The War Against Women
The gang members are mostly men, but their mothers and wives are the victims.
Thursday, August 7, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell
Part 4 in a series on the gang war in salinas
Census Tract 7: A Special Report
Photo: Deborah Aguilar wears a silver locket with a picture of Stephen, her murdered son.
A tree grows on the corner of North First and Curtis in Salinas. It looks like any other neighborhood tree except for the reward poster stapled to it, offering $5,000 to find a killer.
The tree marks the spot where Stephen Aguilar was shot to death last year. He was driving home from a convenience store where he had bought nachos and candy bars. Stephen, a handsome kid with curly dark hair and a faint mustache, smiles out from the tree, which stands a few blocks away from his house, where he died on Nov. 16, 2002 at 1:10am.
Stephen was one of 17 homicides that plagued Salinas last year. Most were part of the gang war that is being fought on the city''s streets.
The men are usually the ones doing the killing and the dying. The women are the ones left behind to bury the dead and to mourn for the lost souls. They are mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends.
"I call it the front line," says Deborah Aguilar, Stephen''s mom. "I''m on the front line. Stephen''s dad has checked out. I''m all alone."
Deborah lives in North Salinas with her two young children and her husband. She says he works all the time and frequently travels to Chicago for business.
Deborah and I meet for the first time at Baker''s Square in South Salinas. She wears a green sweater, her blond hair in a shag cut, and drinks ice tea. She talks in a nervous, rapid-fire way, and then says, "today''s a mellow day for me.
"Church helps," she says. "Fellowship helps. I write in my journal." Deborah is starting a support group, A Time For Grieving, for people who have lost loved ones because of gang violence. Right now, it''s a group of two--Deborah and another mom whose son was killed by a gang member--and there is no meeting place. Deborah''s hoping to find a weekly gathering spot for other moms, sisters and girlfriends who are in her same situation.
"We need to talk about it," she says. "Maybe we can learn from each other? I know there are other people out there like me. If they just knew how healing talking can be..." her voice trails off.
On most afternoons she hands out flyers at local high schools with pictures of Stephen on them, offering a reward for information leading to a conviction in his case. Some tell her she''s a fighter. She shakes her head: "I''m not a fighter. I''m just a mom.
"I know Stephen''s happy to see I''m doing better. But I still get angry when I see other young kids dressed up for the prom, or with their girlfriends at the mall. Sometimes I see someone and I go, ''that''s my son''s shirt. That''s my son.'' But it''s not."
Stephen worked as a cashier at Harbor Freight Tools, and loved DJing at dances and friends'' parties. He was an avid skateboarder who liked to read books on geology. Lasagna was his favorite food.
Shortly before he was killed, Stephen graduated from Mt. Toro High--he transferred out of public schools because he didn''t want to get mixed up with gangs--and had just been accepted at ITT Technical Institute in San Jose. He talked about marrying his girlfriend, Vanessa Garcia, his first love.
"My son, he wasn''t perfect, but he was trying," Deborah says.
"I used to imagine him as an adult, with a mustache, so handsome and tall, with his wife and one kid. I always pictured him with one kid.
"He wasn''t a gangster," she says. "His words were, ''that''s crazy stuff.'' My son was smarter than that. And he still got killed. It''s an awful thing to know that I couldn''t protect my son."
Salinas detectives have not named any suspects or made any arrests. "We''re actively looking into any leads as they come in," says detective Sheldon Brian. Brian says the word on the street is that Aguilar''s killer is a gang member, "but at this point, we''re keeping all avenues open." He says Aguilar wasn''t involved with gangs.
Shortly before Stephen''s death, the Aguilar family moved to North Salinas, leaving their Rider Avenue home on the Eastside. On Rider Avenue, they lived down the street from where 18-year-old Michael Garcia was murdered by a gang member in April 2002.
Vanessa remembers talking to Stephen on the phone the night that Michael Garcia was shot. He told her he heard two gun shots. Later, Stephen would learn his neighbor was dead.
Not long after, Deborah says, she tried to move her family out of harm''s way. She couldn''t. The gangs followed her. Seven months later, Stephen was killed.
"More and more families moved to North Salinas," says one Salinas police officer, "but so did the criminals."
