Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 6. EDWIN RAJO (16)
8:00 P.M. CST
NEXT TO THE ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE IN LEE HIGH SCHOOL, LOCATED in southwest Houston, hangs a banner announcing, “All doors. All hallways. Lead to college.” But for a handful of students, they are more likely to lead to room 143—the special-education center run by Jennisha Thomas, a driven, African American woman in her thirties. Any student who needs particular academic support passes through here. Ordinarily, that might only be once or twice for registration and review. But each year, one or two end up camping out in her room because they struggle behaviorally in a formal classroom setting and keep getting sent there. In his first year at Lee, Edwin Rajo, age sixteen, was referred to her office at the beginning of the year but scarcely ever went back. “We would hardly have known he was here,” says Thomas. “We never heard about him.” But in his second year, he and his friend Gabriel (not his real name) were there virtually every day. “I don’t know what happened,” she says. “It was like he’d had some go-go juice.”
Lee is a tough school, serving a student body that struggles with a range of challenges. Seven out of ten students failed the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness English test; 96 percent are economically disadvantaged.1 The school runs a backpack program, which provides students with two days of meals on weekends. Lee draws much of its intake from refugee communities from all over the world—wherever there’s a war going on, there’s a good chance students from that region will end up at Lee.
If that were not enough, there is also a significant gang presence in the school—not from one gang but from the whole gamut of black and Latino gangs that are rife in the area. While I was interviewing Ms. Thomas, her administrator rushed in to tell her she was needed urgently outside, where a fight had broken out. Ms. Thomas excused herself and went to slip on her shoes. “Faster,” urged her administrator, and Ms. Thomas was off to try to mediate. Within a week of my being there, several pupils would be arrested onsite after a huge fight.
Gabriel was like a don in the school. He was a quiet, unflashy presence whose word carried as much weight as, if not more than, that of many teachers. He’s a cool customer with a commanding aura. Edwin was his wisecracking sidekick: taller, skinnier, sillier, barely in control of himself let alone others. Gabriel and Edwin did a lot of “chilling.” Whereas Stanley Taylor’s friend Trey could not quite describe what that involved, Gabriel was more forthcoming—for Edwin and him it meant playing soccer, smoking weed, playing Grand Theft Auto, drinking, and talking. “Edwin wasn’t bad,” says Ms. Thomas. “He was immature. He was acting in high school how he should have been acting in middle school. In middle school he was still quiet and in his little shell. When he got here, he started being playful. He’d do things like take kids’ ID badges, run down the hallway, slap boys between their legs—boy stuff. But he wasn’t bad; he was busy. So almost every day he would get sent here because they couldn’t handle him. He was all over the place.”
Impulsive and childlike, if Edwin sensed he could provoke a teacher, he would not only “go there” but stay there until the job was done. “He got a kick out of seeing teachers get to that boiling point,” says Ms. Thomas. He also lacked any kind of filter. If he thought your hairstyle sucked, your dress didn’t fit, or your nose ring looked daft, he’d tell you, apparently not realizing he might be causing offense. For the most part, his misbehavior manifested itself in episodic acts of senseless defiance, particularly with regard to one teacher.
For example, students were not allowed to wear black undershirts since they were identified with the Southwest Cholo gang. Edwin wore one anyway. When that teacher told him to take it off, Ms. Thomas said, Edwin acted up. “I’m not giving you this shirt,” he said. Over the PA the call went out for Ms. Thomas to assist in talking Edwin down. “Edwin, what’s the problem,” she said. “He want me to take off my shirt,” Edwin said. “He gay. He just wants to look at my body. I don’t want him looking at me.” “Edwin take off that shirt,” said Ms. Thomas, through gritted teeth. “I ain’t gonna give it to him. I’m gonna give it to her,” said Edwin, gesturing toward Ms. Thomas. “I don’t care who you give it to, just take it off,” said Ms. Thomas. Edwin took the shirt off and threw it on the floor.
Most teachers in the special-education department didn’t have a problem with him. “You always knew what you were getting,” said one. “He was straightforward,” said another. Most did not indulge him, but they picked their battles. Others found him frustrating and disruptive. “There were particular teachers he knew he could get a rise out of,” says Ms. Thomas. “Full throttle. ‘You at school today?,’” she said, imitating Edwin’s thought process. “‘Let me see if I can make you mad.’”
He’d never been diagnosed, but Ms. Thomas guessed he was more likely to have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than oppositional defiant disorder. “If you’re oppositional defiant you’re like that with everybody. We never had that problem with Edwin here because we always shut it down. He was never disrespectful to us. But he would be referred here almost every day for something. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t have to fuss at him.”
Edwin liked school, says Gabriel, because he saw it as a great venue for horsing around. “I think he liked it because there are lots of people here and he could be distracted and mess about,” he explains. The actual schoolwork Edwin found both boring and pointless. When his childhood friend Camilla (not her real name) would ask him what he wanted to do with his life, he’d say, “Nothing.” “I don’t like school,” he told her. “I just want to work at High Times,” a local tobacco shop that sells pot paraphernalia.
