Just Another Roadside Distraction
Julia Campos is used to the commotion of the nightly fireworks show that erupts over Disneyland, a few blocks north of her West Anaheim neighborhood. She tunes it out and enjoys a few hours of television in the seclusion of her bedroom.
Julia is 70 years old, a full-time caretaker responsible for three generations of Campos. She knows going to bed with a full stomach is more important than a trip to an amusement park. She doesn't have time to concern herself with the trivialities Disneyland represents in her life. After her grandchildren have been put to bed, it's her time to unwind and prepare for another long day of caring for a full house: her two sons, their wives and her three grandchildren. When she's not raising families in her single-level home on Beacon Avenue, she's in her father's hospital room, sitting beside his bed pretending she's not waiting for him to die.
On Sunday night, Sept. 11, 2005, Julia sat on her bed engrossed in the Lifetime series Strong Medicine. At 9:45, she heard a loud bang outside her home. She dismissed it as Disneyland's fireworks and turned back to her hospital drama.
* * *
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About a block down Beacon Avenue, past the intersection of Walnut and Beacon, Seferino Garcia sat on his striped sofa below framed portraits of Emilio Zapata, Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez. He was watching the news on CNN. While he listened to what he calls the "bullshit and wild lies" spewed by a media run by Big Business, his daughter, Raquel, washed her face in their one bathroom. His son, Cuauhtmoc, hung out on their front stoop, waiting for friends. Raquel had put her own daughter to bed a half-hour earlier. The house had settled into its quiet nighttime mode. The volume on the television was just low enough for Seferino and Raquel to hear the bang outside. Raquel turned off the sink and silently thanked God her daughter was tucked in bed. As soon as she finished her silent prayer, she ran to the front of the house to make sure that it had not been Cuauhtmoc's friend on his way over. Seferino sprang from the sofa and met Cuauhtmoc at their front door.
"Some young guy got shot, Dad, right down the street," he said.
* * *
Julia's son Frank Campos was in their living room when he heard the same loud bang. Born and raised on Beacon Avenue, Frank knew the difference between fireworks and a gunshot. With two broken feet still in walking casts, he ran as best as he could outside, fearing that someone he knew had been shot. His brother Raymond heard the gunshot too. He stayed in the living room. He, too, feared that someone he knew had been shot.
Frank returned to his home a few minutes later. He burst into his mother's bedroom.
"Mom, there's somebody shot down on the corner!" he told her.
Julia followed her son onto Beacon, without shoes or a sweater, realizing now that the single bang she'd heard wasn't the result of pyrotechnics. Her neighbors saw Julia and yelled for her to hurry.
* * *
Cuauhtmoc ran toward the sound of the gunshot too. But Seferino, who had worked alongside Cesar Chavez, knew better than to run toward the sound of gunfire. He walked. Cautiously. Seferino believes the FBI once attempted to blow up his house in Los Angeles. He says that until five years ago, when his wife died, he would not go anywhere without bodyguards. Experience has taught Seferino to walk when a homeboy fires a shot; he says he's learned that the same homeboy can shoot him just as easily.
Raquel followed her father and brother down the street. She saw a crowd gathering but couldn't tell whether the victim was her brother's friend.
* * *
Francisco "Chico" Betancourt Celis was lying on his back, his legs tangled in the baby-blue low rider bicycle he'd been riding when three men in a maroon Toyota Camry with dealer plates had pulled up. They had stopped their car and asked, "Where are you from?" Chico had cousins in one of the local gangs, but his wife and friends say he wasn't a member. This didn't matter to the three men in the Camry. They'd shot Chico once—point blank—in his chest.
When Frank arrived, he found Chico lying facedown on the street. Frank turned him over to see if he was still alive before running back home to alert Julia.
Julia saw this kid, only 23, and, like his murderers, assumed she knew what his bald head and white T-shirt meant. But she also understood something else: this kid in the street is a human being. He is some mother's son. Ten years ago, rival gang members stabbed Julia's nephew. Through her sister's pain, Julia had learned that those who suffer most from gang violence are the mothers. Kids killing kids on the street leave mothers at home with sons in cemeteries and prisons.
