Edgar had never seen a sub like Chris Yanov before. Tough-looking dude, wide shoulders, dark hair buzz-cut, a thin line of beard tracing his square jaw. Wore a suit and tie every day. Yanov spoke Spanish like a native; it sounded weird, Mexican slang coming out of his gringo mouth. At lunch he didn’t hide out in the teachers’ lounge. He’d scarf down his food, then go to the in-school detention room and talk with kids there about making something of themselves.
Yanov lived in Golden Hill, across the street from Edgar, and he played basketball with him and his friends in Golden Hill Park. Edgar had watched Yanov talking to the older guys about staying out of gangs. Sometimes at Kroc, Yanov would walk over to the coral tree and say hello to Edgar, ask him how he was doing. It felt good that Yanov talked to him, but when he came over to the tree, Edgar squirmed. He was trying to fit in with these guys, and the gringo seeking him out didn’t help.
Jorge had met Yanov the year before. “This annoying white guy came up to me and said he’d heard that I was going to meet another guy off campus to fight. He asked me to promise I wouldn’t do it. That was hard.”
Yanov’s instructions from the math teacher that week were to show the film Stand and Deliver. All week, Yanov and his classes watched Jaime Escalante set the bar high, challenge his students. That week Chris Yanov’s vision began, the vision that collided with Jorge Narvaez’s desperation and Edgar Castillo’s indifference and changed all their lives.
Edgar knew how things worked at Kroc. “If you were a guy, you had two choices: you were hard, or you were a nerd.” Edgar was a nerd, a soft-looking boy with a round face and shy smile and lush, dark hair that fell over his forehead. His notebooks overflowed with drawings of cars and characters from video games and kids’ names in bulging, kinetic letters.
Las Lomas, the gang in Golden Hill, was making it harder for Edgar to stay a nerd. They left the grade school kids alone, but in middle school, guys Edgar had known since First Communion were leaning hard on him to join. If you didn’t belong, you could get beat up just walking to the taco shop. Last summer, he’d watched a bunch of Las Lomas guys bust a kid’s head with baseball bats, the blood pouring out. He didn’t want any part of that. He hung out with the hard guys and started dressing like them; he hoped that would be enough. He got his crew cut buzzed down to an eighth-inch of black bristle, wore plaids and baggy denims, the hems scuffing the sidewalk. He ditched the backpack his mother had bought him and carried only a binder. Backpacks were for nerds and white boys.
Jorge is short and wiry, with a slender face, close-cropped wavy hair and eloquent hands. Even sitting, he bristles with energy. In the small apartment on Tenth Street near Fairmont, where he lived with his mother and brother and stepfather, the TV was always on, people were always shouting, and no one had any space of their own. For a couple of months, they didn’t even have their own place and moved from one relative’s apartment to another, sleeping on couches. His mother and his stepfather fought a lot, and Jorge fought with his younger brother. His mother wanted him to do well in school, but she couldn’t read English and couldn’t help him.
Jorge remembered his father, a handsome man with a sweet smile who played the guitar and sang to him. His father also drank a lot and smoked crack, and Jorge remembered the awful times when his father was high and he beat Jorge’s mother with his fists. When Jorge was seven, his mom packed three plaid plastic satchels after his father left for work, and she and Eric and Jorge rode the bus to Guadalajara. They lived there until Jorge was ten. Then his mother met Gustavo, and they came back to the States. Gustavo had a green card, and Jorge’s brother Eric was born in the U.S., but his mother had no papers, and neither did Jorge.
Back in the U.S., everything was larger, the streets were wider and clean, the buildings higher. Jorge felt he had more room to breathe, and at first, he had hope for himself. Here, he wouldn’t have to work landscaping or in fast food; he could go to school and find a good job. School would help him, he knew, but he didn’t quite see how. He watched his mother come home so tired she couldn’t move off the couch. She and Gustavo worked hard, and still there was never enough money, and always they fought. By eighth grade, Jorge felt his hopes curdling, the life he wanted receding out of his reach.
When he was in high school in Oxnard, Chris Yanov had had Mexican friends, kids as smart as he was, as capable of going to college. He watched their ambitions wither because doing well wasn’t cool with their crew; their hopes derail because their parents couldn’t write the check for the college-application fee. At UCSD he studied political science and looked for a way to help kids like the guys from high school. Golden Hill, 12 miles and a world away from the leafy campus, was where he found it.
From the east side of downtown, Golden Hill climbs 200 feet to a mesa with a view from the harbor to Mexico. In 1880, wealthy San Diegans built homes there for the harbor view and the breezes. When Yanov arrived in 1996, Golden Hill was divided. West of 25th Street, those old Victorian mansions and Craftsman bungalows, now meticulously restored, with well-kept yards, had become a neighborhood of prosperous singles and young families and retired couples. East of 25th, houses from the same era, their porches sagging and their paint blistered and peeling, were divided into single rooms, rented to crackheads and laborers and the occasional artist. Apartment buildings sheltered families lately arrived from Mexico, two or three households together, sometimes more than 20 people crowded into a cousin’s or an uncle’s place.