A number of times over the few months since school had started that semester, Ms. Thomas had called Edwin’s mother, Marlyn, to discuss his behavior and to try to make plans to set him back on track. Marlyn, age thirty-nine, was eight months pregnant when I met her more than a year after the shooting. She speaks almost no English, relying on her children to interpret for her, so we spoke through a translator, Miriam Garcia. Marlyn came to the United States via the border town of Laredo in 1985, hiding in the driver’s cabin of an eighteen-wheeler with eight other people. She was nineteen, and she wanted something better than what she felt the future held in her native Honduras. One of seven children from El Progreso, an impoverished farming town at the foot of the Mico Quemado mountain chain, her future there appeared bleak. She paid coyotes $1,800—half up front and half on the Mexican side of the border—and traveled for a month, through Guatemala and Mexico. “I always wanted to have a family and give them more than we had, but I knew that doing that would be very difficult. I wanted to come to America because I thought I could make decent money and send it back to my parents to help them out.”
It didn’t quite work out like that. She did raise a family. Edwin was her oldest, followed by Sandra, fourteen, Victor, twelve, and Giovanni, nine. But she never learned English and never got the kind of training that would pull her out of the most basic, vulnerable manual labor. She cleans apartments and sometimes cooks for people. “The gold fell from very high in the sky,” wrote John Berger in his book about the immigrant experience, A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe. “And so when it hit the earth it went down very, very deep.”2 She barely has enough money to support her own family; it’s unlikely she’s sending much home.
Marlyn had come a long way at great risk and effort to give her children a better life. Now her eldest was playing the fool at school. She could not fathom what had gotten into him. He had been a sickly infant, hospitalized for seven days when he was eight months old for pneumonia. Marlyn was terrified back then. “He was my first child. He was my life. I was very worried. They are all my life,” she said casting her hand in the direction of her other children. “But he was my first, so he was very special in that way.” While he was in the hospital, he was also diagnosed with asthma. His father had asthma. The doctors told them it was hereditary. It was the reason why they could never have a pet. But as the years went on, Edwin’s asthma became less pronounced before effectively dissipating into a range of less serious allergies. As a child, he had always been very calm and obedient and sought to set an example for his three younger siblings. He’d never done brilliantly in school academically, but up until this point he had not caused any trouble either. Now Ms. Thomas kept calling her in.
Each time they told Edwin they were calling his mother, his demeanor would change markedly. His mother was not familiar with the clowning and defiant behavior of his school world. Having her hear about it would not get him in serious trouble—Marlyn doesn’t appear to be a big disciplinarian. But, more devastatingly to him, it would disappoint her and diminish her impression of him as the responsible eldest son.
Holding her hands together palm to palm, as though in prayer, she would say to him in front of his teachers, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. Promise me you’ll stop. You’re supposed to be an example for your brothers and sisters.” Edwin would give his word. He said he was just playing and put the trouble down to a bad relationship with just one teacher. “I promise you they’re not going to call anymore,” he’d tell her. And that promise would be as good as the next call. “By December I promise you my grades are going to go up,” he told her. “That’s what I was looking forward to,” she says.
Ms. Thomas had a plan for Edwin. She’d decided to move him into her behavior class, which had fewer students and two teachers. She called a meeting for eight a.m. on Monday, November 25, to talk about it with her superiors and was getting the paperwork together the previous week. On Friday, November 22, as Jaiden lay on life support over a thousand miles away, Ms. Thomas came back to school from a meeting elsewhere to find that Edwin had been sent to her again. “Why are you down here?” she asked him, somewhat wearily. He wouldn’t say exactly, beyond saying that his teacher had sent him to wait for her. She entered her office, and he followed her in, placed a chair against the wall, and sat in front of her desk playing Fruit Ninja on his phone. “Miss, do you like playing Fruit Ninja?” he asked, swiping away at the produce with his finger. “No, Edwin,” she said. “I don’t play those stupid games.” She asked him what he’d done this time. Once again he’d been joking around and refused to stop when he was told. “Edwin, I’m gonna choke you if you don’t stop,” she said, repeating the threat she jokingly made to all her students whose behavior wore out her last nerve. Edwin carried on playing Fruit Ninja. He stayed in her office for the remainder of the day, and when the bell rang he got up. “See you later, Miss,” he said. “See you Monday,” said Ms. Thomas, who starts to cry as she recalls saying good-bye for the last time.
That weekend, Ms. Thomas collated the paperwork for the Monday morning meeting. “I’d already pretty much completed it, but I’m, like, a perfectionist, and everyone has to put their eyes on it,” she says. “So after I cleaned up the house on Saturday morning I took another look, made sure everything was laid out in his folder correctly, and put it in my little backpack so it’d be ready.”
AT FIVE FEET TEN, Edwin was a fairly tall, slender, handsome boy with tight black hair like wire wool and bushy eyebrows to match. He looked young, even for sixteen; he had a smooth-looking face not yet ravaged by acne or stubble, with the complexion of watered-down milk. Depending on where you are, he could have been mistaken for many races and ethnicities, including white. Marlyn has darker, Amerindian features one would associate with South or Central America. But Edwin was more of a shape-shifter. In France people would assume he was from the Maghreb; in Germany he might be Turkish; in Spain or Portugal some locals might claim him as their own. In Houston, he was Latino.