"We moved out of the Eastside," Deborah says, crying. "We thought, ''we''re leaving so it''s going to get better.'' That''s not the case. It''s everywhere."
A week after our date for tea at Baker''s Square, I meet Deborah and 17-year-old Vanessa at the Aguilar''s home off North Main Street. Deborah says she had bought a video camera to record the couple''s first formal winter dance. They never made it.
Vanessa sits in Stephen''s room, looking at a mirror on the wall that''s decorated with photos, a postcard Vanessa sent to Stephen from Disneyland, and ticket stubs from movies the two saw together.
"He wanted to see Jackass, but I didn''t. Lilo and Stitch," Vanessa says, pointing to the Disney movie ticket on the mirror. "I made him see that instead."
On his birthday last year, Stephen took Vanessa to see Eminem--her choice. He gave her a purple teddy bear that she sleeps with every night.
Vanessa''s a tiny, pretty girl with curly brown hair and big, sad eyes. She wears low-rise jeans and a pink v-neck sweater. She''ll be a senior at North Salinas High in the fall.
Vanessa doesn''t attend counseling because she doesn''t like to talk about Stephen''s death with people she doesn''t know. She hasn''t talked with Stephen''s friends since the funeral. She doesn''t know what to say to them and they''re afraid to ask her about Stephen, afraid she might break.
The truth is, she says, she loves to talk with friends about him and remember who he was, but people don''t want to ask. So she keeps it inside. She says she doesn''t have the words to describe her feelings. But once Vanessa starts talking about Stephen--"I miss his face. His cheeks. They were chubby. His eyes. They were so big and beautiful"--the words pour out and mascara runs down her face.
She remembers saying goodnight to Stephen the night he was murdered. "He dropped me off and gave me a kiss and that was the last time I ever saw him."
Vanessa called Stephen''s cell phone repeatedly the next morning. When he didn''t answer, she went to the Aguilar''s house, and Stephen''s dad delivered the news.
Sandra Garcia administered CPR to her dying brother, Michael, outside of the family''s East Salinas home. Sandra''s three-year-old son Michael shares a name with his dead uncle.
"His dad told me he''s not coming back.
"It''s not really important to me to know who killed him," she says. "It''s just, why? Why him? This person doesn''t understand how much it hurts. He took away all the happiness. The only thing I really want him to feel is guilt for what he did. And over colors? Red and blue? Why are you fighting over colors? You''re just hurting other people. How could you just point a gun at someone and take his life away? You don''t have a heart."
Sandra Garcia, the sister of murder victim Michael Garcia, grew up in the middle of the war zone. Until February, she lived with her family in a house on Rider Avenue. The Garcia family bought the home almost 30 years ago, and mom Nilda worked in the fields to support her three daughters and two sons.
Her oldest son grew up surrounded by gangs, but he didn''t chose that path. Michael dreamed about becoming a Marine, Sandra says. "It was his ticket out of here. And if that didn''t work out, he wanted to be a youth counselor. He wanted to be a good role model for other juveniles."
On April 17, 2002, Michael was murdered. A gang member shot him to death while Michael and his younger brother Julian were walking home. The two were just a couple of doors away from their house.
Sandra administered CPR on Michael while her older sister called the police. It was too late. The bullet had killed Michael immediately.
A year later, on April 25, Garcia''s killer, 18-year-old Miguel Rivera, was sent to prison for 18 years.
Today a for-sale sign hangs in front of the Garcia home. The gangs will remain in East Salinas, and the Garcia family will leave.
Nilda says she''ll move to Sacramento next spring, after Julian graduates from high school. Sandra says she and her sisters will probably follow.
"We all grew up in this house," Sandra says. "We all walked that same road forever. I''m 29 years old and this is the only home I''ve ever known. It''s nice to have a home to come back to, and now we''re not going to anymore.
"All this violence in this town. There''s just no reason for it."
Michael''s room used to be decorated with wall-to-wall Bob Marley posters, but now most of them are packed away in boxes. He loved reggae, and used to wake his family up every morning, blasting his music through the house.
Sometimes Sandra goes in his room to look at his CDs and play his music. "I''ll pop my head in and say, ''Hi Mickey,''" Sandra says. "I don''t know if he''s there, but I know he hears me." Every night, Nilda goes into Michael''s old room and prays.
