Lourdes "Lulu" Quinones has Nothing to Lose, in
elegant script, tattooed across her belly.
She chose those words after careful consideration, at
the age of 16, to adorn the flatness of her stomach,
just above the navel: Nothing to Lose.
"It's a thug thing," Quinones explains, brown eyes
direct, a hint of softness in her voice. "It's a
No limit, she says, as in "no-limit soldier." That's
how Quinones sees herself, 17 years old now, a street
warrior who knows no bounds, a West Side gang member,
tough, bad, bold.
In one moment, Quinones is using obscenities in almost
every sentence, defying all authority, boasting about
the first time she held a gun in her hands. "Got
chills down my spine," she says.
In a quieter moment, she shows visitors her bedroom
door, decorated with a picture of two kittens playing,
along with the printed words she taped next to them:
"Love is . . . knowing you could trust someone."
Next she returns again to toughness, careful to tell
you that she doesn't care, that even the police can't
stop her, that she's unafraid and that nothing hurts
her, not anymore.
Though gangs traditionally have been the province of
young men, girls like Quinones have had a role in them
for years. While still not as violent as their male
counterparts, females are now adept at drug sales, at
carrying arms, even at enduring "violation" beatings
when they break gang rules.
The violations are sometimes dished out by males as
well as females--and Quinones agrees they should be.
If girls "want to be rough, if they want to be tough,
they should know what it is to accept an ass
whupping--especially from a man," she says.
In her case, "that (expletive) don't do nothing but
make me stronger," she says. "That (expletive) don't
At least not as much as life used to hurt, back when
she was smaller and unprotected, when she was at the
mercy of the chaos around her, when she wasn't yet
tough enough to fight back. Quinones is certain she
won't return to those days. Nowadays, life is on her
terms. Nowadays, no one can control her. Nowadays, she
is a gangster with Nothing to Lose.
Chicago Police Officer George Figueroa keeps a book of
faces: a sort of gang family photo album for the
Humboldt Park area, a gritty slice of the city's West
Side that is largely Puerto Rican. Within his book a
mug shot shows Quinones, known as "Lulu" to her family
and as "India" to her other family, the gang.
India is also what police call her--and she's no
stranger to them. They have arrested her repeatedly on
various charges--drugs, theft, criminal damage to
property. There's a disorderly conduct charge for
"flashing hand gang signs and yelling out gang slogans
. . . placing area residents in fear of impending gang
violence." And there's an aggravated assault charge
for threatening a man with a gun.
"She has a short fuse, doesn't like to be hassled by
the police, is really into the gang life," says
Figueroa, a gang specialist. "She brings attention to
herself because of the open hostility."
In Figueroa's eyes, when it comes to gang life, "the
girls are no different from the guys--the mentality
is, it's better to be the toughest girl on the block
than the smartest."
When he visits the homes of gang members, Figueroa
begins to understand why some youths choose gangs over
family. Occasionally he finds a solid, stable
home--and a kid who is merely seeking excitement. But
far more frequently he sees families that are chaotic,
violent, neglectful. Often, "I wouldn't want to be in
that house either," he says. "I'd be afraid to be in
On the job, Figueroa concentrates especially on
Quinones' gang. Like many others, he says, its "life
blood" comes from drug sales. Some 95 of its
approximately 500 Chicago-area members have been
indicted in the last three years, he says, mostly on
Because many of them are now in prison, "somebody has
to take up the slack," he says. "That leaves juveniles
and that leaves girls."
Quinones has been among them for several years now.
She says she joined the gang when she was 14, taken
into the fold by her mother's brother after he was
released from prison. Before that, she had been in a
rival gang, joining when she was about 12, when she
first started running away from home.
Quinones says she began running away to escape her
father's beatings, which were harsh and unpredictable.
"He used to beat her for any reason," says her younger
sister, Maria Linda Quinones, 14. "She could have been
two minutes late--he would whup on her! He would whup
"What he don't know," Maria Linda says, "is we're
going to have this in our hearts, our minds, forever."
