Exactly 25 years ago this Sunday, the Watsonville community was shocked after the tragic shootings of 9-year old Jessica Cortez and her 16-year old brother, Jorge Cortez at El Nopal Bakery in Pajaro.
At the time, violence was heavily impacting the community and we were losing the lives of many young people and other residents. In response, a group of local students organized the first Watsonville Peace and Unity March and it has now become an annual community tradition.
The goal was to raise community awareness about the impact of gang and domestic violence and to encourage more local residents to become actively involved in reducing violence and improving our neighborhoods. The event also does not allow us to forget the names of more than 75 of our brothers and sisters who have tragically lost their lives to senseless violence.
Today, I wonder what Jessica and Jorge Cortez would be doing if they were still with us. This year, Jessica would have been 34 years old and Jorge would be 41. Would they have a family? Would they be teachers, business owners, lawyers or health professionals? We can never truly know what the future had in store for them, but I do know that our community is deprived with every tragic death. Violence touches every home in our community.
The death of the Cortez children certainly had a major impact on my own life. At the time, I was only 19 years old when I got together with now-Watsonville City Councilman Felipe Hernandez and several other young people to organize the first march. It then led us to getting involved in other civic issues facing our community, getting serious about our own college education and pursuing careers in public service and advocacy.
Despite the tragic losses, the people of Watsonville can be proud of good progress that has been made over the last 25 years. The rates of violence and crime have been significantly reduced. There was a 19 percent drop overall in 2018 compared to the prior year, and Watsonville Police Chief David Honda recently stated that Watsonville now has the lowest crime rate per capita out of all cities in Santa Cruz County. He also recently noted that violent crime is down 2.7 percent, property crime is down by 26.6 percent, and drug- and alcohol-related crimes have also dropped by 26.7 percent. That’s impressive.
There are many partnerships, practices and events that can be credited for these improvements. Good community policing by our police department, outstanding work by our local nonprofits, a wide range of after-school and sports programs, involvement by our faith community, the annual National Night Out events, and a stronger local economy are key aspects for Watsonville’s success story. The City of Watsonville’s Parks Department should also be commended for investing in programs and services in our most challenged neighborhoods years ago.
The 25th Annual Watsonville Peace and Unity March will take place again Sunday starting at 11 a.m. at the City Plaza. This year’s march will be led by the mother of the Cortez children, Maria Salazar Cortez, and the mother of Tony Valdivia, Rosa de Ramirez, who has led the march every year. Congressman Jimmy Panetta and State Senator Bill Monning will also be speaking at the event, along with numerous other elected and community leaders.
The people being remembered in this year’s march are: Jessica Cortez, age 9; Jorge Cortez, 16; Tony Valdivia, 19; Victor Simental, 23; Mike Echeverria, 22; Mariana Zavala, 14; Andres Rodriguez, 43; Benny Casares, 21; Edgar Chacon, 16; Augustin Jacobo, 16; Jose Hernandez, 16; Servando Renteria, 21; Jose Antonio Torres, 16; Gloria Hassemer, 42; Oscar Perez, 14; Benny Casares, 21; Jose “Pepe” Garcia, 22; Sergio Romo, 19; Ulysses Huante, 18; Alejandro Alex Lopez, 19; Valdemar Biddlecome, 19; Lucio Garcia, 16; Gregorio Ramirez, 26; Dalila S. Wilson, 19; Leticia Coronado, 38; Joel Arrellano, 19; Jesus Fernandez, 2; Kelly Chilcote, 58; David Douglas, 57; Luis Fernando Gomez, 27; Esteban Herrera, 19; Juan Rodriguez, 23; Ricky Romero, 17; Salvador Rocha, 18; Alejandro Fernandez, 22; Cecilia Fernando Rocha, 30; Tiburcio Moreno Gomez, 39; Gabriel Cesar, 18; Manuel Almieda, 19; Larry Lopez, 23; Justin Black, 17; David Chiota, 58; Humberto Lopez, 25; Kelly Ann Reber, 21; Heather Nicole Pereira, 25; Jose Enrique Perez; Julio Ayala Mendez, 42; Mauricio Cruz, 35; Fernando Balderas, 28; Wayne Carey, 37; Narinderpaul Singh Dhillon, 19; Isaac Guzman, 17; Wayne Minten, 18; Joe Cabrera, 40; Raymond Emmett Cervantes, 34; Carlos Vasquez Martinez, 27; Jaime Juarez; Gustavo Diaz Zaragoza, 19; Stephen Hull, 62; Aaron Hull, 36; Brandon Gil, 21; Dominic Mower; Felipe Reyes, 20; Marco Ortega, 18; Marco Tepete; Jaelyn Zavala, 4; Ramon Rendon, 34; Jason Reyes, 15; Ivan Avila, 24; Ryan Dean, 19; Lorenzo Avalos, 51; Rogelio Botella, 59; Aaron Lopez, 15; Carlos Garcia, 36; and Elizabeth Yaxtel Garcia Tapia.
Everyone is invited to participate in this rain or shine event on Sunday. Let’s keep these names alive by remaining proactive and continuing to fight for peace in Watsonville.
Luis A. Alejo is a Monterey County Supervisor, former mayor of Watsonville and a co-founder of the Watsonville Peace and Unity March. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.