But now Nilda wants out. It''s too violent here, and she can''t escape the sadness. She still doesn''t want to talk about her son''s death.
"He was shot just down the street, you know," Nilda says, her eyes filling with tears. "It''s hard."
At Rivera''s sentencing hearing, Sandra read a statement in court: "Not one day passes that we, the family, do not think or speak of Michael. For the past year, we all have felt a void in our hearts and in our lives. And for some of us, the music is gone and no longer heard. Today, Your Honor, we look towards you and to our justice system to bring justice to Michael and his family for what has been done. And to prevent this from happening to another beautiful life. The violence has got to stop."
Vanessa Garcia sits in her dead boyfriend''s room
Deborah Aguilar also sat in the courtroom and listened to the judge read Rivera''s sentence.
"I wanted to know what it would feel like," she says. "I don''t know if closure is the right word for it, but I would be lying if I said I wouldn''t appreciate knowing who killed my son."
Deborah hugged Nilda. Then she looked at Rivera''s mother. "She''s losing her kid, too. God help her."
All mothers hope that their sons will walk the straight and narrow. They worry about their boys running with the wrong crowd, and acting out in school. If they live in Salinas, these mothers carry an additional worry. They pray that they don''t outlive their sons.
Linda, who asked that her last name not be used, prays that her son, 17-year-old Antonio (not his real name), gets caught before it''s too late.
Like Michael Garcia, Linda''s son Antonio dreams of becoming a Marine. Linda hopes he follows this dream. She says it could be his ticket out of Salinas and away from his gang ties.
But it doesn''t look good.
Antonio''s been in and out of juvenile hall for the past year. His crimes started small--he got popped for truancy and not wearing a bike helmet. They have recently escalated. And now, he admits that he''s a gang member.
The first time I meet Linda, Antonio has just been released from two months in county jail. The dorms in Juvi were a "playground" to him, Linda says. "Not the adult jail. They didn''t even let him out to see the light of day except for one hour on Sundays to visit family. Let me tell you he was sure glad to see me."
When we first talk, she tells me that she thinks two months in jail may have shocked him enough to ditch his gangster friends. She says she hopes so, anyway.
Linda''s a single mom who works at Natividad Medical Center. She moved her three kids to Salinas from Long Beach in 1993 to work at the county hospital when Antonio was seven years old. Their first home in Salinas was an apartment on the Eastside''s Acosta Plaza, a hotbed of gang activity. A few months later, they moved to South Salinas, supposedly a safer neighborhood.
"Look what happened anyway," she says.
Tell me about Antonio, I ask. What was he like as a boy?
Linda doesn''t say anything for a minute, and then tears run down her face from beneath her dark sunglasses.
"He was so popular in elementary school," she says.
Through middle school, Antonio earned As and Bs. He was loving and affectionate at home and excelled in sports, winning titles in track and wrestling, and playing football and basketball. Girls called him constantly.
"I thought everything was going great," Linda says.
Then Antonio started high school at Salinas; started skipping classes, dressing in "Cholo attire," and stealing money from his family to pay for crank.
"I couldn''t bear to see my son changing from this vibrant, loving person," Linda says. "Gangs captured my son. They captured my son''s heart. He admitted to me that he was actually slinging for the gang, and I found baggies."
Antonio ran away for six weeks shortly thereafter.
Linda pulls a picture of Antonio wearing his purple high school football jersey out of her wallet. She carried it with her to Closter Park and other gang hangouts looking for her son.
"I would cry and pray because I couldn''t do anything else. I''d say, ''Will you please tell my son to come?'' I didn''t want to find my son in a morgue."
Nilda Garcia plans to sell the house her children grew up in and move to Sacramento. A gang member shot and killed her oldest son Michael down the street from their home.
Antonio finally came home, alive. But it wouldn''t be the last time he took off.
"I''m just hoping for the best. I''m not going to give up on my son. I just don''t want him to give up on himself. My son, he used to be so bright. This gang lifestyle has really changed our lives--very subtle pains to my heart."
A few days after we meet, Linda calls.
"Antonio was taken into custody today," she says. "I have lost him."
