Los Angeles is arguably the epicenter of street gangs stretching back for generations. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has been documenting the lives of gang members in the city for nearly two decades. For the series "The Hidden World of Girls," produced with the Kitchen Sisters, del Barco revisits one gang girl she profiled for an NPR documentary in 1995.
When I first met up with BooBoo, she was living with her homegirls Nena and Chunky in a seedy one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. They took turns sleeping on a single mattress on the floor, when they weren't running the streets.
BooBoo was a hard-core member of the legendary Playboys. In middle school, when she was initiated into the gang, her homies named her after the cartoon cub that tags along with Yogi Bear.
"I wanted to belong to something," she said. "I was, what, 12 years old? And I see a bunch of girls hanging together. I figured, yeah, I want to kick back with them, so I said I'm a get into Playboys. I'll never be from another neighborhood, 'cause this is where my heart is."
Back then, BooBoo was 19 years old. She sported more than 30 tattoos, including a little Playboy bunny below her right eye and the signature body art of gang life: three dots signifying Mi Vida Loca, or my crazy life.
"Yeah, I been stabbed, shot, busted," she said. "I been through the whole nine yards. And I'm still here."
BooBoo's swagger was as coarse as the ponytail she was brushing during our interview. When she talked about getting revenge with rival gangs, she boasted, "For one of our homeboys that die, about 10 of their homeboys die."
She'd already been shot twice, and had been in and out of juvenile probation camps for various crimes.
"Man, my whole life has been this: I'm free for a little bit, yeah, I might go to school a week or two, I get busted a month, two months, three months, come back out, go to school another week, get busted six months, seven months. That's it. That's my whole routine."
BooBoo said the conditions of her probation included looking for a job. But that was difficult, she explained, because employers were afraid of her tattoos and her attitude.
"I'll admit I might look mean as f***," she admitted, "but if you're all right with me, I'm all right with you."
I asked her what she imagined for her future.
"I would just dream of a normal life, you know? To have your boyfriend, or your husband, your kids, your house, a job. What I wouldn't give for that. Just the responsibility of having to get up to go somewhere," she said wistfully.
"Sometimes you go home and say, 'I'm so tired, I wish I could just kick back.' But look at us: That's all we do."
At the time, BooBoo was pining for her boyfriend, Dreamer, from the Eastside Playboys, who had just been locked away in prison on drug charges.
"In the little time I was with him, he showed me a lot — a lot — of love, eh?" BooBoo sighed. "He doesn't think that I love him, but if you hear this, I love you, stupid."
A Transformation To Mommy
Seventeen years later, BooBoo is in full mommy mode with five children ranging in ages from 18 months to 14 years. At their modest three-bedroom home in L.A.'s Glassell Park neighborhood, she cradles her twins: preemies, born with lung and heart problems.
BooBoo coos, and tenderly places an oxygen mask over Peter's mouth to help him breathe.
"It's the mother-bear feeling," she says. "You gotta look out for your cubs. These are my little baby bears, my cubs."
BooBoo now goes by her real name, Cindy Martinez. Since we last met, she had all her gang tattoos lasered off her face and arms. She says she mostly just talks to her old friends through Facebook.
"Some homies are almost in their 40s, and they're medical assistants, secretaries, nurses," she says. "Some are in prison, some are dead. Some have kids, a whole lotta kids."
Martinez's relationships have been complicated: She married her old boyfriend, Dreamer, after he was released from his eight-year prison sentence. By then, she already had her first two daughters with another Playboy, who was later incarcerated. She says after Dreamer became a heroin addict and was deported to Mexico, she had her younger daughter and the baby boys with a different father.
"If I sat here and told you everything that has happened in my life, you'd be like, this is a Jerry Springer show," she says. "I kid you not. I kid you not."
I ask her what her routine is these days.
"Making breakfast, and changing diapers, and doctors' appointments for the twins," she says. "I'll spend most of my days at Children's Hospital with specialists."
At 36, Martinez has her own health problems, and says they get by on government assistance and help from her construction worker boyfriend. For a while, she sold Avon products, worked in a factory making adult sex toys, and cared for an elderly woman. She'd like to go back to school and get a good job. But getting in the way are her three criminal cases: selling marijuana, assault and battery, and petty theft.
"My life was set to be a gangster, a hoodlum," she says. "If you told me back then, 'You're gonna have five kids,' I woulda slapped you upside of your head. Yeah, right. Me, have kids? Hell, no. But I would never trade 'em for nothing. ... As much as they get on my last nerve."
She says having her daughter Gabriela saved her: "Just knowing that was my baby and needed me, didn't have nobody but me."
'Be Caring Instead Of Hateful'
Martinez says leaving the gang lifestyle was like kicking heroin. But these experiences changed her: the moment someone cocked a gun to her temple while she was holding Gabby; the day gang members brutally gunned down her little brother Freddie; the time baby Peter once stopped breathing.
"All that, 'I'm a tough gangster, I'm this bad bitch,' went out the window," she says. "Since I've had my kids, I've grown to appreciate the sensitive part of life."
It's true: Martinez has transformed from her hard-core mentality, and advises her children to not make her same mistakes.
"I try to tell kids be caring instead of being hateful," she says, adding, "I am not as cold-hearted as I was. I'm such a sissy. I could watch a cartoon and cry. Before I'd be like, 'F*** you, die, mother-f*****, die.' "
She admits there are some days, though, when she just needs a break, "and my old BooBoo comes back, like rrrrrr," she playfully growls. "I try not to have those days."
I ask if she still sings the old "Playboy" song she used to croon with her homegirls back in the day.
"Yeah," snickers the former BooBoo, "I have it on a ringtone on my phone."
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.