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Her So-Called Life

Nina Bonifacio's tattoos finally got under her skin.

An inventory of the disappearing tattoos of Nina Bonifacio:
1. On Nina Bonifacio's right wrist--when she makes change in her job as a Target checker, you can see it very well--is the word "payasa," injected under her skin in bluish ink by a friend five years ago. Nina was thirteen. "It means 'clown,'" she says. "My so-called gang name." The laser tattoo-removal process has caused almost all of the "s" to fade.

2. Just south of where her right elbow bends are two crudely drawn theatrical faces with the words "Smile now, cry later." Also homemade, also beginning to dissolve back into skin tone.

3. Inside left wrist: the letters "RHN," which stand for Richmond, California, which is where Nina Bonifacio grew up and met the kind of friends who carve this kind of tattoo.

4. Left hand, above thumb: a simple black cross. "To me, it just means the Lord," Nina says. "I do believe in God." To the Laser Clinic staff at Swedish Medical Center, it is close enough to gang-affiliated to warrant being medically disappeared.

5. Right hand: "XIV," which means fourteen, which stands for the fourteenth letter of the alphabet, which is N, as in "Norteno," which was, until recently, Nina's gang of choice.

6. On her chest, an "A," for Anthony, once Nina's boyfriend, whom she now calls "a buster. A punk. I hate him." But this tattoo is staying.

7. On her back, "A," for Anthony again. "Well, he was my first boyfriend, so I started tattooing his name on me immediately. It felt good to have someone love you," Nina recalls. This one stays, too.

8. The word "Richmond," on her right ankle. This is shorthand for "Richmond Barrio Locas," a girls' subset of her former gang. This tattoo is on its way out.

Also not to be ignored: "La Payasa RHN," burnt into the skin of Nina's left forearm with a hot paper clip "when I was, like, real mad about something. My dad saw it and he almost passed out. I used to be Daddy's little girl, believe it or not. Here's how he looks at it: The Latinos ruined my pride and joy."

That is not how Nina looks at it. "No one ruined me," she says. "People go, 'Your mom and dad still live together? You live in a nice neighborhood? How could you get in so much trouble?' Well, it was my choice."

Having grown up in a devoutly religious Filipino-American family, done well in school and occupied the cute slot as youngest of three daughters, Nina Bonifacio says her inherent badness had no chance to escape until she entered middle school in Northern California. Right away, she says, it was fascinating, especially "this one girl, with big, big hair--high, stiff, cool. Makeup just right and her clothes all creased up. She was Mexican, and Mexicans just caught my eye. I taught myself to have the accent."

But not to speak Spanish. In less than a month Nina had constructed a new image for herself. "When I used to walk out, I had dark lips, eyeliner, huge hair," she recalls. "And people would be staring at me like, 'Dang, she looks strange.' I always figured, either way, someone will stare."

Then Monica, the girl with the big, big hair, introduced Nina to the theme of red: red Nikes, red bandannas, and defending the color red against the color blue of the rival Surenos--whom Nina still refers to as "scraps." Just like that, she was gang-banging.

Hanging with the Nortenos was "wonderful. I be sportin' red, going to the mall, throwing up my gang signs, saying 'Wassup? Can I have your jacket?'" Nina remembers. "And I was down with this gang. They knew I had heart. Like at the mall--I saw this girl with a blue rag in her hair, and I come up to her, and she says it just happens to match her outfit, but everyone says that. I say, 'Don't make me strip you down, girl.' I take that rag out of her hair and burn it, right in the mall. People were hella scared of me. The look on their faces. It was funny. It was fun."

You could use a bat. You could beat their ass. When some scrap stuck a gun in your face, you could thrill your friends by saying, Just kill me, go ahead, and "not even cry or nothing."

In the middle of all this, Nina's dad got transferred to Denver. The Bonifacios rented a large, pleasant apartment near 12th Avenue and Jasmine Street. (Her new friends referred to the neighborhood as Aurora, since that is a more correct gang address, although technically it is not in that city.)

"I went to Byers, and that is a gang school straight up," Nina recalls. "I was from California, so everyone thought I was just the shit."

No, wait. Nina's father tells her every other word she speaks is profanity. She has to agree. She is going to stop, as of now. As of now, she will at least say "dang" instead of "damn."

Meanwhile, back among the Nortenos, that punk Anthony got out of jail (grand-theft auto), obtained a new girlfriend and fathered a child almost faster than Nina's Loca friends could tell her on the phone. This filled the now-sixteen-year-old Nina with one burning desire.

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