Desiree Gurba

Pocas Pero Locas, Episode 3: “Wassup, M’ija?”

by | June 1, 2021

This series is published in weekly installments and you are about to begin EPISODE III.

Read “EPISODE I: OF BACKPACKS AND BACKBONES,”  here, and EPISODE II: CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE HOMIES’ SOUL: here.

Part Five:

“Come Out of the Bush”

While cops suck at crime prevention, they’re great at harassing minoritized kids. They should be. That’s one of their chief purposes and Desiree and I had barely entered our teens when police first criminalized us. Her experience happened in the city. Mine happened in the country. Because we were California kids, our experiences implicated cars. Because we were girls, authorities immediately or subsequently sexualized us.

In my case, a bottle-blonde classmate had invited me to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. Mom dropped me off at the birthday girl’s Orcutt home and I carried my pillow and overnight bag into her bougainvillea-covered apartment. Two other classmates, one whose last name, Seaman, made me laugh, were also attending the slumber party. The birthday girl’s drunk mom ordered pizzas for us. After we demolished our dinner, we got sugar-drunk on root beer and watched 1989’s low-budget horror classic Puppet Master.

Myriam Gurba age 12
Myriam, Orcutt Jr. High, school photo, age 12

When we were done watching puppets torture people, we wondered what to do next. No one was in the mood to sleep. Empowered by adrenaline, the birthday girl suggested we toilet-paper her enemy’s house. Her idea excited us. We raided the apartment’s two bathrooms, stuffed rolls under our sweatshirts, and tiptoed out the front door. Pregnant with paper, we sprinted. After about a mile, we stopped, panting. We soon found ourselves arguing, unable to decide which route to take to the bitch’s house. The enemy lived about five miles away and it was one in the morning.

“Let’s take a shortcut,” the birthday girl insisted. She pointed in the direction of our school. “No,” I said. “It’s too dark that way.”

As the birthday girl lobbied in favor of her plan, a patrol car crested into view. It approached.

“COPS!” I blurted.

The four of us dove into a willow growing in the sandy lot to our right. We trembled. So did the willow.

The car pulled up beside the shrub. A beam of light penetrated it, blinding us.

“Come out of the bush!” a man’s voice ordered. “Hands in the air!”

My co-conspirators chucked their TP and I followed them to the sidewalk. We assembled in front of an officer. He’d exited his vehicle but the mounted light shining in our faces prevented us from seeing his. He aimed a flashlight at an abandoned hoopty about half a block away.

“Tell me what you did to that car,” ordered the cop.

With a little bit of vinegar in her voice, the birthday girl snapped, “Nothin’. We didn’t touch it.”

DON’T LIE TO ME!” the cop barked. “What did you do to that car? DID YOU STEAL IT?” “We didn’t touch that car!” the birthday girl repeated. “That car is always there! I pass it every day! It has one tire!”

“You girls are very young and very pretty. Just the sort of girls some of the cowboys around here would love to get their hands on and have a good time with.”

The cop sighed. He seemed annoyed that we wouldn’t confess to being car thieves. He switched off the mounted light. As we waited for him to speak, he looked us up and down.

“How old are you, girls?”

“Twelve.”

“Thirteen.”

“Thirteen.”

“Twelve.”

My eyes were still adjusting to the darkness but I could see well enough to make out the cop’s teeth. He was smiling. He said, “You girls are very young and very pretty. Just the sort of girls some of the cowboys around here would love to get their hands on and have a good time with.” The ease with which the cop spoke gave the impression that these cowboys weren’t hypothetical. They were men whose predilections he was quite familiar with and, after explaining to us that we could’ve been raped had it not been for him, the cop said, “When a man has his way with a girl, he’s got to kill her. Men don’t like to leave evidence. Cowboys don’t like goin’ to jail. Get in the car.”

He held the door to his backseat open for us. One, two, three of us climbed in. Before the birthday girl could join the party, the cop slammed the door shut.

“You sit by me,” the cop told her.

Once our party occupied his car, he left to go inspect the hoopty one last time.

I pulled a roll of toilet paper out from under my sweatshirt. My fingers tore at it, pilling the sheets into tiny balls and dropping them on the floor.

“Myriam!” a girl hissed. “Get rid of that toilet paper!”

“Where?”

“I don’t know! Get rid of it!”