It was perhaps a mark of his immaturity that he’d not found a way to capitalize on his good looks. He never had a romantic relationship. He’d had plenty of crushes, says Gabriel, but he was always too shy to talk to girls. No matter how many times Gabriel told him to lighten up, Edwin could never get up the courage up to ask a girl out. He’d laugh it off. “Your girl will be my girl too,” he’d tell Gabriel. When Gabriel told him he’d have to get his own girlfriend, Edwin would plead for help. “I can’t, but that’s because you don’t help me, man,” he said. Gabriel would tease him relentlessly, approaching “random girls” and telling them Edwin liked them. “He’d turn completely red,” says Gabriel, who would then tease him some more. “Hey, what’s up with you, Mr. Tomato Head.” “He was shy,” says Marlyn. “But the girls were after him.”
One girl he was particularly close to was Camilla. She came from a rough family. Her mother, it is claimed, was a Cholo gang member. Her apartment is defended by a ferocious pit bull. Camilla openly and proudly identifies as a gang member. Her Facebook page carries the letters SWC (Southwest Cholo) after her gang name. She has not only bought into the gang culture; she literally wears it. Her hair sits high atop her head in a supertight ponytail, her eyebrows are drawn on in black, string rosaries hang around her neck. Big black shirt, big black pants, a black belt so long one end hangs lank close to the ground, black and white bandanna around her neck, and a pair of black Chuck Taylors on her feet. Butch and dark, black on brown—it’s the chola style.
“He was always playing with her, but she had a tough attitude,” says Marlyn. “They loved each other very much. She protected him a lot.” “I knew him since third grade,” says Camilla. “He was my best friend. We went to school together in the morning, and then we’d come home together after school. We were like brother and sister.” Once, Gabriel asked him why he didn’t date Camilla. “You’re always with her. You might as well go out with her.” “Nah man, she’s like my sister,” said Edwin. “Are you sure? Because you’re always with her,” said Gabriel. “Nah,” insisted Edwin. “She’s my home girl.”
For the last few years, Edwin and Camilla had been living in Bellaire Gardens, a low-rise apartment complex on a busy road of commercial and residential properties in southwest Houston in an area called Gulfton. A greenfield site until shortly after the Second World War, Gulfton was rapidly developed during the seventies, at the height of Houston’s oil boom. Ambitious energy workers flocked to Texas from the Rust Belt and abroad, prompting opportunistic developers to hastily build “luxury” apartment complexes for young professionals. In the absence of zoning laws, these new complexes sprouted up all around Gulfton and boasted fancy names like Chateaux Carmel and Napoleon Square with amenities like swimming pools, hot tubs, laundry rooms, and even discos while offering free gifts like VCRs to new tenants. These gated communities, strewn along roads with dense traffic in between commercial outlets, were often built like small fortresses, with many stipulating that no children were allowed. Precious little in the way of social infrastructure—parks, libraries, even schools—followed.3
When the oil bust came, this new clientele moved on, and the speculators were suddenly left with vast property portfolios and no tenants to fill them. They found new customers by slashing rents, eliminating the “no children” rules, and forgoing background checks to draw in low-income migrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Within a decade, Gulfton had been transformed in Houston’s imagination from trendy “Swingersville” to the “Gulfton Ghetto” and soon became notorious for gang crime.
Bellaire Gardens is one of those complexes. It sits between a store selling bridal wear and highly flammable-looking dresses for quinceañera—the celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday—and the back of a Fiesta supermarket, a Texas-based Hispanic-oriented chain with garish neon lighting that makes you feel as though you’re shopping for groceries in Vegas. Opposite are a pawn shop, beauty salon, Mexican taqueria, and Salvadorean restaurant.
The complex comprises two, two-story apartment buildings and is laid out in a square with a swimming pool and laundry room at the heart of a larger courtyard. The apartments are brick and in a poor state of repair. Each one has a porch, where plants, bicycles, and barbecue grills wait for warmer weather. Marlyn was always happy there. “It was very nice,” she says. “He loved that place. We knew the neighbors. Nothing bad ever happened. They all grew up there so they all loved it.” She lived there for eight years. They moved once, incidentally to a complex where Camilla’s family was also living at the time. But she missed Bellaire Gardens so much she soon returned.
They lived in an apartment overlooking the swimming pool in the central courtyard; Camilla’s unit lay on the periphery, closer to the entrance past the laundry room and just a minute away. Marlyn didn’t approve of Camilla’s family. She knew them well enough to say hello to them but had never visited their apartment and was none too keen on Edwin’s spending so much time there. She heard they dealt drugs and feared that Camilla might lead Edwin astray. “She’s my best friend, she won’t do anything to me,” Edwin told her. But Marlyn was not convinced. Camilla had a sense that Marlyn was not a fan. “Your mom keeps looking at me weird,” she told Edwin. “She doesn’t like me.”
But although Camilla came from more difficult circumstances, she was also much more focused at school and aspirant than Edwin. He went to school to mess around, but she had goals. She wanted to be a pharmacist. She played snare drum in the school band. She was getting good grades. None of her siblings had done well in school. “She was a bright girl,” said one of her teachers. “She could have been the one.” When she felt down because she had performed badly academically, she would get upset and Edwin would try to cheer her up. “Let’s go chill with some home boys and smoke some weed,” he’d suggest. “I can’t because I have to stay for band practice,” she’d tell him. Her nickname for him was McLovin, after the hapless character in the teenage movie Superbad.
