Her So-Called Life

An inventory of the disappearing tattoos of Nina Bonifacio:
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.

"I decided to drive to California--with nothing but a learner's permit--and whip his girlfriend's ass. I got two tickets on the way, but I kept going. I got to her school, but I got removed by the cops. I found three of my homies. We were driving around and saw these three scraps. All wearing blue! We started to beat them up. I take this one girl and smash her head into the pavement."

That was exciting, but it is also known as assault and battery, and Nina went directly to jail for it, after having been in California less than 24 hours. Even though she was "a big whale in a small pond and could control things," she did not enjoy spending Christmas and New Year's and most of January separated from her homies, who didn't have the money to bail her out, or her family in Denver, who refused.

She sat around thinking. She thought: This is bullshit. All this, for a gang? Maybe my real family is more important. "That's when I decided to get out," she says. And she went home to Denver to get her life together.

She moved back in with her parents and got her GED. "I am not stupid," she points out. "I even know a GED is basically bullshit. You make up four years of high school in one four-hour test? I don't think so."

She got a job, first at a Good Times drive-through, and then as a Target checker. One of her friends from Byers, the straight-up gang school, told her about the Tattoo Removal Program at Swedish Medical Center, and she decided to apply, as she was getting tired of little kids in the checkout line telling her they thought tattoos were cool.

At the laser clinic, they say it feels like a rubber band being snapped against your skin. "No," Nina says. "It's more like holding a lighter to your flesh. It makes me want to cry."

"Well," says Rosanne Engblom, RN and supervisor for the Laser Clinic at Swedish, "tattoos hurt a lot going on, too. It's just that sometimes people are otherwise anesthetized."

The free Tattoo Removal Program that Engblom runs with the cooperation of four laser surgeons is less than two years old. The idea came from a similar program in Phoenix, and it operates under the assumption that gang-related tattoos make it hard for their owners to find work, at best, and can be a health hazard, at worst, if active gangsters spot them. It usually takes five or six treatments before the tattoos fade completely, Rosanne says. To date, she and her doctors have worked on 150 kids, ages thirteen to nineteen.

"At first, it was pulling teeth to give this service away," she recalls. "Reverend [Leon] Kelly had to go first; he served as a role model, and we took away some of his tattoos. And then suddenly we were inundated--even by guys in their forties and fifties who used to be in motorcycle gangs. Some day, we're going to help them, too."

For now, though, it's strictly underage former gang members who are offered the chance to stick to the tattoo program's strict code: Hold down a job, do ten hours of community service every three months, and find a sponsor to track your progress. You can miss one appointment at the clinic. Miss two, and you're out.

"Out of thirteen or fourteen kids, you can always count on two or three not showing up," Engblom says. "We lose them, and we hope they're not in some kind of trouble, but that's it."

The kids who do show up make for an interesting waiting-room dynamic. "It's Chicano gangs, Bloods, Crips, and lately," says Engblom, "a lot of white-supremacy stuff."

And Nina says all of it is bullshit. Stupid, she means.
"I feel sorry for these little kids who want to be in gangs," Nina says. "Gangs aren't even cool anymore. It's just like pagers. They're stupid now. Cell phones? Stupid. All that went out a long time ago. My boyfriend used to be a Blood, but he doesn't bang anymore. He used to be this big bud smoker. Now he's gang-free, drug-free, crime-free."

As is Nina. Almost. "That anger-management class they want me to take," she remembers. "I won't pay fifty bucks for that! So there's a warrant for that, and maybe some other stuff, traffic stuff. I mean, I went to jail not long ago." For something stupid involving a fight with some mouthy girl at a Good Times. "I was watching that woman at the jail who opens and shuts those doors by pushing a button. That is not a bad job at all, sitting there in a uniform opening and shutting doors."

But what she really wants to be is a police officer. Maybe in the Gang Unit. If she could do situps, she would try out for the Academy. Meanwhile, she does community service at the Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives office. Making photocopies.

Compared with community service in California, "where they make you pick up garbage," it's easy. "And even then, some people at the gang tattoo clinic get all pissed off because they have to do community service at all! That is messed up. Because I know what I have to do, and I don't complain about it. I know what it's like, my life.


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