Hoping for a better future in Salinas.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
It had been a long day, beginning with a crack-of-dawn speech to the Salinas/Monterey Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, followed by day-long meetings with the mayor and chief, local academics and a two-hour training I led for Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteers.
I was in Salinas for a site visit. Salinas participates in the California Cities Gang Prevention Network, a 13-city initiative designed and run by the National League of Cities and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
In addition to Salinas, Network cities include Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Oxnard, Richmond, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Stockton.
“MOST OF THEM HAVE NEVER BEEN TO THE BEACH IN MONTEREY. AND IT’S ONLY A FEW MILES DOWN THE ROAD.”
Toward the end of the day, two teenagers were shot in East Salinas. One of them, 16-year-old Manuel Perez, a “B” student at Salinas High School, was gunned down while waiting for a ride to football practice. The other, 19-year old Santiago Ortiz, a known gang member, was shot and wounded.
The shootings affected me profoundly. They shouldn’t have. I’m a vet. But I was deeply moved, perhaps because I was tired after a cross-country trip coupled to a day packed with back-to-back meetings; perhaps because I know so many good, competent and caring people in this city, people from all key sectors of the Salinas community – police, schools, the faith community, the mayor’s office, social services and more – all pledged to stop violence and to build a Salinas that does not produce violence. Perhaps because I witnessed first-hand the manifest hope and commitment early that morning, soon followed by the shootings and then by a collective sense of worry, of how daunting the task.
I took a brief bar break. Jacqui, who was cutting limes and plucking fresh mint leaves for my mojito, was, she told me, working at the bar to help support her fledgling music career. Lydia from Western Siberia, who served me appetizers, attended the local university in Monterey, where she was enrolled in the graduate linguists’ program.
The day before, a member of the hotel staff, Betsy, had given me a walk-though for our upcoming 13-city conference, showing me the meeting rooms and other facilities. A dietitian from Rochester, N.Y., she, deciding to start over, packed up and moved to California. She landed a job with the hotel, soon becoming its events planner.
It is the future, a sense that you can take a street that leads out: Jacqui cutting limes to sing. Lydia moving from table to table, gathering tips to pay for her university courses, her road having covered thousands of miles. Betsy, freed from Rochester’s snows, coming across the country to settle in her sun-strewn home.
Each confident. Each traveling well beyond the street where they began. Each striding confidently into a new future.
Brian Contreras, who directs Salinas’ 2nd Chance Family and Youth Services, a program for street kids, told me later that night that most of the east Salinas kids rarely get out of their neighborhoods.
“Jack,” he said to me after the shootings, “Most of them have never been to the beach in Monterey. And it’s only a few miles down the road. Their ‘corner’ is where their world ends. End it does – often too soon, tragically.”
I thought this: If Brian and I are walking in separate directions and we happen to bump into each other, we say a quick “Excuse me,” and move on. Brian and I each have somewhere to go.
If I live in east Salinas and bump into someone on the way to my corner, it could be death for one of us, because, all too often, that is all there is, just the corner. It is not an accidental bump. It is “dissing.”
If all I have is the corner, I’ll defend it with my life. Dissing is not the presence of something. It is the absence of future. My corner. My turf, which I will protect with my life. Nothing beyond.
How desperately I want kids to know of long streets, streets that don’t kill, people that don’t U-turn at the end of the block, returning to spray bullets.
I want them to know stories of long streets, stories of people who have walked long streets, people who will walk with them down those streets, with them beyond the corner.
I want them to know they can be Jacqui, Lydia, Betsy, Brian.