The Southwest Cholos run this neighborhood, complex by complex. There is no avoiding them. “They start them really, really young,” a teacher at Lee High told me. “In elementary. Third grade, fourth grade. And that’s just how it is for kids.”
What defines gang membership are extremely subjective and loose criteria. Gang leaders don’t hand out membership cards. Sometimes there is initiation. However, since gang affiliation can be a guide to criminal activity and allegiance, with at least semiformal codes and boundaries, authorities are constantly trying to demarcate a more definite way to identify them.
Almost inevitably, such proscription falls back on stereotypes. In a 1999 article in Colorlines, it was pointed out that “In at least five states, wearing baggy FUBU jeans and being related to a gang suspect is enough to meet the ‘gang member’ definition. In Arizona, a tattoo and blue Adidas sneakers are sufficient.” In suburban Aurora, Colorado, local police decided that any two of the following constituted gang membership: “slang,” “clothing of a particular color,” “pagers,” “hairstyles,” “jewelry.” Black people comprised 11 percent of Aurora and 80 percent of the gang database. The local head of the ACLU was heard to say, “They might as well call it a black list.”4
“You join for protection,” explains one of Edwin’s teachers. “Even if you’re not cliqued in, so long as you’re associated with them, you’re good. You have to claim a clique to be safe. If you’re not, if you’re by yourself, you’re gonna get jumped.” This is what makes the term gang-infested so loaded and so unhelpful. Many young people in certain areas are gang members in the same way that Soviet citizens were members of the Communist Party and Iraqis under Saddam Hussein were in the Baath Party—there was precious little choice. In and of itself their gang affiliation doesn’t tell you much. To treat all affiliation as complicity is to write off children in entire communities for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When it came to the Southwest Cholos, Camilla was a devoted member; Edwin was not. Though nobody said it, one gets the impression that his immaturity would have been a liability. He was a wannabe. “They accepted him,” says Ms. Thomas. “He hung with them. But he wasn’t in yet.” His mother knew nothing of this. But then parents rarely do.
WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, I went on a camping holiday to Germany with a friend. On the way back to England we stopped in a small Dutch border town called Nijmegen. The first thing we did was go to a “coffee shop” and buy as much marijuana as we could. It might have potentially lasted us for a couple of weeks, but my friend and I stuffed it all into two huge joints. We went for a walk, bought packets of cookies, bags of potato chips, and pastries, sat in a clearing behind a housing estate, and smoked them both. We laughed uproariously and lay down for what seemed like hours, either rambling like fools or in total silence. Eventually the police came. They asked us questions in Dutch. We thought their accents hilarious and kept on laughing. They told us to go back to the campsite, but when they saw us head off in completely the wrong direction—we had no idea where we were—they circled their van around and picked us up.
At the site, they made us show them our passports and train tickets. “There’s a train that leaves here this afternoon that will get you to the Hook of Holland in time for the night boat,” they told us. “You should be on it.” By this time, even though we weren’t quite thinking straight, we knew we were in trouble. We scrambled to pack our things—not easy when you’re as stoned as we were—and sheepishly, still not fully sober, we went home. My mother was pleased to see me, but surprised because I had come back a day early. On the mantelpiece was an unopened envelope with the results of two O levels—standardized tests given to secondary-school students in the UK—that I’d taken in politics and economics. I’d received A’s on both tests. If anyone had asked her how my summer went, she’d have told them I’d had a lovely holiday and did well at school. She had no idea I’d ever smoked marijuana, let alone about my brush with the law in the Netherlands. As far as she was concerned, her A-student son couldn’t wait to get home, and so he returned from his adventure prematurely.
Parents may have perfectly loving, functional relationships with their children but still, particularly in the children’s teenage years, have precious little idea what they’re getting up to. Of course, there may be signs that an adolescent is having sex, taking drugs, or drinking. But they may not be obvious, the parents may miss them, the child may be incredibly good at covering his or her tracks, or the parents may avert their gaze in a mixture of discretion and denial. It is possible to transgress any number of boundaries and still keep curfew, achieve acceptable grades, and be civil at home. Parents may have known their children longer than anyone else and understand their impulses better than anyone else. But that’s not the same as actually knowing what they’re doing at a given moment.
Marlyn, like most parents, had a very different understanding of what Edwin was doing than what he was actually doing. She knew he was messing around in school. How could she not, given the number of times she’d been called in? But beyond that, she was less aware of what he was getting up to. When I asked one school friend, Diego (not his real name), what he did when he hung out with Edwin, his response was brief and to the point: “Play soccer and smoke blunts.” Gabriel said that, among other things, they liked to smoke. On his Facebook page Edwin refers to smoking quite a bit. “Man just snook out of ma house and went to go smoke a joint with ma homegirl Camilla-fukkin high-B).” There are several posts declaring things like “Everything’s better when you’re high”; one post displays a picture of a woman with smoke pouring from her mouth and the words “Blaze it up.” For a few months in July, his Facebook cover photo was a marijuana leaf surrounded by smoke. There were signs.
