Some little boys dream of growing up to be cowboys, or firefighters, or police officers.
Julius Solis had a dream, too. For as long as he could remember, Julius wanted to grow up to be the leader of a gang, just like his dad. His father, Javier Solis Sr., led an East Chicago-based faction of the Imperial Gangsters.
“Seeing this, how everyone talked about my dad, how everyone feared him, that’s what I wanted to be,” Julius said.
“Every time someone asked me the question, I’d say I don’t know. But in my head — that’s what I wanted to be.”
The power Javier Solis Sr. wielded on the streets also drew in Julius’ mother, Nora Perez. But her tumble — and her sons’ subsequent initiation — into gang life likely never would have happened if not for a tragedy that rocked Nora’s family foundation.
Growing up in East Chicago, Nora’s father, Porfirio, was the backbone of their family.
He pounded the drum, and Nora, and her mother and siblings, followed the beat. It was like that throughout Nora’s childhood — until his car accident on a snowy night in January 1983.
That crunch of metal changed everything.
Porfirio suffered severe brain trauma in the accident. He couldn’t speak or move immediately after the crash and never fully recovered.
“I knew on that day that I was all alone in the world,” Nora said.
Then 11, Nora was a daddy’s girl and didn’t get along well with her mother or siblings. Their relationship worsened after the accident.
Nora’s mom was struggling to provide for her husband, six daughters, twin sons and the household. She had little time left to spend with her family. Nora says she needed something to cling to, and her father wasn’t there.
So Imperial Gangsters became Nora’s family.
“There’s people just like you, who don’t have a whole family home, and people don’t care about them just like they don’t care about you, so you care about each other,” Nora said.
“You start to cling to that thing. … You learn to act like them, talk like them, walk like them and, little do you know, that your own self is dying inside. You’re killing yourself slowly by becoming something you don’t want to be, but it’s either that or be left on the side of the road all by yourself.”
She kept up with the Imperial Gangsters — smoking, drinking and hanging out.
At 15, Nora started dating Javier Solis Sr., the then-20-year-old head of that faction of the gang.
She liked the perks and status their relationship gave her. Other Imperial Gangsters called her Javier’s “Kryptonite.”
“When I would come, people were shocked because he’s 20 years old, he runs this gang, and everybody listens to him,” Nora recalled. “Here’s this 15-year-old girl that comes and has this attitude, and he’d basically do what I wanted at the time. So, yeah, it was this big ego thing.”
Javier says he didn’t listen to Nora.
Nora said she believes she became pregnant the first time they had sex. It was a hurried encounter while her mom was at the grocery store.
Nora said it wasn’t consensual, although she didn’t realize it at the time. Afterward, she went into the bathroom, closed the door and lay sobbing on the bathroom floor.
Javier came in and told her, “Don’t tell your mom when she gets here. It was your fault because you were kissing me, and so I thought it was OK.”
After Nora became pregnant, she deliberately got into a fight at school so she would be expelled. She later was kicked out of her parents’ house and moved in with Javier and his mom.
She gave birth to Javier Solis Jr. in 1988. Nora had another son, Julius, a year and a half later.
The elder Javier became verbally abusive after the birth of their first son, Nora said. He also cheated on her all the time. Nora said she thought she had to stay with Javier because he was her first.
“I may be dumb now, but I’m not going to be dumb forever,” Nora remembers telling him. “I’m going to leave, and I’m not coming back. I’m growing up.”
Javier would respond, “Yeah right. Where are you gonna go? Your mom don’t want you, your family doesn’t want you.”
In 1990, Javier was arrested for attempted murder for shooting out of a car window at a group of people. He pleaded guilty to criminal recklessness in 1991 and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Javier said he told the Imperial Gangsters to take care of his “shorties” — his sons — while he was locked up. He asked Nora to marry him via a letter from prison.
Nora, now 20, took that opportunity to leave him. She moved in with a friend and her friend’s mother, both of whom lived the gang life. Nora said it was like the blind leading the blind. They weren’t bad people, but they didn’t know any better.
Nora went through extreme spurts — extreme partying, extreme going out. Then she would get tired, withdraw and be alone.
“I shouldn’t have tried to fit in,” she says now, crying. “I wanted to belong somewhere. I didn’t belong at home, but I knew I didn’t belong in the street because I wanted something better for myself and for the kids.”
She got her own apartment in 1992 and took special care decorating Javier and Julius’ room. The Imperial Gangsters took care of her, helping pay for things.
Nora’s relationship with them was a mixed blessing.
One night, some Imperial Gangsters came over and told her a rival gang was planning to shoot up her place. They took her pictures and other things off the wall, placing them on the floor.
For two nights, Nora, her boys and the gang members slept on her living room floor and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. Nora’s sons were 2 and 3 years old at the time.
Another time, someone threw something into Nora’s apartment that started a fire. Thankfully, she said, no one was home when it happened.
“It was really scary, but this was the life that you’re in when you are with gang members and hang out with gang members,” Nora said. “It’s the life that you live.”
Nora got pregnant a third time in 1992 by a wannabe gang member.
The Imperial Gangsters tried to persuade Nora to get an abortion because she could barely get by with the two children she already had. She reluctantly agreed.
Unbeknown to her, several Imperial Gangsters drove to prison to ask Javier Solis Sr.’s permission to give Nora money to pay for an abortion. It wasn’t Javier’s child, but they were showing him respect as the leader of the gang. Javier agreed to let them help her. The gang members gave Nora money for the abortion, and so did the man who got her pregnant.
Only one person, a friend named Hunly McCarty, told Nora it was her body and her baby, and she should do what she wanted.
The night before she was scheduled to have the abortion, Nora was at her friend’s house and couldn’t fall asleep. She started crying and praying. When she did, a commercial came on the TV that said “Life, it’s a wonderful choice.”
She decided to keep the baby.
On July 5, 1993, Nora gave birth to a healthy baby boy with huge ears and a huge nose. She cried when she saw him because she’d nearly had an abortion.
Nora chose the name “Isaiah” after seeing it in the Bible and learning it meant “follower of God.”
Her gang friends brought clothes and other items to Nora in the hospital. When she got back to her apartment, she saw they had cleaned it, and bought her a crib, food and other items.
Their fierce loyalty made it difficult for Nora to cut ties with the gang world.
“It was this love thing there, you know, as a family, but there was a price to pay, it seemed like, all the time,” Nora said.
By the time Nora realized the price would be too steep, it was too late.