Julia ran barefoot to the kid's side. She ran her hands over his face, his neck and his hands. All were ice-cold.
* * *
Seferino approached the sidewalk in front of 856 Walnut St. He saw Chico lying with his eyes closed, his legs tangled in the low rider—the same one Seferino had seen him ride to the corner market so many times before. His neighbor, Julia Campos, had her hands on the kid's chest and was pleading with him. Seferino knew that Chico was already gone. He turned back to his house to notify the press. This time, he ran.
He found the phone amidst piles of papers on the kitchen table. Seferino is a community organizer, and he collects a significant amount of paper. Organizing has also given him contacts throughout the local press. He began calling local news stations: FOX and UPN. He dialed a friend at the Los Angeles Times and another at The Orange County Register. This was a murder that Seferino would not allow to go unnoticed. If he's going to clean up the neighborhood, he needs the homeboys to know there are consequences to killing each other.
Before returning to the murder scene, Seferino called 911 just to be safe. He got a busy signal, hung up, tossed the phone on top of the piles of paper and ran back out onto the street.
* * *
"Oh my God! Who did this?" Julia asked the kid.
Chico, as he was called by those who knew him, tried to open his eyes.
"Oh my God!" Julia exclaimed again as she felt his chest, examining the bullet hole with her fingers. She felt something hard beneath her fingertips, whether a protruding rib or the bullet lodged in the kid's chest, she couldn't say. She pulled her hand away. Her palm was covered with the kid's blood. She wiped it on his shirt.
Julia had never seen this kid, now lying on the corner of Beacon and Walnut. In less than a week she will meet his mother and his wife. She will take her grandson to Chico's funeral and stand by his side as he presents Chico's mother with the $149 he will raise by standing in front of a shrine constructed by Raquel. Like Raquel, he will wait on the street and accept donations to help Chico's family pay for the burial. Though Chico's wife, Ashley, is in the Army, his mother will soon learn that the military won't cover the expenses for Chico's funeral.
In that week, Chico's mother will ask Julia what her son looked like when he died. Julia will tell her he looked peaceful: his eyes were closed, his mouth shut. In that week, Ashley will ask the neighbors attending Chico's funeral to point out Julia Campos. She'll approach Julia and thank her for staying by her husband's side while he lay dying on Walnut Street.
But now, as she looked over the kid, Julia realized he was going to die, and she wanted his mother to find some comfort in knowing her son had not died like a dog in the street.
* * *
Seferino reached the crowd just in time to see Julia make the sign of the cross on Chico's body. He noticed the police still had not come, and, like an answer to his prayer, Chico's murderers hadn't returned to shoot anyone else.
"In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Lord, if he's going to die, take him with you."
After her prayer, Julia watched the kid take one last breath.
"Hold on! Hold on!" Julia pleaded. And then he was dead.
* * *
The Campos and Garcias huddled with Chico's friend and other concerned neighbors. They stood in the street, forming a kind of protective circle around the body. With little concern for oncoming traffic or a repeat shooting, they waited for the police and paramedics.
Julia was thinking about the kid's mother. Who is going to tell her that her son is dead? Are the police going to catch his murderers? Are they even going to try?
Seferino was also thinking about what would happen when the police chose to arrive. He is skeptical of their competence. Seferino has known more than one slain Latino man whose murder was followed by police inaction. He has seen newspaper articles the following morning falsely proclaim a victim's gang affiliation. He has seen the retaliation drive-bys. While Seferino waited, he thought about how he could use this most recent shooting to increase neighborhood solidarity. Maybe this will be the crime that will make the neighbors come together and tell anyone who will listen they've had enough of living in fear.