Without anywhere to shove it, I sat on the roll. The cop returned and demanded, “Where do you all live?”

The birthday girl answered, “They’re staying the night at my house. Here’s my address.”

The cop drove us to her home and her pissed-off mom answered the cop’s knocking. The mom let us in, thanked the cop for bringing us home, and slammed the door.

“Just wait til the sun comes up,” she threatened before stumbling back to bed.

Desiree & Myriam at Knotts Berry Farm
Desiree & Myriam at Knotts Berry Farm, 1985

Once the sun came up, the mom fixed us pancakes. She didn’t say a word about our adventure and I was fortunate that this drunk had let us come home. Desiree didn’t experience such good fortune when she did what many kids do during summertime. My cousin went joyriding in East LA in a car that didn’t belong to her.

Now, don’t go imagining Fast & Furious. Desiree pulled some basic shit and before you get too judgey, I want you to consider whether or not you borrowed a vehicle without asking when you were a kid. You probably did. And if you didn’t, relax: There’s no need to punish others for your boring ass youth.

“There was a car in the neighborhood that we would steal,” says Desiree. “It was a red station wagon. We would take it as if it was our own. It was the kind of car you could start with a nail file. I guess the man who owned it reported it missing again and when I was cruising with the homegirls, we got pulled over and taken in.”

The cops who pulled over Desiree worked for a Los Angeles gang unit. Sociologist Alex Vitale, author of the book The End of Policing, describes the officers who work for such units as carrying an “us against the world attitude.” Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program, has further described such units as behaving like an “occupying force,” thus likening them to armies. In a 1999 Los Angeles Times editorial critical of LA’s anti-gang policing, Boyle wrote, “Our first clue…that something was inherently wrong with [the city’s] specialized gang unit came in its original acronym: TRASH (Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums).” After some pressure, cops swapped the word ‘trash’ for ‘community,’ thereby giving us CRASH, an institution whose corruption became so absurdly notorious, it inspired the Academy Award-winning film Training Day.

In an interview with PBS’ Frontline, LAPD Chief Darryl Gates whitewashed CRASH, describing the unit as manned by “the very best,” characterizing the unit’s police as those “who are not intimidated by the gangsta…” If by “the very best” Gates meant arrogant, murderous, and bigoted rip-off artists, then yes, Gates’ anti-gang goons were definitely “the very best.” These officers cracked down on my cousin, a fourteen-year-old without a driver’s license who still drove with both feet on the pedals, the way Grandma taught her in a Cadillac. These “very best” treated Desiree as if she was Public Enemy #1. What a wasteful, unimaginative, and offensive use of public money. What a bunch of lame cowboys.

Instead of enhancing public safety, anti-gang cops devoted themselves to terrorizing the residents of low-income neighborhoods and caging teenyboppers for petty crimes and by 1990, LAPD had arrested 50,000 people, many of them young and Black, in their classist, racist, and xenophobic dragnet. Joyriding in a hoopty that some dude might need to get to work isn’t cool but c’mon. Does it merit sending a girl who can’t even vote yet to kid-prison? I can list a thousand more serious crimes than taking your neighbor’s shitty station wagon for an uninvited spin but since billionaires, presidents, and cops commit those crimes, gang units leave those creeps alone.

Part Six:

“I’m Done. I’m Gonna Let the System Take Care of You”

Juvenile hall is kid-prison. It ain’t prison-lite. The same violence that adult prison is known for rains down on youth at juvie. Yes, I’m talking about that stuff. Juvenile hall isn’t a vacation and it doesn’t “break the cycle” of violence. It strengthens it and it belongs to what sociologist Victor Rios has termed “the youth control complex.” As Desiree says, “Once you’re in the system, it’s a wrap.” Juvie is a cage, a carceral hell with all of prison’s attendant tortures.

Isolation. Surveillance. Degradation. Sexual abuse.

For some kids, juvenile hall feels an awful lot like home.

“The reason I went to juvenile hall,” says Desiree, “was because my mom refused to come get me. She was like, ‘I’m done. I’m gonna let the system take care of you.’ There would be other times when that would happen again. She’d be like, ‘I’m done.’ I would be sent to placement homes. I would call her and beg her to take me back but after a while, I realized you know what? Being in a placement is better than being at home. It seemed like there was no better way for me to take out my anger from the abuse going on at home than to fight and to rebel.”