So when Marlyn, looking for evidence of why he was behaving badly at school, brought his hands to her nose and smelled marijuana, it was a surprise only to her. She says Edwin cried and asked for forgiveness. He told her his hands smelled like that because he was helping Camilla roll a joint. It’s the kind of story a mother believes because she wants to. But then there were other stories few mothers could reasonably imagine. That summer, Edwin and Camilla had become embroiled in a feud with a boy called Stevie G. (not his real name), who was affiliated with a rival gang, La Primera (LP). His girlfriend had moved into the Bellaire Gardens apartments to live with her aunt and tried to befriend Edwin and Camilla. But they neither liked nor trusted her. She was in LP, and they figured she was feeding information back to her boyfriend. “We talked a lot of mess about her on the Internet,” says Camilla. When Stevie G. heard about their insults, he was livid. Earlier in the fall he’d come to Camilla’s apartment, had threatened her, and had trash-talked Edwin. Not long before that, he’d shot at Camilla’s brother when he was hanging out on Bissonnet Street. Camilla and Edwin thought they needed to protect themselves if Stevie G. ever came back. So they pooled what little cash they had and bought a gun, which they stashed at Camilla’s house. “But we were thinking like little kids,” says Camilla. “I didn’t really know anything about guns. I just know you shoot with it and that’s it.”
On Saturday morning, November 23, as Kenneth and Stanley’s deaths lit up social media, Edwin slept in. Marlyn had made flour tortillas, which were his favorite, but he said he didn’t feel like eating them and asked for sausages and a couple of eggs instead. He was a picky eater, and Marlyn wasn’t interested in wasting food. “You’d better eat them both,” she told him. He said he would, and as he ate he took some sausage from his plate and put it in her mouth. They chatted about school and his friends. He’d just met a new girl and claimed he was going to ask her out on Monday. He asked Marlyn for ten dollars so he could buy the girl a burger. “What about Joanna?” his mother asked, referring to another girl he was interested in. “She’s with somebody else,” he said.
For the rest of the afternoon, he lazed around the apartment, going upstairs to play PlayStation and then returning to his mother’s room, where he lay with his legs over hers, while his phone charged and Marlyn watched television. It was unseasonably chilly that night for Houston—overcast and breezy with winds gusting at twenty-seven miles per hour. Edwin was cold and snuggled with Marlyn, coaxing her phone from her so he could check his Facebook page.
Around 5:30 p.m., just as Brandon was calling for a pizza in Marlette, Edwin put on his socks and asked if he could go to hang out with Kevin on Bissonnet Avenue. Marlyn said no, it was too cold and it was getting dark. Then his younger siblings had another idea. At the back of the Bellaire Gardens complex were some abandoned apartments where they’d recently found some puppies. Edwin hadn’t seen the puppies yet, and the kids asked Marlyn if they could go and feed them. Marlyn agreed, so long as they all went together. She prepared some rice and shredded meat to feed to the dogs. They all left together, and she stood at the door watching them as they turned the corner. “Be careful, and don’t go anywhere else,” she shouted after them. But as soon as the door was closed, Edwin peeled off, telling his siblings he was going back to get his coat but instead doubling back to visit Camilla. “He knew if he’d asked me I’d have said no,” says Marlyn.
When he arrived at Camilla’s he looked like he’d just woken up. “I’ve come to see my best friend,” he told her. “Your best friend’s on Bissonnet,” she told him, teasing him in the knowledge that his first choice had been to hang with Kevin.
They chatted for a while, and then Edwin asked where the gun was. She thought her brother had taken it because of Stevie G., but when she checked it was still there. She gave it to him. Neither was remotely familiar with guns. He cocked it and then took the clip out. For a lark he pointed it at her and made out like he was going to shoot her. Then he gave it to her. “Make out like you’re gonna shoot me,” he said.
Although Ms. Thomas cannot speak to the veracity of anything that happened that night, from what she knows of Edwin this scenario rings true. She refers to Edwin as a “What if? kid,” chasing hypotheticals as a dog would chase a car. “He’d say, ‘Miss, what if I drop out of school?’” Ms. Thomas recalled. “And I’d say, ‘What if you live under a bridge?’ ‘Hey Miss, what if I walk out this door right now?’ ‘What if you get suspended?’ That was where his mind was at.”
But Camilla obliged. She held the gun at an angle, as though it were an extension of her arm, gangster-style. They assumed that because the clip was out the gun was empty. They didn’t realize that when he’d cocked it he’d put a bullet in the chamber. “I didn’t really know how to clear out the chamber,” says Camilla. “I didn’t really know it would go in there. Because it was my first gun.” She pressed it against his chest and pulled the trigger. Pop. Then silence. Edwin’s eyes widened in shock and pain; Camilla’s eyes widened in disbelief as she felt the gun recoil. “Oh shit, you shot me,” he said. “Oh, sorry,” said Camilla. They stared at each other in a suspended moment, each realizing they could not turn the clock back and that Edwin had little time left. “I picked him up to carry him downstairs. But when I looked at him his eyes were rolling back already,” says Camilla. “Basically he was already dying.”
Camilla panicked. “I didn’t know what to tell my mom or anybody,” she said. “Because nobody knew that we had a gun. Not even my mom. We hadn’t had it for even a month. I didn’t know how to tell them.” She hid the clip in the bed and the gun elsewhere and told her mom that Stevie G. had shot Edwin through the window.
