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When Frances Macias-Aguilar learned she was having a sixth baby, she was sure this pregnancy would finally be a secure and happy one. Raised by a troubled single mother in a poor and gang-ridden area of East Los Angeles--herself a mother to five kids by the time she turned 30--Macias-Aguilar had worked diligently to transcend her difficult past.
Both she and her husband, Luis, had been gang members as teenagers. But now they were building decent, new lives. Luis had an excellent union job doing construction for the city of Los Angeles, and Macias-Aguilar worked for Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program where she helped find jobs for young people with pasts similar to her own. When she and Luis decided to have one more baby, they did so as an act of faith in their hard-won future.
Macias-Aguilar knew from the ultrasound that the baby was a girl. "We decided to name her Gennisis, like the first book of the Bible," she says, "only with a different spelling. Because we knew this little girl would symbolize our new beginning." The baby was due Feb. 22, 2004. On Jan. 23, Macias-Aguilar came home to find her front door bashed off its hinges, the interior of her home hit by what appeared to be a cyclone. The police had raided her house and arrested Luis for drug sales.
Macias-Aguilar fought not to panic. "Suddenly, I had nobody to go with me to doctors' appointments, nobody to help with the kids, and how would we get by without Luis' salary?" she says. Also, there was the terror of her husband's legal situation. "I knew he didn't do what they were saying," she says. "But when you're a former gang member, no one wants to believe you can change." So in addition to everything else, Macias-Aguilar began to investigate her husband's case.
Gennisis Angelina was born on Feb. 29--a leap-year baby. Due in part to Macias-Aguilar's efforts, the case against Luis was dropped in its entirety six months later. In between, Macias-Aguilar says, she relieved her crushing stress through the help of friends (including the co-workers who gave her a giant surprise baby shower), by taking power walks around the local park and by helping to form a local women's support group. "People who know my story often ask me how I got through it," she says. "I just tell them, 'Women are strong. We do what we have to do, right?' "