Article by Heather R. Putnam; photos by Bradley Stuart
On Saturday, October 29, the 18th Annual Peace & Unity March was held in Watsonville, California. The march was organized by the Autonomous Chapter of the Watsonville Brown Berets in collaboration with White Hawk Danza Azteca to honor victims of gang-related violence in Watsonville and to push for an end to the violence in the community. The opening ceremony at Watsonville Plaza began with a blessing song performed by local drummers. Following that, Sandino Gómez, historian for the Watsonville Brown Berets, recounted how the march began in 1994 to honor Jessica and Jorge Cortéz, 16 and 9 years old, who were gunned down execution-style because they had witnessed a gang–related crime. Gómez emphasized that “violence is not the solution” and that everyone present “must be part of the solution”. A representative of the mothers of victims, Rose de Ramirez, who lost her son to gang-related violence sixteen years ago, emphasized, “We need support from the community to stop violence”.
Local teacher Jennifer Laskin also reported to the crowd that there have been more murders in Watsonville in the past year than in any year since the march began. Altars to the fallen were displayed in the Plaza with flowers and photos, and the urgency of the impact of gang violence on the community was made even more poignant by the shooting death on Sunday, October 23rd of Lorenzo Lopez, a 18-year-old Renaissance High School student who Karen Osmundson, trustee of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, described to the crowd as “a good student, not violent”, an innocent victim of violence.
Participating in the march were more than 150 community members, including mothers and families of victims, youth activists, the ex-mayor of Watsonville Antonio Rivas, and a representative of California Assemblymember Luis Alejo, who presented a resolution on behalf of the California State Assembly recognizing the efforts of the Brown Berets to promote peace in Watsonville. Also participating in the march were members of the Indigenous Peoples´ Sacred Sites Peacewalk for a Nuclear Free Future, a two-week walk traveling from Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo to Sogorae-te (Glen Cove), a sacred site in Vallejo, California.
María Rodriguez, a housewife and mother in Watsonville, has an 18-year old son who she says, “is a good boy, but you never know what can happen in the street at any moment”, especially since Watsonville “is more violent than before” and she lives in constant fear for the safety of her son and two younger children. Angel Aledo, 15, whose father danced with the Danza Azteca group in the march, said he had lost a couple of friends in Salinas to gang violence, and that it is important “to talk to his friends so they would not get involved in gangs, and to get those who are already involved, out of it, to spread the word that we need peace”. Alondra Mejia, 14, whose art teacher told her about the march, came because her cousin was murdered three years ago in San Diego. Mejia stressed the importance of reaching out to her friends who are in gangs to get them to understand that “it is not just themselves they are hurting, but everyone around them, the entire community”.
After the opening ceremony the march proceeded along a two-hour route through both Norteño and Sureño neighborhoods, the two traditionally opposed gangs in Watsonville. Carrying signs ranging from “Basta la Violencia” (“Enough Violence”), “Necesitamos Paz” (“We Need Peace”), “Stop the Violence”, “Love is Everything”, and “United We Stand, No More Killing Please”, the marchers chanted protest slogans like “Los Barrios Unidos Jamas Serán Vencidos” (“The Neighborhoods United will Never Be Defeated”), and shouted their desire for peace to neighbors and bystanders, inviting them to join the march. Families of victims carried signs, photos, and altarpieces, or wore tee-shirts commemorating their fallen loved ones while men, women, and children watched and waved from porches and windows.
The march is part of multiple efforts on the part of the Watsonville Brown Berets and other community groups to stop gang-related violence in the Watsonville area. According to Brown Beret Diego Espinoza, one challenge is that public after-school programs have been cut and there are limited spaces for youth to express themselves besides getting involved in gangs. The Brown Berets seek to fill this gap by providing an open space at the Bike Shack in Watsonville for youth to participate in workshops on Youth & Power, art and music, indigenous and Latino culture, and to organize around important community issues, such as the struggle to ban the use of methyl iodide on crops in California.
Crossposted at Indybay.org.