Across the courtyard, Marlyn was getting anxious. It was close to seven p.m., and the kids had been away for close to half an hour. “If they don’t come back in ten minutes, I’m going to find them,” she told herself. She went to get some shoes and a sweater, but before she could get herself ready she heard them climbing the stairs. Trouble was, there were only three of them. “Where’s Edwin?” she asked. “We don’t know,” the children said. “He never came with us.”
Marlyn knew he’d gone to Camilla’s. She told Victor to go fetch him, but Victor refused, saying he hated going to Camilla’s house because it was gross. Giovanni volunteered. “Tell him if he doesn’t come now I’ll go over there and bring him back by the ear,” she told Giovanni. Giovanni left, only to come back alone, breathless and with, as Marlyn recalls, “terror in his face.” “Mom, come quickly, Edwin is dying at Camilla’s house.”
Sandra was the first to get there. She found Camilla crying on the stairs while her mother tried to revive Edwin at the top of the stairs, just outside Camilla’s room. Camilla kept to her story—Edwin had been looking out the window when she’d heard gunfire and saw him fall back. Marlyn was fast on Sandra’s heels, springing into life and sprinting across the courtyard, after briefly being paralyzed by shock. She flew up the stairs and pushed Camilla’s mom out of the way. Thinking he had reacted badly to some kind of drug, she yelled at Camilla’s mom, “What did you give him, he has asthma.” “No,” Camilla’s mom said. “He has a bullet wound.”
Marlyn searched in vain but could see no blood. Camilla had shot him at such close range it was not immediately obvious where the wound was. Then Marlyn opened his jacket and there was the hole. She heard a noise in his chest, like a gurgling—the same kind of noise Nicole had heard as she held Jaiden. When Marlyn pushed, some blood spurted out. She held him in her arms, the whole time screaming, “Edwin, what did they do to you? What did they do to you? Answer me!”
He’d been there for about half an hour, and no one had called emergency services. She knew he was dead. His skin was purple, his eyes were rolled back high under his lids. But she hoped for a miracle. She called 911. When the paramedics arrived, they told everyone to clear out. When they finally carried him down on the stretcher, they told her it was too late. He was gone.
Camilla told Marlyn the story about Stevie G. and the bullet through the window. Marlyn didn’t buy it, but at first the media did. The local ABC news affiliate ran a piece on its website later that night stating, “The shooter is still at large and the case remains under investigation.” The local ABC news anchor, Foti Kallergis, was tweeting that police thought the shooting was gang related.5
Meanwhile, Camilla’s story was unraveling fast. The police found the clip on the bed and the shell in the room. And it didn’t take a ballistics expert to realize that Edwin was shot close up rather than from a distance. “I knew I had to tell them the truth,” says Camilla. “They found the clip and they found the shell. So they knew the shooting happened inside the house.” She eventually confessed all at the police station. She didn’t get back home until five a.m. on Sunday morning.
MS. THOMAS WAS GETTING ready for church when she got a call from her former secretary saying Edwin was on the news. She wouldn’t tell her why. Ms. Thomas assumed he had done something stupid. But when she turned on the television, there was no mention of it. News of his death had not lasted all the way through the overnight news cycle on local network television. So she went online and saw that he’d been involved in a deadly shooting. Even then it took her a while to figure out what had happened. He’d just been in her office two days before; his paperwork was in her briefcase. Now she had to call her superiors and cancel Monday morning’s meeting. Edwin would not be transitioning to behavior class. He was dead. It just didn’t make sense.
On Monday morning, Gabriel arrived at school still refusing to believe the rumors. All through the weekend he’d heard people talking about it, but he thought Edwin was involved in an almighty, sick hoax. He was in Edwin’s class for the first period, and he planned to confront him about playing such a tasteless prank. Usually he would come in late to see Edwin sitting at his usual desk with his head resting on his folded arms as though he were asleep. But the desk was empty, and he could deny it no longer. He sat in Edwin’s empty chair and started to weep.
By that time, Ms. Thomas had managed to get in touch with most of the special-ed teachers who knew Edwin. A small convoy of educators and counselors from school took the eight-minute drive to Bellaire Gardens to see how they could help. It was a crazy scene, with detectives and police swarming throughout, a family mourning in one apartment, and a young girl in shock across the courtyard.
As they walked up the stairs to Edwin’s apartment, they met his sister, Sandra, who sat zoned out on the front porch, listening to the songs kids were posting on Facebook to memorialize her brother. Inside, Marlyn sat clutching a small five-by-seven-inch framed photo of Edwin, muttering tender words in Spanish to herself. Up the narrow staircase, in the room Edwin shared with his two younger brothers, Giovanni and Victor played video games, avoiding the eyes of yet more visitors. On Edwin’s bed lay his school uniform—pants, shirt, and socks on the bed, along with his inhaler, and shoes on the floor. Ready to go.
“Who did this?” asked Ms. Thomas. “Mama,” the younger brothers said, and went back to their gaming. Across the courtyard, Camilla stared at a huge flat-screen television, which was on mute, while a pit bull barked in its cage. One of the counselors sat with her for a while. Eventually Camilla spoke. “I can’t talk right now,” she said and then continued to sit in silence. She was more communicative on Facebook, where she grieved openly. Solipsistic, raw, desperate for affirmation, her first posting—the day after she’d shot Edwin—reads, “Whyy !!?? Why does shit like dis allways have to happen to me :,,( I’m soo sorry Edwin Martinez [Edwin’s Facebook name] :’’’( I love you homie RIP:(( I hope I see you soon. . . . ”
The second post, written on the same day, reads, “Listening to Bob Marley reminds me of you Edwin Martinez [cry emoticon] homie goodnight I love you you’ll allways be on my mind <\3 I’m sorry it end like dis :’’( :’’’( Rest In Paradise ! [heart emoticon].” She tagged his brother Victor and his sister Sandra.
