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Juan Jose Barajas Jr., 41, was killed in a drive-by shooting Dec. 17 as he stood outside the apartment building where he lived with his wife, Maricruz, and four children in L.A.'s Westlake district. Police are seeking his killers, believed to be gang members.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Bullets passed through a wrought-iron fence surrounding Barajas' apartment building, hitting him in the chest.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Barajas' mother, Josefina Vega, 66, is beside herself in her son's small apartment as she holds onto family photos and weeps.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Well-wishers gather to say the rosary on the patio behind Barajas' apartment building on Witmer Street in L.A.'s Westlake district.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Father Jose Sanchez de Jesus holds Mass behind the Barajas' home. The priest grew up in the same town as Barajas' father in Mexico.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Barajas' brother, Jorge, center, mourns. Barajas was a naturalized U.S. citizen and police do not believe he had any gang ties.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Candles mark the spot where Barajas was killed.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Inside his parents' home in Mexico, Barajas' body -- dressed in a white suit with a long cross necklace -- rests in a baby blue casket with a white satin interior, surrounded by a sea of flower arrangements.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

For 36 hours, a prayer vigil was held for Barajas in his childhood home. Family members from the United States and Mexico traveled to the rural Mexican town of Sahuayo to pay their final respects.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Barajas' family holds a traditional wake for him inside his boyhood home in Mexico.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

One of the mourners spends some quiet time alone in the backyard off the kitchen.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Neighbors, family members and friends came from miles away to pay their respects to Barajas. Often, it was standing-room only for many of mourners, who spilled out of the house and onto the cobblestone street out front.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Barajas' mother, Josefina Vega, 66, places a Virgin of Guadalupe T-shirt inside his casket. The devout Catholic family said prayers and sang songs for 36 hours nonstop during his wake.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

During a traditional wake in Mexico, Barajas’ wife, Maricruz, tries to sleep on her mother-in-law's couch while mourners, including his family and friends, say prayers for her husband in the house he grew up in.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Barajas' family holds a traditional wake for him in his parents' house in Sahuayo, Mexico, where he was born.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Needing to clear her mind, Barajas' eldest daughter, Fatima, standing closest to the car, an honor student at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in L.A., takes a walk with her cousins through the narrow streets of Michoacan, Mexico. "I close my eyes and just think that I'm dreaming, because I can't believe this happened," she said.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A long procession including family members, friends and townspeople walk solemnly behind a hearse carrying Barajas' casket along a dusty country road to his final resting place in rural Mexico. Barajas' brother, Jorge, walked with his hand on the hearse during the miles-long journey.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Family and friends of Barajas carry his casket through cobblestone streets in the rural Mexican town where he was born to a waiting hearse. His mother could be heard sobbing as townspeople stood outside their homes to pay their final respects as the hearse passed by.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A grief-stricken Josefina Vega reaches out to touch her son for one last time before his casket is sealed. Her sister, Ester Vega, left, who traveled from Mexico City, looks away because she said “the final goodbye was too painful to watch.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

As groundskeepers seal Barajas' final resting place, his mother -- who was being comforted by her three sisters -- said, “My son would not want to hear me cry, so I will sing to him.” The devout Catholic raised her arms and sang a prayer in Spanish, which brought mourners to tears.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Juan Jose Barajas uses a rusty nail to carve his son’s name -- Juan Jose Barajas Jr. -- into the concrete sealing shut his tomb in the small Mexican village where he was born and now laid to rest. The slain man's mother stood motionless and whispered prayers to herself.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Four-year-old Natalie Barajas smiles broadly for her grandmother after burial services for her father. Natalie does not know her father is dead. The family thought the shock would be too harmful and decided not to tell her.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

The Barajas family hopes that witnesses will overcome their fears of retaliation and help lead police to a suspect. Police asked anyone with information to call Rampart Division homicide Det. Motto at (213) 484-3641 or Det. Linscomb at (213) 484-3642. Barajas had worked as a cashier in the cafeteria at the Farmers Insurance building at 4680 Wilshire Blvd. for 15 years, family members said. The company has set up a fund to help the family. Checks payable to the Juan Barajas Family Fund can be sent to Farmers Insurance Federal Credit Union, 4680 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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By Barbara Davidson

