrist tie and it was OK. Only then did Adriana, wearing a white sweater blouse, put her left arm around his chest and leaned into him. Her head went just to his shoulder. Carlos greeted his father. After, Father Mike Kennedy, the Catholic chaplain, gave him a tight hug, too. The Jesuit said something that made both Carlos and his parents smile.
There was small talk while the camera/sound guy from CNN en Espa√±ol set up a spotlight and Sony video recorder on tripods. The young lady reporter in the olive blouse came over to introduce herself. When they finally sat down together in a corner on plastic chairs facing each other, she got Carlos smiling again. But not as much. And his expression went back to serious when the light came on and she started with the questions.
The CNN lady asked him about writing to Pope Francis, and then getting a letter back from the Holy Father. She had heard he was a good writer and wanted to know what motived his writing. Then she got around to asking how he got involved with gangs and, especially, about his crime. Finally, how and why did he ever change?
Sitting towards the end of his seat, Carlos answered every query straight on, looking right at her. Well, almost. He didn’t give the CNN lady too many details about the gang fight and murder near the Staples Center, kinda keeping it on the surface. And a couple times, he glanced down at the speckled linoleum floor before speaking.
He kept his bare forearms folded in front of him, but often knitted his fingers together before switching back. And when his tone turned semi-somber, the teenager made a fist with his right hand, covering it with the other.
Still, the only times he looked puzzled or paused was when he was reading the pope’s letter. Then he turned to Father Kennedy, sitting close by but out of camera range, at a table with his parents, to ask, “How do you say that, you know, in Spanish?”
‘A normal day’
“It was a normal day like any other day,” Carlos Vazquez was recalling. After the CNN interview, Carlos, his parents, Father Kennedy and this Tidings scribe moved into a small, brick-walled room off the visitors’ center open area. The 18-year-old seemed more relaxed speaking in English now: “There were four of us, including me, and two other rival gang members. One kid was a 13-year-old and didn’t jump in. I thought it was just another fight, ‘cause I’ve had many fights when I was out.”
He and his buddies were walking along Figueroa, thinking about doing some shopping at the Downtown Alley. But there were their enemies at a bus stop by the Staples Center. He was the first to jump in.
“It was a fist fight,” he continued in a flat voice. “But I guess in the middle of the fight — I was fighting some other guy — his friend got stabbed. I didn’t see it because I was fighting. So I didn’t know this until we got arrested, and they told me the guy we were fighting had died. I didn’t believe it. I thought the detective was just playing with me. But that’s pretty much how it went.”
Carlos wound up in the juvenile hall at Sylmar. “I thought I was going home,” he said. “Like every kid that comes here always thinks they’re going home when they’re not the ones who did it. But, um, in the state of California you’re guilty by aiding and abetting. But I didn’t know that until my first year here. That’s when it kinda hit that I was gonna do time.”
“Just turned 16, right?” asked Father Kennedy.
That was 2 1/2 years ago. The first 10 to 20 months were pretty rough. As a member of notorious 18th Street, a super-gang with local, national and even international links, he got in fight after fight. Facing 35 years to life for murder, he lost all hope. It was over.
“So what happened? Pope Francis writes you back and CNN en Espa√±ol is here interviewing you?” I asked.
“Um, it was Father Mike,” he said. “He sparked the interest in me wanting to change. Like, he was always using ‘proyectos.’ Like, he not only asked me questions about how I was hurting myself, but how I was hurting others. So I reflected on my actions, and it kinda opened my perspective of what I was doing. And so he sparked it. Like, I would say the flame.
“And it went from there to Javier Stauring [at the archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice]. He taught how I had to take responsibility for my actions. So like even though I wasn’t the one who stabbed the guy, I was the one who started the fight. So I had to take responsibility for whatever actions I caused. Because that will help me change things.
“And then from there, I was changing,” he said. “Then Scott Budnick [a movie producer] I guess, took an interest in how I was changing. And he vouched on my behalf at court. With my case, I was fighting 35 years to life, and it went down to 11 years because he got me a deal. So that alone just, like, flipped a switch and like —”
“A gasket,” Father Kennedy finished the sentence before breaking up. “The whole story is, he was still kind of a knucklehead. He still got in fights, right Reverend?”
Missing the question
“My point is that people don’t get this kind of deal,” said the priest. “I don’t know if it would have been 35, but 11 is amazing. But here’s the thing. Carlos said, ‘I stopped being a gangster.’ There’s rarely ever anyone who says this. ‘Cause that’s what these guys grew up on. They eat it. They survive in it. And so for him to say that, you know, is a big thing.”
The teenager nodded. And the priest looked at him before going on: “So my question to you is what clicked to make that change total? The [CNN lady] missed that question.”
Carlos was wringing his fingers together. “Yeah, it’s like, I had to decipher my mentality. And once I deciphered my mentality, it was like, ‘How do I stop using my old mentality, and how do I start making my new mentality?’ So when somebody does something even little, like disrespecting me, my new mentality will kick in. So it was hard to change.”
After a moment, he said what helped the most was going into his room and looking at the bigger picture. He imagined himself in a big room full of all the folks who helped him. Next he saw himself back home in his ‘hood. But if he was going to continue gangbanging, he figured he’d just be throwing all that help away, like it never happened. So he really did need to change his homeboy ways.
Taking up regular writing was a factor, too, according to Carlos. Glancing down at his composition book, he said it gave him a deeper point of view about his life. It was different writing out a story, seeing it on paper. “And my writing’s got a lot better,” he said.
And there was a mental health counselor at Sylmar named Nancy Velasquez “who helped patch up so many dark holes in my soul. She helped me not only understand my path, but head it.”
Plus, of course, his parents. They had left him for three years with a grandmother in Mexico while they made a better life across the border. A baby brother was born soon after they sent for him. So his connection to them was always “rocky.” As a teen running in the streets of Pico Union, he would stay away for days, even sometimes a week. But they stayed by him after his arrest, and never missed a Sunday visit. So he finally got to know them.
“But what about the future? You’re facing at least 6 1/2 years hard time,” he was asked.
Carlos said the toughest part was about to happen. In a week or two, he’ll be shipped out to the state prison in Chino for “reception” for probably three months. That will be before going to Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, where he’ll be able to earn an associate degree and join other self-help programs. But at Chino, he’ll be locked down in his room 23 hours a day, with an hour out in the yard.
When I asked how he was gonna get through that, he said quietly, “I don’t know.” But added, “I look at that as an obstacle, as a challenge. I have my family supporting me. I have Scott and Javier supporting me. I’m gonna think about them the whole time I’m going through that situation.
“And I’m not gonna let it break me,” said Carlos with some defiance. “So, that’s how I look at it.”