A couple of days later, on November 26, she reached out in one posting to the Rajo family. “I just wanna say thanks to everybody whos been here for me all my family & Edwin Martinez family [heart emoticon] thank yall and all my freinds thanks yall really help me a lot [cry emoticon] [cry emoticon] even the people that bearly know me thanks [cry emoticon]
“I miss you my Mclovin my best friend . . . [cry emoticon] I’m sorry [cry emoticon] [cry emoticon] REST IN PEACE I love you even doe I never told you I know you knew <\3 [cry emoticon].”
Marlyn, meanwhile, was struggling with the practicalities. Ms. Thomas had offered to raise money to help bury Edwin, but Marlyn said they would be okay. They sold T-shirts and applied for public funds for funeral costs, but when you speak no English, are grieving, and have to rely on traumatized children to translate for you, these things take time. She says she was told that because his shooting was accidental, he was not eligible for public assistance. She was stumped. Over a week later she called Ms. Thomas to take her up on her offer of help. Ms. Thomas put out an e-mail. There is money in Houston, an oil-rich city; it’s just not immediately accessible to the likes of the Rajos. But before the day was out, Ms. Thomas and her colleagues had collected $1,800, which was enough to lay Edwin to rest. His body would lie in the morgue for more than two weeks. Marlyn was also struggling emotionally. When Ms. Thomas arrived at the wake at the family’s apartment, she wondered if Marlyn was going to make it. She walked in to find her leaning over the coffin, holding onto Edwin as a slideshow beamed pictures of him on the wall. She pried Ms. Rajo gently away and led her to the nearest seat, where the mother put her head on Ms. Thomas’s lap and wept, asking, “Why?” over and over again. Someone who’d recently undergone a root canal slipped her a Vicodin. It was the first night she’d slept in weeks.
They finally buried Edwin on December 13. The funeral, held at the Santana funeral home, was almost exactly the same: Ms. Rajo leaning over the coffin, Ms. Thomas acting as her emotional caretaker. “When I saw him in the coffin,” says Marlyn, “I wanted to go with him. But I know my other kids needed me.” No preacher showed up. So there was no service. No prayer. No scripture was read. A couple of family members said a few words, but otherwise nothing. “We just sat there staring at the body for two hours. It was just like another wake,” said Ms. Thomas. Finally they closed the casket. As people left the funeral home to make their way to the burial site, Marlyn asked if she could travel in the hearse with the coffin. “No,” said Ms. Thomas, and with the help of her assistant they bundled her into the first car they saw. When they got to the burial site the funeral directors opened the coffin again. It was like the torment was never going to end.
For a while afterward, Marlyn thought she was going crazy. She imagined that maybe Edwin was hidden somewhere and would come back. The doctor gave her sleeping pills, but in the end she fell back on her religion. Raised Catholic, she is now Evangelical. “Church has helped me get through the pain. It’s made me more religious. But even though I say that, sometimes I still feel the pain, and every day there is more pain. Then I start praying.” When I met her, fifteen months after Edwin’s death, she started crying before I’d asked a single question.
As happened in the tiny hamlet of Marlette, Michigan, where Tyler Dunn was shot by a friend, Edwin’s death divided families and friends. So long as Marlyn remained in the Bellaire Gardens apartments, she would bump into Camilla’s family all the time. When she did, she yelled at them, “Why? Why did you kill my son?” They responded with insults. They told her she was going crazy and even blamed her. “You should have let him smoke weed in your house, then he wouldn’t have had to come here,” they said. They accused Edwin of bringing the weapon into the house and asking them to hide it for him. “But that’s not true,” says Marlyn. “I know that Edwin did not have a weapon. Only God knows the truth, and Edwin’s not here to deny it. . . . I told her mother it’s her fault. She the one selling drugs and having weapons in her house.”
At one point, she and Camilla came to blows. “I was on drugs,” explains Camilla, “and she was shouting at me, ‘You killed my son.’ You know, that really hurts me,” Camilla continues, “because he was my friend.” “Hey, that was an accident, man,” Camilla told her. “You can’t say that kind of shit to me every time I pass by.” According to Camilla, Marlyn threw a can at her, and so Camilla tried to beat her up. “She kept calling me ‘devil’ or ‘murderer’ and shit like that.”
Camilla was also struggling. She wanted to kill herself. “I wish Edwin had shot me or I’d shot myself or something. Edwin’s resting in peace right now, and I’ve still got to do everything. I still got to deal with people looking at me wrong because they know what happened. I wanted to kill myself, but I didn’t have the guts to do it, so I thought, man, I’m just gonna be in the gang and I’m just gonna come out for Edwin because Edwin was a Cholo. That’s how I was planning on dying. I was lost in my mind. I just messed up my whole life. I only smoked weed with Edwin. But after he died I got really into the bars [Xanax, prescription painkillers]. I started drinking beer and taking coke.”