Their father, Efrain Quinones, acknowledges that he
hit his daughters too hard, too often. But they're his
girls, he says, and he loves them and tried to do
Once, when he saw the bruises he'd left on Lulu's
face, "I feel bad, very bad," says Efrain Quinones, a
construction worker who came from Puerto Rico and
speaks broken English. "I feel like my anger was too
He says one reason he went too far was that his
daughters are so hard to handle--especially Lulu. She
was a stubborn child by the time she was 12, running
away so many times he lost count. Even his harsh
discipline, he says, "didn't stop nothing."
Eventually he discovered that after Lulu ran away, she
sometimes sneaked back in, aided by her sister,
crawling through a window and hiding for the night.
That made him so angry, he says, that he nailed the
"All I did was start crying because I could not let my
sister in," says Maria Linda. "And that hurt. 'Cause
you don't know how bad I just wanted to take those
nails out and open that window, or break that window
open. But I couldn't."
Her father attributes Lulu's bad behavior, at least in
part, to the time the girls were abandoned. It
happened in 1987 when they were little, after he had a
terrible fight with Olga, his former wife and the
"I almost threw her off the porch," he says candidly.
"I wanted to kill that lady." Police came, and "the
judge told me I had to get out of the house," he says.
"I lived in my truck."
One day, though, he returned and found his wife was
gone. His daughters had been alone for two days "with
no food, nothing," he says. They were crying, filthy,
hungry, their hair tangled and wild. He says
5-year-old Lulu ran to him, calling, "Daddy, Daddy!"
Maria Linda, 3, was bawling.
"The (diaper) on Linda--my God!" says her father. "Not
cleaned for two days."
Olga Quinones was charged with child neglect. For her
part, she says only that she "went crazy" and lost
custody of her daughters. Today she worries about
Lulu, and is baffled by the trouble she causes.
"There's something deep down inside her. Somebody,
somewhere--I don't know who--hurt her. And ever since
then, she's never been the same." As she says this,
Olga breaks down and cries.
In Officer Figueroa's book, a few pages away from
Quinones' mug shot, is a photo of Antoinette "Toni"
Vazquez. "She's 28, one of the older gang members,"
Figueroa says. "You'd think at 28 she'd have smartened
up or outgrown it."
Women still involved at that age "were probably gang
members when they were 12 or 13," he says. "That's all
When it comes to Vazquez, he's right. She says she
joined when she was about 12.
"You could say that all my life I've been living out
here in The World--the streets, we call it 'The
World,' " Vazquez says.
Even before she ventured into The World, Vazquez says
she'd already seen too much. Her mother was a gang
member before her, she says, and "all my life just
been drugs and weapons and gangbanging."
When Vazquez was 7, a man was shot to death in her
family's home. The killing went unsolved for 20 years,
until Chicago Police Detective Milorad Sofrenovic
arrested Vazquez for burglary in October 1997. For
Vazquez, the arrest was one among many, including a
heroin charge and the theft of six cans of baby
formula. But this time she was arrested with her
mother, Sandra Ruiz, now 58.
As Sofrenovic questioned the mother-daughter team,
Vazquez encouraged her mother to reveal details from
two decades earlier, when Ruiz says she saw her
then-boyfriend kill a man known as Joe Cadillac. While
the women may have hoped to avoid the burglary rap,
Sofrenovic says they also may have talked because that
has "got to be a heavy load to bear on your soul."
Last April, Sofrenovic traveled to Puerto Rico to pick
up the murder suspect. That case now is pending in
Cook County Criminal Court with Vazquez's mother as a
witness. Even so, Vazquez and her mother went to jail
for the burglary.
It's a combination Officer Figueroa often
sees--mother-and-daughter gang members.
"I've seen young girls with their children, and the
children are dressed in gang colors," he says. "And
I'm talking about infants."
Ruiz and Vazquez, though, belonged to rival groups--a
situation that came about because years ago the family
moved to a new neighborhood controlled by rivals of
Ruiz's gang. "I figured it was cheap rent," says Ruiz,
"till the (rival gang) found out what I was. They
started shooting the place up."