After law enforcement officers stopped Desiree for riding in a hooptie that pretty much every adventurous kid in the neighborhood had taken a turn with, the creeps dropped her off at Eastlake Juvenile Hall, where she grew violent: “I felt like no could hurt me more than my abusers already had. And so I fought. And fought.”

Desiree believed that sexual abuse would be banished from her life once she entered juvenile hall. She thought wrong. At juvenile hall, she encountered a new abuser: an employee of the system.

Desiree believed that sexual abuse would be banished from her life once she entered juvenile hall. She thought wrong. At juvenile hall, she encountered a new abuser: an employee of the system. Police sexual violence and abuse is pervasive but difficult to study. The police don’t keep records or detailed reports of their own crimes and according to legal scholars Dara E. Purvis and Melissa Blanco, a “central reason for the underreporting is the identity of the victims most commonly assaulted by perpetrators of [police sexual violence and abuse]. The victimology…is deeply intersectional as police officers typically ‘target the most vulnerable—namely women of color, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, victims of domestic abuse, and people suspected of engaging in criminalized activity—to reduce the risk that their misconduct will be reported.” Also emphasized is that “[police sexual violence and abuse] disproportionately affects women [and girls] of color.”

When looking at my caged cousin, and probably thousands of other girls, this abusive state employee saw an ideal target. Desiree was fourteen, Chicana, a child sexual abuse and domestic violence survivor, and a criminalized runaway.

Who was going to believe her if she accused a corrupt authority figure of hurting her? Who was she going to tell? The police?

“You know that picture of me wearing the orange pants and the gray sweater? You’re not supposed to take photos like that at juvenile hall. But guess what. I was being taken advantage of by one of the workers there. They would do favors for me in exchange for favors. It was that type of playground.”

Desiree in Juvenile Hall
Photo of Desiree in juvenile hall, taken by a worker in exchange for “favors”.

About her arrival at juvenile hall, Desiree says, “After processing, you’re placed in a cell. They replace your clothes with what we called a muumuu. They take your shoes and put them outside the door til breakfast time. Your shoes always stayed out. You couldn’t have any shoelaces.” Linguist James Paul Gee has described the concept of the “identity kit,” the overall effect of social choices—clothing, vernacular, and grooming, for example—that help a person fit into a social group. In carceral spaces, authorities strip caged people of these kits, replacing them with a new identity: prisoner. Isolation further contributes to the breakdown of identity.

Desiree says, “I played a lot of cards by myself cuz because I was alone. They let me out sometimes for phone calls or to go to the dayroom. Dayroom was where it was crackin. That’s where I’d see all of my enemies. I belonged to a neighborhood that was very active in fighting so I just fought everybody. That made it so I spent a lot of time in my room and I didn’t get to come out much. I was always in trouble for fighting.  I was making a name for myself so when I fought in the dayroom, I got sent to my room. When I was good, I got to go to school or church. Church was where you got to see the guys. It was co-ed. Sometimes they would host dances. If you’re gangbanging, juvenile hall is a really hard time.”

Desiree laughs. Then, she adds, “I remember my first time seeing a full-blown butch girl. She’s my friend to this day. When I saw her in the shower, she said, ‘Whassup, m’ija?’

I asked her, ‘What are you doing here in the girls’ shower?’

She answered, ‘I am a girl,’ and she got naked.

I was like, ‘Whoa!’ We were rivals at the time and I thought, ‘Oh, great. I’m gonna have to fight this girl in the shower’ but, you know, we developed a different type of friendship. We are friends to this day.” With the wisdom granted by hindsight, Desiree now perceives certain circumstances at juvenile hall very differently: “I remember speakers from Narcotics Anonymous and thinking, ‘Wow, man. I wanna go back in my room!’ I didn’t wanna hear it, you know? Now I wish I could be one of the speakers going in there and talking to the kids.” Being incarcerated by youth authorities only served to strengthen Desiree’s desire to prove her bravado, not because juvenile is training wheels for prison; it IS prison, and from Eastlake Juvenile Hall, Desiree’s destiny moved in a predictable direction: adult caging.


This series is published in weekly installments and you have finished EPISODE III. Stay tuned for EPISODE IV next week!

Read “EPISODE I: OF BACKPACKS AND BACKBONES,”  here, and EPISODE II: CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE HOMIES’ SOUL: here.


Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.