WATSONVILLE—Since 2014 there have been eight unsolved gang-related homicides in Watsonville, according to Watsonville Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Pulido.
Many of those victims’ mothers—and those of countless other gang-related homicide victims from the Pajaro Valley—are still holding out hope that one day that will change.
Sunday’s 26th annual Peace and Unity March in Watsonville’s City Plaza emboldened that hope. It is the oldest continuous march of its kind in the state, according to current Monterey County Supervisor and former Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo.
Dozens gathered at the Plaza to continue a quarter-decade of work by remembering the victims of gang violence, and hearing the calls for justice from their families.
“It gives [the families] a sense of hope,” said Watsonville City Councilman Felipe Hernandez. “They haven’t received closure. They haven’t received the justice they deserve, but this shows them we haven’t forgotten about them. It shows them that their kids mattered.”
Alejo and Hernandez started the march after Jessica, 9, and Jorge, 16, Cortez were shot and killed while walking in nearby Pajaro in 1994. The following year hundreds walked the streets of Watsonville asking for the gang violence to stop.
“Here we are 26 years later and we’re still going,” Alejo said. “The event might have gotten smaller, but it’s important to keep this going.”
Organizer Olga Fuentes said the event has fluctuated in size from year to year, and this year it was smaller than usual. However, she said it was important to continue the march, which helps families heal and connect with other members of the community dealing with the same issues.
“It does not matter how big or small,” Fuentes said. “The right people will show.”
The event was organized by the Peace and Unity Coalition, this year a collection of women—many of them mothers—that support their peers looking for justice. Coalition member Maria Alejo (Luis’ mother) said the loss of a child is tough already, but not being able to receive closure makes the loss much more arduous.
“As a mother, I can’t imagine not having that closure,” she said. “Not being able to grieve, and not being able to move on in the right way.”
Sofia Rivas, whose son, Oscar Perez, was shot and killed in 1996, joined Sunday’s march in hopes of lending perspective and strength to other mothers who had lost a child to gang violence. Her son was a 14-year-old freshman at Watsonville High School when he was murdered. He had no gang affiliation, according to media reports.
“It was a tragic accident,” Rivas said through an interpreter. “We’re trying to live on the best we can.”
Though two men, Larry Perez (no relation) and Carlos Gutierrez, were arrested and convicted for the crime, Rivas said she doesn’t feel her son received proper justice because of lenient sentences. Both pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter instead of being prosecuted for first-degree murder and were handed 13 years combined in state prison, according to media reports.
Instead of dwelling on that grief, she tries to soothe other mothers and families affected by gang violence.
“What can we do now? We have to endure,” said Rivas, who as a single mother sent her two other children to college. “We have to be there and endure for the rest of the family and friends.”
Alejo, who was 20 when he helped organize the march, said his hometown has made monumental strides against gang violence over the years.
“It was a tough time in Watsonville, but things have changed,” Alejo said. “It took some time but all change takes time. And it didn’t happen by chance. It took a lot of people over many years to make this happen.”
Watsonville has seen a steady decline in gang-related homicides during the current decade, according to Pulido. In 2014 there were eight gang-related homicides, and the following year there were three. Over the last four years, however, there have been only two gang-related homicides—both of which remain unsolved.
Additionally, statistics released by the City of Watsonville this year announced that total crime was down nine percent thanks to giant drops in person (17.8 percent) and property (29.5) crime.
Hernandez said the ongoing efforts of residents, nonprofits, schools, law enforcement and the city government have led to the historic drops. He said, however, the city should not become complacent as it heads into the future.
“It’s important that we continue this tradition despite the ebb and flow of violence,” Hernandez said. “It gives mothers and the community a voice. It lets them know we haven’t forgotten them.”