By then, Vazquez was about 12. "I said, 'Oh,
(expletive)--they're gonna kill my ma!' " she recalls.
Her mother admits to being deep into drugs at that
time--first alcohol, then cocaine, then heroin.
Meanwhile, Vazquez says her five brothers and sisters
have four fathers among them, and hers was "just a
hi-and-bye thing . . . he never stayed around."
But today Vazquez's youth is of little importance to
her. She now has six children of her own but has lost
custody of them, in part because she is addicted to
heroin. She got out of jail in November, but her
husband and her brother--both gang members--are still
behind bars, and her mother is still in custody.
Nowadays Vazquez has no home and she stays wherever
Despite her troubles, she speaks loyally of the gang
and boasts about dodging sexist cops who don't suspect
her because she's a woman.
Chicago Police Officer Rose Gordon says it's common
for girls to act as setup artists for their gangs.
"They know they have that advantage over men," says
Gordon, a gang specialist who studies girls. Vazquez
herself says that she and her sister have helped pull
what they call "tumbes" for their gang, luring male
victims so the guys can rob them.
"What do we do?" she says with a sly smile. "Nothin'
When asked why she and her siblings turned to gang
life, Vazquez makes no mention of the family's
troubled past; she sees no cause and effect.
"Why? 'Cause we can't stay still," she says simply.
"Why? It's just in us. Once you're in, you never get
That's not always true. Another woman, who is 30 and
asked to be called only "Jo," has left the street life
behind and now is a computer operator.
Known as one of the toughest girls to walk under the
Puerto Rican flags on West Division Street, Jo says
she joined the local gang when she was about 17. "She
was with it. She was tough," says Chuck Castro, 27, a
former gang member who is now a counselor in the
neighborhood's YMCA Street Intervention Program.
Today Jo goes to work in flamboyant style--garbed, for
instance, in a snug-fitting leopard print dress, with
matching high heels and even a leopard skin watch
band. She has had no arrests since 1992, but in her
gang days she was picked up four times on marijuana
charges. Back then, Jo rose to become a gang leader.
Eventually, though, "I grew above the ghetto," she
says. "I didn't stay stuck there like the rest of
Unlike most, she graduated from high school, got a job
and says she told the girls in her gang that "I did it
and I know if I did it, you can do it."
Yet as Jo looked around her, she saw very few who were
willing to help the girls. Meanwhile, she learned
firsthand what the experts have found: that most gang
girls face turmoil at home--often physical abuse or
sexual molestation or drug-addicted, neglectful
At times, she herself tried to help. Several years
ago, a distraught mother turned to Jo after her
17-year-old son was charged with murder. "My only
hope--the only person--was Jo," says the mother. Her
son's defense attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, says Jo
helped track down a key witness and encouraged her to
tell the truth, and the accused youth was exonerated.
Nowadays, Jo says, "I still go past the neighborhood
where I used to hang." She's dismayed to see that
little has changed for the young women out in The
"If I was a person with money, I'd probably go out and
buy me a building," says Jo. "I'd make a center for
these women . . . where they could come to get help.
"I'd have that place packed."
In Officer Figueroa's book, there is no photo of Amy
Rivera. Not yet, anyway.
Rivera is 14, a youngster with a choice. Her mother,
Betty Roman, fears that her choice will be gang life.
After all, that was the life that Roman, 37, chose in
her younger days; other relatives have, too, as have
This evening, Rivera stands in their building's
gangway, smoking marijuana. Then she steps inside
where family photos line the living room wall. Her
aunt, featured in one picture, is in jail now. Another
aunt died of AIDS she contracted from her boyfriend,
who shot dope. "And that's my uncle over there," says
Rivera, "who was shot."
She's pointing to a photo of Hector Reyes, who along
with a companion was murdered in Humboldt Park in 1992
by three female members of a rival gang. The killing
briefly focused attention on gang girls, who otherwise
are often overlooked, overshadowed by boys.
