WATSONVILLE — The 25th annual Peace and Unity March filed through Watsonville Sunday during a break in stormy weather to mark the gang-related deaths of more than 90 people both in Watsonville and Salinas.
Starting out in Watsonville Plaza, a crowd of about 400 people heard words about stopping gang violence, stepping up to oppose gang participation and joining forces as a community to put a stop to the senseless turf war competition that often turns violent.
“Never silence your voice against violence,” said Maura Leonor of Community Life Services. “Peace and unity for all.”
With a wealth of elected officials, including Congressman Jimmy Panetta, Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, Watsonville City Councilman Felipe Hernandez, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Greg Caput, and others on hand, the community witnessed the building of numerous altars around the plaza’s bandstand that included photos, flowers, memorabilia and honorable words emblazoned across colorful banners for those that fell to gang homicides.
It’s been 25 years since 9-year-old Jessica Cortez and her brother Jorge, 16, were shot and killed in a gang attack that staggered the community of the Pajaro Valley and ultimately spurned the creation of the Peace & Unity March one year later.
Jorge and Jessica’s mother Maria Cortez, now 68, was on hand Sunday to witness the rally and then join a gathering in Pajaro at a tiny strip of grassy land next to El Nopal Bakery and Panaderia where her children were killed, to see officials name the area Cortez Park in her children’s honor. A memorial bench will soon be erected and a Japanese cherry tree was planted during the ceremony.
“My son was the first murder of 2015 in Salinas,” Debbie Sorto of Salinas said. “I am honored to come here to Watsonville to celebrate the memory of loved ones, like my son. Every time we’re here and we say the names of our loved ones it means so much. People do listen and they hear the pain.”
Sorto said she once went to Soledad State Prison and spoke to a large group of prisoners.
“These people have no idea how a murder affects so many lives,” she said. “Lives are changed and destroyed. Mine was. I love these events in Watsonville and I’ve come for years. It does help.”
Hernandez said he has come to every Peace & Unity March.
“This is what the community is all about,” he said. “We have to make sure this event continues in the name of those killed and to speak out against gang violence.”