In the Wake of His Death, Family of Nathan Alfaro Searches For Healing

Photo of Alfaro with his family (sisters, mother and niece)
Photo of Alfaro with his family (sisters, mother and niece)
John Gilhooley

There are plenty of words to describe the end of the case for the stabbing death of Nathan Alfaro. For the family of the slain OC musician and devoted concertgoer, “closure” isn’t one of them. Last Monday, Juan Angel Rivera, the man convicted of manslaughter for fatally stabbing Alfaro during a punk show at the DTSA Underground was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Alfaro's death on March 3 and Rivera's trial made headlines and caused a collective outcry in OC’s music community. However, the case ended in a relatively silent Santa Ana courtroom with little feeling from the family that justice had actually been served. Though 11 years was the maximum punishment the judge was allowed to give following the jury's manslaughter verdict, it paled in comparison to the 26 years Rivera would’ve faced had he been convicted of murder.

After a two-day sentencing period, Judge Patrick H. Donahue cited the defendant’s past criminal history and fascination with knives as two of the primary factors in the senseless killing that started as a simple bar fight during a local punk show where Alfaro was stabbed five times, including a fatal wound to the upper torso.

“The judge himself said that fight would’ve ended within seconds if no one had a knife,”
says Alfaro’s aunt Brenda Contreras who attended every day of the trial alongside her family.

Following the sentencing, Mariana and Mariah both say the end of the case felt surreal to the point where they barely even spoke, everything felt so surreal.

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“We were all quiet about it. We were just trying to process it on our own,” Mariah says.

“I was upset,” Mariana adds. “This guy is only getting 11 years for killing my brother? But then I thought Nathan was killed through violence and hate, why would I want that in my heart? That’s what kept me going.”

“I don’t even wish harm on him, I don’t,” Mariana adds. “He’s gonna pay for it, if not now then maybe later. He’s always gonna be known as the person who killed Nathan.”

But for the Alfaro family, a refusal to accept closure has little to do with the man who killed their loved one, but more to do with their promise to never let his memory be forgotten.

“A lot of people talk about this being a closing chapter to all this, but I think there’s going to be a lot more volumes written about this story, every day, every year,” says Alfaro’s uncle Joshua Alfaro.

A few days after Rivera’s sentencing, members of the Alfaro family sat around a table in the back of a Garden Grove Starbucks rehashing their favorite anecdotes of their fallen family member as if he was sitting there right beside them. Stories of the student, the musician, the young uncle, and the happy go lucky stoner swirl around the table. The tales of his fanhood are priceless, like the time he snuck backstage at the Observatory to see Lauryn Hill. Then there was the time he dropped in on his favorite band, The Growlers, in the green room at a show in Fresno in 2014, which your faithful music editor also happened to  attend as part of my reporting on a cover story for the band, a year prior to his tragic death.

“I have video of him hitting up the Growlers asking them ‘hey do you guys have any weed?’" Mariana says. "And they’re like ‘Nope, sorry we don’t.’ And so he goes ‘Well can you say fuck you to the camera then?’

“They all gladly obliged. He ended up smoking them out though,” Brenda chimed in.

“And then they kicked him out again,” Mariah adds with a laugh.

Crowd at Alfaro's family and friends at memorial show at Diego's in Santa Ana
Crowd at Alfaro's family and friends at memorial show at Diego's in Santa Ana
John Gilhooley

As a tireless supporter of the local OC music scene and a musician himself in local band The Westboys, Alfaro’s nights were often spent at shows like the one he attended the night of his death, it was a setting where his family says he felt the most comfortable, even in the company of so many people knocking into his tall, stocky frame in mosh pits and crowded venues—a simple joy he wasn’t shy about passing on to his sisters or anyone that would come out with him to a show. It was only fitting that in the wake of his death, OC’s music community tried to cope with the tragedy with a series of memorial and benefit concerts. Shows in honor of Alfaro popped up at Programme Skate Shop in Fullerton, Diego’s in Santa Ana, and the dA Center in Pomona. The family also collaborated with the Yost Theater on a daylong concert featuring The Garden and a DJ set by The Drums, two more of Alfaro’s all-time favorite bands.

Beyond his love of music, Alfaro's family says it was his affable, jokester personality that drew people to him, whether it was his own band or being a temporary roadie or a face in the front row of a crowd.

In memory of Alfaro, Contreras says she’d like to speak with mayor of Santa Ana Miguel Paulido about creating some sort of memorial for her nephew near the place he was killed. “Somewhere in Downtown Santa Ana, a reminder that violence gets you nowhere,” she says. And of course, the family will also continue to host a show every year on the anniversary of his death.

“Whether the venue turns out to be smaller one year, or bigger one year, the point is that on March 3 of any given year you’ll have somewhere to dance, jam out, drink and have a good time in memory of Nathan. That’s one thing we’re never gonna let go,” Contreras says.

But regardless of any public event they throw, for the family it’s a question of how to move on with their lives now that the headlines and the public interest have subsided. For them, Nathan’s life is a constant reminder of how the moniker of another one of his band’s FIDLAR (short for Fuck It Dawg, Life’s a Risk) should apply to their everyday lives. Contreras, Alfaro's uncle Joshua and his sister Mariana are all enrolling in various local colleges, included Goldenwest where Alfaro attended in the fall and are committed to finishing their degrees. Mariah, who says Nathan always pushed her to join a family band with him, is learning how to sing in hopes of one day starting that band with her sister on drums.

“He always said “I want Mariana on drums, Mariah on vocals and me on bass and I’ll do backup vocals,” Mariah remembers.

In the Wake of His Death, Family of Nathan Alfaro Searches For Healing
John Gilhooley

Instead of lighting a candle in his memory every so often, the Joshua says the best way to stay true to Nathan’s memory is to spark something a little more potent to help conjure his nephew's spirit.

“I never got high with [Nathan],” he says. “He would smoke up my backyard and it would waft into the windows, he’d come in and visit with a guitar on his back and he would still go for it...but now, in memory of him, I smoke with my nieces.”

Most important is the musical footprint Alfaro left behind—his record collection. An amalgam of everything from old surf rock, ‘60s psych, classic hip-hop and obscure Disney read-along stories on vinyl, CD and cassettes  was the key to his obsession that guided his life through ups and downs. It’s mere presence on this earth brings comfort on days when they miss him the most.

“Nathan opened a door for music for me and Mariah,” Mariana says. “He showed us a lot of music and now we have his CDs and his records and that’s another thing that keeps me doing. I’ll open up a random CD case and put a CD in and just think about wow this is what he would listen to.”


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