Nowadays, it seems that Rivera herself could follow
the path that Quinones chose before her, and Vazquez
before that. Though she finished grammar school last
summer, she predicts that it will be her last
"My whole family dropped out in high school," Rivera
says. "I don't think I'm gonna make it." She concedes
that she hasn't been to school much this year, that
she prefers smoking weed with friends.
But Rivera says things were a lot worse a few years
ago, when she was 10 or 11 years old and decided to
join the local gang. Back then, gang members hung out
where her family used to live. "I was small," she
says. "They were big, they were bad. They were in a
When Amy decided to join, two of her cousins took her
to see the "chief." Soon afterward, she was violated
into the gang with a 60-second beating. "I was on the
floor, balled up on the floor when they hit me," she
says. "I was scared--I was really scared."
Once she was accepted, she says, the gang supplied her
with cocaine and marijuana to sell. "I'd give them the
money and they'd give me a little bit--a few percent,"
she says. "It was easy. We just had to chill and they
(buyers) came to us.
"Some who came for the rocks, they were hypes (crack
addicts) . . . all skinny and bony 'cause that's what
they spent their money on. That's how my father was.
Hell, yeah, he was a hype. He'd steal my mother's
money. . . . We didn't barely have nothing."
In those days, Rivera says, the gang "treated me
better than my father did."
Later her father went to prison on a burglary charge.
But back then, he was home, a drug addict and a
violent menace to Rivera's mother.
Liquor and drugs "went to his head," says her mother,
"and exploded in there." She says she tolerated it,
partly because "I used to get high with him, too. I
was into it."
At times, he'd lock himself in a bedroom, smoking
crack. When he came out, things got worse. "He used to
hit my mom," says Rivera. "He used to give her black
eyes, he hit her so hard."
"We always used to cry," recalls Rivera's older
sister, Carmen. "All of us."
Finally, after years of abuse, Roman packed up her
kids and fled. Later she married a pizza delivery man.
"He treats her real good. He don't even hit girls,"
says Rivera. "My mom loves him. A lot."
Today Rivera says her life is "way better." With a sad
smile, her mother agrees. "It's been almost four
years," she says, "that I haven't got hit."
In that time, the family moved from Rivera's gang
territory and she stopped associating with the gang.
She briefly turned to a "party crew," a group of
youths who "just chill together, get high, hang out."
Similar to a gang but less violent, the crew claimed
territory, elected leaders and used hand signals. But
when they held a "junta," or meeting, last July, the
police didn't see a difference between the crew and a
gang. Within minutes, officers had rounded up all the
boys, shouldered them up against a car and patted them
down. Rivera, unnoticed, hopped on her bike and rode
Back then, she said she'd jump at the chance to join a
real gang again. And even now she says that "most of
my friends, they're in gangs."
But though the gang life is tempting, it doesn't hold
the appeal it once did for Rivera.
"Why should you be getting killed and stuff like
that," she asks, "when you could be in the house?"
Lulu Quinones is at her father's house, cooking,
wearing a red Mickey Mouse nightshirt and a pair of
Mickey Mouse slippers. She and Maria Linda are limited
to the back of the house, because their father locks
up the dining room and living room, where the phone
and big-screen TV are.
Before this, Lulu hadn't been at her father's for
days. But now, in her baggy nightshirt, she looks like
any other teenage girl. Stepping into her room, she is
surrounded by stuffed animals, dolls, toy clowns.
There are no gang signs here.
Instead, on her bedroom door, she has taped two
sayings about love. One is slightly misspelled: "Love
is . . . beleaving in your heart." Here, standing
alone, she seems vulnerable, soft, young.
Then she steps back into the kitchen, where she and
her sister talk. Years after their mother abandoned
them, they reunited and the girls sometimes stayed
with her. There, both mother and daughters say, they
drank liquor and smoked marijuana together. "I started
getting high with her when I was 13," says Quinones.
For as long as Quinones can remember, her schoolwork
suffered. "I was in 8th grade at least about three
years," she says. She finally managed to graduate from
Schubert Elementary School, where Patricia Hart is
Hart was aware that Quinones' family life was troubled
and that even as a young girl, she was "desperately
trying to make it by herself." It was clear, though,
that the girl was longing for someone who cared, Hart
"She gets to you. She really does. I don't know why,
but she does," says Hart. "You feel for her, and
wonder why she just can't make it."
