Women of 'the World'

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE SUNDAY MAGAZINE
Issue date: MAR 28, 1999

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 thing."

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 hurt."

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 that house."

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 drug charges.

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 on her!

"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 right.

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 bad."

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 windows shut.

"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 girls' mother.

"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 they know."

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 she can.

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' nice."

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 out."

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 them."

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 parents.

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 World.

"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 friends.

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 graduation.

"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 gang."

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 away, laughing.

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 principal.

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 says.

"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 forehead."

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 males are.

"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 saying?

"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 hell."

Quinones nods in agreement. "Sweet!" she says, smiling.





Radio

Women in Saudi Arabia: Dating, Driving, and Working. Hear the stories on "Marketplace."

Summer in America: Man Versus Fish, Walking to New Orleans, and Come and See. Hear the stories on "Weekend America."

Bob's prairie. Hear it on "Stories from the Heart of the Land."

Terrorist TV? Is Al Manar a terrorist organization or a legitimate source of news? Hear the story on NPR's "On the Media."

Ten days in Dagestan. Hear it on "The World."

Guantánamo, a radio play about suspects in Cuba. Hear it on SixBillion.org.

Inside the Beslan school siege: Part 1. Part 2. Hear it on NPR.

Riding Vespas in Jakarta. Hear this audio postcard on NPR.

Final exit. What happens when your state doesn't allow physician-assisted death? Hear Bob's story on KUOW.

Bali, after the bomb. Hear this essay on "The Savvy Traveler."

The story of Zora, a self-made superhero. Hear it on "This American Life."


Interactive

Two days before the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., fabled Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated, and in death, he assumed a new life. View the story on SixBillion.org.

Twenty-five years after the war, can the Vietnamese government provide for its people? View a story for The New York Times on the Web.


Events

Hear an audio recording of "Documenting the Foreign," a presentation of my work in the Islamic world since 9/11, at the Union Docs collective in New York, June 2007. Coming soon.





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