More than a year after the shooting, she is acutely aware of her fragile emotional state, even if she is unable to do much about it. “I was a mess. I tried almost everything. Just to be high and forget about all my problems. But the next day, I wake up and they’re still there. The only reason I didn’t shoot myself is because I started reading the Bible and stuff. I used to be an atheist, but that’s the only thing that gave me hope. Because it’s hard to live with something like that. Because everybody throws it in your face once in a while. ‘You know what you did.’ Sometimes when my mom gets mad she says, ‘It’s because of you that we have all these fucking problems.’”
Camilla had some counseling and was even committed to a psychiatric ward for a while. “I’ve never been to the hospital for more than two weeks. Because they made me feel like I’m crazy. And I’m not crazy. They made me take off my shoelaces. They made me take off my headband. And I don’t like that.” Her promise in school evaporated. When she wasn’t high, she was belligerent, and sometimes both simultaneously. “I just thought, Fuck school. I didn’t care about it no more. They kicked me out because I’m in a gang and I saw someone in school who was repping for someone else and so I tried to fight them. But I didn’t care. I thought any of these days I could die. One my friends could die. One of my family members could die. Just like Edwin died out of nowhere. That day, I didn’t know that was going to happen. Your friends die every year. I don’t know when it’s my last day with the people I love. I don’t care about the future because it’s not here yet.”
But there were also significant differences between the fallout from Edwin’s death and that following Tyler Dunn’s. First of all, unlike with Tyler’s death, after which two people were punished by the courts, nobody has been held accountable for Edwin’s death. The case was referred to a grand jury, but there’s no evidence that it ever met, and no one was ever charged. Less than two weeks after we spoke, Camilla had been arrested for “retaliation” in what appears to be an unrelated matter. She was later sentenced to two years in prison.
Marlyn’s principal grievance is that more than a year after that fatal day, no charges have been brought and no price has been paid. “They never called me when it happened,” she says, referring to Camilla and her mother. “They had him there, and they didn’t do anything. Perhaps if they’d called me when it happened, I could have done something. By the time I got there, he’d already been there for half an hour. She wasn’t imprisoned. She faced no charges. I called the police to find out why she wasn’t imprisoned. She’s free. She wasn’t even reprimanded. They said there will be justice. There will be a process. But it’s been more than a year. Somebody should be held responsible for this. She sells drugs. They should go to prison. If a pet was killed like that, there would be justice. They showed no remorse or guilt, and in the end nothing happened to them.”
Paradoxically, given that there has been no punishment, there has also been more forgiveness. Camilla went to Edwin’s funeral. Her Facebook cover photo shows her sitting next to Edwin’s grave, all in black, surrounded by flowers and balloons, smoking what looks like a joint. Her previous photo shows a large crowd standing around the grave. She says she’s still in contact with Sandra and Victor. (Sandra said she wasn’t.) “His sister and brother are cool,” she says. “But every time I’m with them I know what happened. I feel bad because they don’t have a brother no more. The only person I’m not cool with is his mom. And I understand that. Because sometimes I even get mad at myself. He was my best friend.”
There was a moment on Facebook when it looked like tensions might flare, as they did in Marlette. The day after the shooting, Adan Castaneda posted, “Fucked up Knowing Who Killed Him!” At that stage, most didn’t know what happened or who was involved. A rumor that it was suicide was quickly quashed. But Adan’s friends demanded to know what he knew. Yasmine stepped in and said, “Don’t say her name.” Then Camilla joined the fray.
Camilla: “Adan, don’t be saying he got killed nigga. It was an accident.”
Adan: “I know it was an accident.”
Camilla: “I sorry doe nigga.”
Adan: “Is alight.”
Emjay: “we know it was an accident and accidents happens to everybody.”
Camilla: “life’s a bitch I don’t wanted to end like this.”
Within the gang, it was debated whether she should be kicked out, killed for killing one of their own, or given a pass. She talked to her OG (Original Gangster or gang leader) about it. They decided it was an accident and she had suffered enough. “They said we were young and stupid and it was just an accident, and if someone messes with me about that then it’s them who’s gonna die or whatever,” she told me. Even Marlyn, despite their altercations, believes it was a genuine accident—most of the time. “I don’t think she would have killed him on purpose,” she says. “I think she loved him. But sometimes my pain as a mother makes me feel otherwise.”
The Rajos moved away from Bellaire Gardens. Marlyn couldn’t stand the memories. When I met them they had just settled into a new housing complex ten minutes away. They’d moved in a week earlier and were not yet unpacked. There was no furniture, and though she was heavily pregnant Marlyn insisted that the translator and I sit on two tables. She stood, running her hand over the curve of her extended belly. Shortly before the interview was over I asked if, given everything that had happened, she regretted coming to America. Honduras has a far, far higher rate of homicide in general and gun deaths in particular. But she’d come looking for a better life for a family that did not yet exist, and now her eldest son was dead. “No,” she says. “It’s hard here. It’s very hard. It’s hard work just to stay alive. But I don’t regret leaving. I don’t regret coming. Sometimes I think God must know what happened to my son and why. But I don’t blame the country. It could have happened anywhere. Knowing the situation in Honduras I think my children are better off here.”
A month after I spoke to her, she gave birth to a five-pound twelve-ounce boy. She named him Edwin.