Hart didn't know that by the age of 12, Quinones was
often on her own, sleeping "wherever I could
sleep--somebody's house, somebody's car, somebody's
porch." She spent so much time on neighborhood
streets--where the gang also spent its nights--that
she was "blessed" into the group. That is, she didn't
need to be violated in with an initiation beating, as
many others were.
At first, "I was scared," Quinones says. She saw
people get beaten, stabbed, shot. But as time passed,
things got easier. And eventually, Lulu's father
couldn't stop her from sneaking home, even when he
nailed the windows shut. As she got older, "she didn't
care," says Maria Linda. "She popped them nails out."
Lulu listens to her sister, then nods in proud
defiance. "I'm a pro, baby," she says.
Nowadays, Lulu and her father agree that he no longer
hits her, now that she's grown. "Hell, no!" she says.
"I dare that man to touch me."
In the last year, Quinones' life has been as hectic as
ever. For a short time this school year, she took a
break from the streets to attend Taft High School. She
stayed five weeks and was arrested twice, for battery
and for disorderly conduct. At one point, she says,
she slammed another girl's head against a locker.
"That bitch came out with a locker number on her
Taft Assistant Principal Tony Dieppa says Quinones'
first arrest was for "dragging a child and beating her
up in the hall." The second was for "shouting loud
obscenities" at a teacher.
In the end, Quinones concedes that "they kicked me
out." Even if she'd stayed in school, she says, "I'd
still be a freshman 'cause I ain't got no credits."
At home, things weren't much better. Her father's
girlfriend recently left him--for a young man who had
been her boyfriend. "She's with my ex-man," says
Quinones, who herself is constantly juggling several
boyfriends at once. "That's what blew my mind."
At about the same time, her mother left suddenly for
Puerto Rico and got married, without telling her
daughters a thing. The discovery hurt at first; then
Maria Linda received a letter from their mother. "I
got Mama's address," she told her sister, "but I'm not
sure if it's right."
Quinones acknowledged that she had already spotted the
letter and scoured it to see if her mother had asked
about her. She hadn't. After that, Quinones maintained
that she didn't care. "I don't want to write to that
bitch anyway," she says.
A short time later, Quinones is headed out to the area
where she "calls it"; that is, where she's in charge
of a "section" of her gang. In the gang's
four-by-two-block territory, she says, girls "do
whatever the guys do." Like the boys, they take part
in drug sales and "mandatory hangout," though they're
not required to be on the streets as often as the
"We call it holding down the 'hood," Quinones says.
She prefers to hold down the 'hood when at least one
of her companions is armed. "They got to be strapped
up, with a pistol. Hell, yeah," she says.
Recently, Quinones spotted a member of a rival gang in
her turf. "I busted bottles over his head,
everything," she says. "That (expletive) was just
straight laid the (expletive) out!"
Then another bad development cropped up: Officer
Figueroa, who was on disability after being hit with a
baseball bat during an arrest, returned to duty.
"Figgy's back!" says Quinones, using the gang's
nickname for him. "Figgy--he's scheming."
That could mean trouble sometime soon, she fears, but
then she reflects briefly, wondering if one day things
might change, if one day she may return to school or
even get a job.
"I know that (expletive) ain't no good for me out
there," she says of gang life. "I'm bigger and better
than all that. It's just something I chose to do. I
like the thrill of it, though, you know what I'm
"I'm the type of person," she adds, "that I got a lot
of anger inside."
Then Quinones pauses and, for a moment, looks like any
other teenage girl. "I wish I could just find me a
prince to take me away," she says. "A prince to pick
me up, take me away and never come back."
She is quiet, wistful. But then her mind jumps to
other thoughts, and she changes the subject. "The
first time I held a gun, I was 9 years old," she says.
"Silver," her sister recalls. "It was a 9 mm. Sweet as
Quinones nods in agreement. "Sweet!" she says,