Nearly three decades ago, 9-year-old Jessica Cortez and her brother Jorge, 16, were gunned down by gang members as they walked to a nearby panaderia on Salinas Road for a treat.
Nobody has ever been arrested, and while police do not know why the gang members targeted Jorge, they say it could have been retaliation for an earlier shooting.
The children’s mother has said she still imagines them walking through the door after coming home from school.
While indelibly tragic, the 1994 murders nevertheless galvanized the community and were the catalyst for the creation of the annual Peace and Unity March, when participants walk through the streets of Watsonville in honor of loved ones lost to violence.
The event on Sept. 25 drew more than 100 people, said former Watsonville Mayor and California Assemblyman Luis Alejo.
“The Peace and Unity March in Watsonville has continued for 29 years,” he said. “There’s no other event like it in California. It continues as an important way for our community to heal, to never forget all those we have lost to violence, and to call for peace in our neighborhoods.”
Watsonville has recently experienced several homicides, including the shootings of 19-year-old Adrian Ayala on Sept. 5, and 18-year-old Feliciano Martinez Perea in April. In 2021, 21-year-old Abel Ruiz was shot in October, and a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old Watsonville residents lost their lives.
“After the recent homicides, we just can’t stand by,” Alejo said. “We must continue to do everything possible to save lives, and call for an end to violence in our community.”
The event is co-sponsored by the Watsonville Peace & Unity Coalition, the City of Watsonville, the County of Monterey, Community Action Board/Alcance, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, Community Life Services, Grieving and Healing Group of Salinas, Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, Fiestas Patrias, Si Se Puede, Barrios Unidos, KAPU 104.7, KDUB 99.9 and Santa Cruz County Office of Education.
Alejo said that the County of Monterey supported the march, as did the City of Watsonville and the Watsonville Police Department.
The event included speeches by Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips at Cortez Park in Pajaro, which was named after Jessica and Jorge.