Tomorrow morning will be a Monday. Raquel will take a stand against the gang violence that keeps her daughter from playing in front of her own house. She will buy candles with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe and will use them to construct a shrine at the site of Francisco's death. She will use her father's supplies to make a sign proclaiming "R.I.P. Chico." For 10 days, she'll sit in this spot from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. She'll watch over the shrine while neighbors fill her shoebox—covered in hand-drawn peace signs, hearts and flowers—with donations for Chico's funeral. She will be forced to black out the letters WWJD on the donation box so that no one will mistake the abbreviation for "What Would Jesus Do?" with a local gang's insignia. Her neighbors will bring pictures of Chico, letters they've written after his death and paper hearts. They will ask her over and over again, "Aren't you scared?"
Seferino will watch his daughter to ensure she can answer in earnest, "No, I am not scared," though both, in fact, are. One man will watch Raquel for several days and will tell her that he would date her if only he was a little bit younger. He will boldly place his head on her knee, frightening Raquel for the final time. She will call her father, who will, in turn, warn this man, "The people in this neighborhood won't be so forgiving of you, they won't hold a vigil for you." By the end of her 10th day, Raquel will have raised $4,300 for funeral expenses in relative peace under Seferino's watchful eye.
Thirteen days after Chico's murder, on Sept. 24, Seferino and Raquel will organize a march to draw media attention in hopes of stopping the violence in their neighborhood. One hundred and forty people—neighbors, activists and students—will march. Their path will cross the sites of the four murders that occurred in this neighborhood and will end at the Agape House of Prayer on North Manchester. At the church, Seferino and Raquel will see they've drawn a sizable crowd, and together they will finally yell, Ya Basta!
Standing around Chico's body, Julia and Seferino saw the first police car pull up. An officer got out of the passenger side, a young Mexican woman who yelled at them, "Get out of the street! Go to the other side."
Both Julia and Seferino were horrified, but not surprised. Julia lost faith in the Anaheim police department 24 years ago, the night two men broke into her home. A man with a tattoo under his eye and missing teeth sliced her nightshirt and brassiere with his knife. She offered them what little money she had. When they left, Julia took her chance to climb through a window and ran to a neighbor's house to call the police. Her daughter was still in her house. By the time the police reached her house, the men were gone, leaving her daughter for dead in their bathtub. Her daughter lived, and Julia could have easily identified the assailants if the police had provided her with photographs of suspects. When they offered, however, Julia chose not to identify the men. She too had mean sons, capable of violence. A family friend told Julia that he knew the two men. Julia never told the police. They had a habit of revealing their sources.
The Mexican cop's behavior and disrespect was something Julia had learned to associate with the police department.
* * *
The policewoman separated Chico from his neighbors. Julia watched, knowing he was dead, but she still felt the police could at least let Chico's friend stay by his side. It would comfort the mother she had never met to know her son did not lie alone.
Chico was left alone, his eyes and mouth closed. There was no cinematic pool of blood, just a small stain on his shirt around the bullet hole, and the prints Julia had left when she wiped her hands. Julia had done what she could to bring him dignity in his death, just as Seferino will do what he can to bring their entire community dignity.
Seferino watched five more patrol cars pull up to the scene. They blocked off traffic on both Walnut and Beacon. He watched as the cops began their investigation. It took the paramedics another 10 minutes to arrive. At nearly 2 a.m., almost four hours after the shooting, Seferino walked back to his house as the ambulance took Chico to the morgue.
* * *
It will be another two hours before Francisco Betancourt Celis' mother will be notified of his death.
* * *
Two days later, The Orange County Register will run a half-inch story on Chico's murder, "Bicyclist Shot to Death in Anaheim." The news crews Seferino alerted that evening will never cover the story. The Los Angeles Timesreporter will call him two weeks later and tell him there isn't anything significant about Chico's murder. And as The Orange County Register tells it, there wasn't:
"A bicyclist was shot to death Sunday night during a confrontation with a group of men, police reported. Francisco Betancourt Celis, 23, of Anaheim was riding south on Walnut Street near Beacon Avenue about 11 p.m. when he and a friend were confronted by the occupants of a four-door burgundy-colored car. The argument ended when the car stopped and one of the occupants got out and fired into Celis' chest before fleeing, police said. His companion was not hurt."
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