Debbie Aguilar devoted much of her life to advocating for those who had died and the family members who outlive them. After losing her own son, Stephen, to gun violence in 2002, she became an outspoken and prominent leader in Salinas, urging officials to resolve cold cases in the interest of justice for victims of crime, and also creating vigils for families to keep the memories of their loved ones present.
Aguilar died on Saturday, Jan. 23 from complications due to Covid-19 while being treated at Natividad hospital in Salinas. She was 60 years old.
In her life, Aguilar was a relentless fighter who refused to let the public and the criminal justice system forget about murder victims. Some of her work was in the realm of advocacy, pressuring prosecutors and police never to stop pursuing leads. Some of her work was in grief support, bringing mothers like her together to find solidarity.
Her group, A Time for Grieving and Healing, repeatedly brought dozens of families of murder victims to Sacramento during National Victims' Rights Week.
She refused to let people forget about her son Stephen, or the unique form of grief that unsolved murders can create. And through it all, she exuded passion, often becoming emotional and choking up during remarks, but always remaining poised and sticking to her message: That we should stop violence from claiming more lives.
She founded a coalition called "100 Mothers," which over the years since Stephen died has held vigils and rallies throughout the region.
Pamela Patterson, manger of Monterey County's Victim-Witness Assistance Program, met Aguilar just after Stephen was murdered. Under Aguilar's death, Patterson says she would regularly call if she heard about a homicide in the news, and offer up her contact information to surviving family members to help them get through their grief.
"When I first met her, it was during a very difficult time," Patterson says. "Some people, they go through these horrible events in their life, and I see them years later and they're still broken. Debbie really rose to the occasion and became a leader."
She persisted in seeking a resolution to her son's murder (a resolution never came), but she also championed ideas fundamental to restorative justice. As she told the Weekly in 2015, part of her mission was to help would-be perpetrators realize the harm they cause to survivors.
“I went to Soledad prison to talk to some low-level offenders, and when I asked if they had children, they all raised their hands,” Aguilar said. “I found that when they were kids, they all had something in common: They said no one ever asked them about their day or what was going on in their lives.”
County Supervisor Luis Alejo, who represents Salinas, says he hopes people who knew Aguilar honor her mission by continue to advocate for justice.
"It's always a sad moment losing our greatest champions of Salinas," Alejo says. "From local vigils and memorials to advocating for crime victims in Sacramento and uniting mothers from Salinas and Watsonville, Debbie was always there to uplift out communities and make them better places to live.
"The best way to honor her legacy is to for us to pick up that torch that Debbie left behind."
Aguilar is survived by a son, Chris, and daughter, Francesa, 19 and 22. Their father died several years ago from cancer. Her family is raising funds to support necessities and moving expenses after Aguilar's death.
Francesca says the family has not yet made plans for a memorial service, but any events in the immediate future will not be open to the general public due to Covid-19 protocols.