He broke curfew and cops found a knife in his pocket.
In late July, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge--carrying a knife--and a misdemeanor gang enhancement charge. Antonio''s sentencing hearing occurred after press time.
"It''s a little late now, Antonio," Linda says she told her son, before his sentencing hearing. "But it''s not too late to turn your life around."
Stephen Aguilar died on Nov. 16, 2002. He was murdered while driving home.
Lupe Ramirez is 22 and pregnant. Her ex-boyfriend, Joaquin Gonzalez, the father of her unborn son, is in San Quentin State Prison. (Both of their names have been changed.)
Gonzalez is a 26-year-old gang member who''s been in and out of jail and prison for armed robbery, domestic violence and other violent crimes since he was 13.
Ramirez had planned to name her baby Joaquin, after his father, but she says she''s changed her mind.
"He was messing around with a 15-year-old girl," she explains. "She''s pregnant now, too."
Today, Ramirez, a pretty girl with black hair and a baby face, sits in Denny''s, in a green pleather booth, eating a sandwich. She''s on her lunch break, in between classes. She''s studying to earn her nursing degree. She says she had planned to return to college sooner, but that got put on hold once Gonzalez entered the picture. "I missed a whole year because of him."
Ramirez says Gonzalez repeatedly told her he would turn his life around, and for a while he remained clean, she says. Ramirez thought she could change her man.
"I thought if I could just give him all the love and attention he didn''t get as a child, it would change him. It didn''t.
"Then he started using drugs again. First meth, and then he started smoking heroin. Then he started getting violent.
"When I was scared to be in my own house, I said no, I can''t live like this. Why should I stay with this crazy violent person who abuses me? I couldn''t."
Ramirez says the abuse began slowly. He acted paranoid and jealous, and controlled her comings and goings. "''He''d say, ''I''m gonna kill you. I''m gonna kill your family.'' I''d turn around and he would have a gun pointed at my face. He''d say, ''If you pick up that phone, you know what''s gonna happen to you.''"
Linda says her son Antonio has chosen his gang over his own family.
He stormed into her work one day, sweating and strung out. He grabbed her keys and yelled, "I knew you were cheating on me.
"Then it was a push, and then a slap. And after the slap it was ''Oh, I''m so sorry.'' He was pretending to love me--I know that now."
Ramirez says he tried to smother her while she slept. "I stopped sleeping. I was afraid to go to sleep."
Finally, Salinas police caught up with Gonzalez at Ramirez''s house. He left for San Quentin in February.
Ramirez''s baby is due in October. Gonzalez will be out in November. She''s got a restraining order against him, but she says she''s afraid he will violate it.
"I''ve always thought that gangs were dumb, but I didn''t judge people just because they''re in a gang. Now, I would really tell all these girls, these 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds who would just die for one of these guys when they come out of prison, I would tell them not to be stupid. Be careful. These guys are dangerous. I don''t think they will change."
Gangland is a dangerous place for women. They''re marginalized, and forced to watch as gangs kill their husbands and boyfriends and steal their sons and brothers.
Sitting in the Aguilar''s home, in a dead boy''s bedroom, I''m consumed by a mother''s grief. Stephen''s eyes look down on us from pictures hanging on the walls, and Deborah says she prays that her dreams at night will be about her murdered son. She shows me a silver heart locket she wears around her neck. She bought it with Stephen''s last paycheck, after the tool shop mailed it to her home. There''s a picture of Stephen inside.
"He gave me this," Deborah says. "He''s my heart. I lost my other heart."
Seventeen-year-old Vanessa lost her heart, too, and her first love. She''s young and so beautiful, and has her whole life in front of her, but she can''t even think of dating anyone new without feeling like she''s betraying Stephen, her dead soulmate.
Standing in Nilda Garcia''s spotless, white-tiled kitchen, I listen to an eloquent big sister memorialize her dead little brother, and I keep coming back to her words, "We walked that road every day." I identify with Sandra''s protective nature towards her younger siblings. I have a little brother, too.
Sitting with Linda at a diner in South Salinas, I''m struck by a mother''s helplessness. She loves her son, and gave him every opportunity she could, being a single mother of three. He chose his gang over his own family and broke his mother''s heart.
It seems hopeless.