A gold-colored sedan was driving slowly along Witmer Street in L.A.’s Westlake district about 12:15 a.m. Dec. 17 when someone in the passenger seat opened fire. One of the bullets hit Juan Jose Barajas Jr., 41, who was sitting on the front stairs of his apartment building. The father of four later was pronounced dead at a hospital. Los Angeles Police Department investigators concluded that Barajas was an innocent bystander in a gang-related drive-by shooting.

The next day, Times staff writer Abby Sewell and I visited the Barajas home to speak with the family about the shooting. As I parked my car, it hit me that just two years earlier, I had visited the same street. I had come to cover the gangland shooting of a beloved neighborhood tamale vendor, Cosme Gonzalez, who was gunned down for his refusal to pay gang “taxes.” I had photographed that shooting during a long-term project about innocent victims of gang violence, later published as “Caught in the Crossfire.” The article was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Now, it felt as though everything had come full circle as I once again made my way to meet a family destroyed by gang violence on a street I knew from a familiar tragedy.

The Barajas family lived in a modest, one-room apartment. The victim’s father and brother warmly welcomed us. They wore their sadness on their faces, but were determined to tell us the story of their loved one. The family’s hospitality and generosity in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy was humbling.

Just a few days before Christmas, Abby’s article appeared in the paper and the tightly knit local Latino community came together to support the family. Barajas was going to be buried in his birthplace, the small town of Cojumatlan, Mexico, where his parents still own his childhood home.

My editor, Colin Crawford, agreed that we needed to continue our ongoing coverage of gang violence plaguing Los Angeles, and so, with the blessing of the family, I boarded a red-eye flight with them to Guadalajara.

Arriving the next morning, most of the family dozed off in the heat of the packed van as we embarked on the two-hour drive to the small Mexican village where Barajas’ wife, Maricruz,  had grown up. The two had met and started dating when she was working in the doctor’s office next door to the home of his parents. Now the family was preparing to hold a 36-hour wake in the same living room where the two had spent many evenings getting to know one another years before.

I still remember attending my first wake on the west coast of Ireland as a 7-year-old child in my mother’s small village. While I drank Orange Crush and sat uneasily next to the open casket, my mother joined in with the others to say the rosary. And now, those same Catholic prayers were being said for Barajas, whose casket was surrounded by large flower arrangements and whose mother, Josefina Vega, 66, wept softly over his still body. Mourners poured into the home day and night to pray with the family and share memories that made them laugh and cry.

One of the youngest in attendance was Barajas’ 4-year-old daughter, Natalie. To shelter her from the painful realization that she would never again see her father, Maricruz had made the decision to keep the news from her. Curious to see who was in the casket, Natalie stood on tiptoes hoping to sneak a peek inside but was quickly scooped up by her mother and given an enormous hug. How could this young child possibly understand that it was her father, who had been taken away from the family by such a senseless act of violence?

As the church bells started to toll, Barajas’ brother, Jorge, turned to me and said, “By the third ring, we must have my brother in the church for his funeral Mass.”

Everyone gathered for the final journey and a long procession of family members, friends, and townspeople walked solemnly through the village behind the hearse carrying Barajas’ body. After the Mass, they walked for miles along a bumpy country road to reach the cemetery. At the graveyard, two separate families approached me to tell me how they too had been destroyed by Los Angeles gang violence. Both families had teenagers who were killed in the crossfire some years back and agreed that life had never been the same.

Nor will it be the same for Barajas’ wife, his young children and his parents. As his final resting spot was being sealed shut, his bereaved mother cried out, “My son would not want to hear me crying, so I will sing to him.”

Anyone with information about Barajas’ killing is asked to call LAPD Det. Chris Linscomb, who is in charge of the investigation, at (213) 484-3642.

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