Erasing a name and a former life

By Megan O'Neil

A man's name is scrawled across Krystal Lopez's neck in black lettering like that of a centuries-old manuscript.

It is a bitter souvenir for the 18-year-old Pasadena resident, who has worked hard to sever ties with the former pimp who inspired it and the lifestyle it represents. She has started laser treatments to have the tattoo removed at Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit supporting ex-gang members that provides the service for free.

Lopez doesn't fit the Homeboy profile, though. She has never been in a gang, and as a result, she and others like her are deep in the queue.

“There are girls I know who have three different people on them,” Lopez said. “There is a huge waiting list for [removal services]. The priority is always the gang members.”

The wait soon may be pared down. Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) is shepherding through the California legislature a bill that would expand the pool of people eligible for state-facilitated, federally-funded tattoo removal services to include those tattooed for identification in human trafficking or prostitution.

“Do you want that reminder that somebody treated you as property for the rest of your life?” Portantino asked. “We need to do better.”

An estimated 15,000 to 18,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually, said Kay Buck, executive director at Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

That figure does not capture minors forced into prostitution domestically, she said.

Buck described Los Angeles as a trafficking hub, adding that she and her colleagues have worked on multiple cases that involved tattoos. One woman avoided being seen in public until the coalition could arrange to have her tattoo removed.

“She was so fearful of being jumped by the gang because of the tattoo marking on her face,” Buck said. “She isolated herself for months and couldn't really enjoy the freedom that she now had.”

For Lopez, the script on her neck is the only visible sign of five years of hustling.

She spent a chaotic childhood shuffling between relatives, group homes and schools. Following the example of older friends, she began prostituting herself at 12.

Lopez eventually went AWOL from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services and fell under the control of a pimp. He was the only one who she felt looked out for her, she said. He beat her, but also kept close tabs on her whereabouts, inquiring about her well being and asking if she needed anything. The teenager always answered his calls, no matter the time or place.

“Nobody else was worried about where I was, how I was doing, whether I was eating — nothing,” Lopez said. “People knew I was on the run, people knew I had situations going on. All they worried about was trying to figure out exactly where I was so they could tell the social workers or the [probation officers].”

She said she felt abandoned by family members who expressed concern only when they believed her behavior reflected poorly on them.

“I was trying to think of ways to leave but it just wasn't happening,” Lopez said. “I had nowhere to go. There wasn't anybody that was going to take me in. I did not want to turn myself in because I knew I was going to go to jail. I felt stuck.”

Jail, in fact, proved to be her savior.

A months-long incarceration gave her the time she needed to distance herself from her pimp. When she was released, Lopez pursued a new course. In August, she landed a job at the Los Angeles County Superior Court building in Pasadena. A month later, she started a second job as a receptionist at Homeboy Industries.

Lopez recently graduated from high school and has registered at Pasadena City College. She dreams of a career in law enforcement.

Yet the tattoo remains. Mostly she is sick of people asking about it.

But the markings carry a deeper meaning for the individuals who wear them, she said.

“Once that is tattooed on them, there is a sense of ownership they feel that the person, whose name it is, has on them,” Lopez said.

Portantino's bill — if it passes, it becomes law Jan. 1 — would mean one less obstacle for those looking to start a new chapter, she added.

“That just gives them as sense of security — ‘OK, it is finally over and I can finally move on.'”

(To read original article, visit this Pasadena Sun link)

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