Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)

Chapter 4. PEDRO CORTEZ (18)

San Jose, California

4:22 P.M. EST

CAPITOL PARK, IN EAST SAN JOSE, SITS AT THE FOOT OF THE Diablo mountain range, ensconced in childhood fantasy. It’s a vast patch of green with a playground, fenced-off basketball courts and soccer fields, picnic tables, barbecue grills, a baseball diamond, and a school. It’s bordered by Bambi Lane, Van Winkle Lane, Peter Pan Avenue, and Galahad Avenue. From here you can either wander off on the Lower Silver Creek Trail—a 6.5-mile walk that will, once developed, take you from Lake Cunningham Park to the Coyote Creek Trail—or leave the area on Cinderella Lane. The yards of the modestly sized bungalows that surround the park in this mostly Latino area boast lush greenery, including palm trees and the occasional fountain. It was by far the most scenic place where any child lost his life to gunfire that day and had the most expensive real estate (you could sell a house here and use the proceeds to buy seven houses where Stanley Taylor was shot). At sixty-four degrees with a light wind, it was also the warmest.

In the late eighteenth century, San Jose belonged to the Spanish, which made it the first civilian town in their colony of Nueva California. It passed to the Mexicans in 1821, only to join the United States in 1850. Today the turf is claimed by the Norteños, a constellation of gangs loosely affiliated with the Nuestra Familia, a Chicano prison gang. Norteños means Northerners—more precisely, Northern Californians. They wear red, often have tattoos with four dots on their hands or at the corner of their eyes, and may sport the number 14—N is the fourteenth letter in the alphabet. More Americanized than other Latino gangs, some of their members may not even speak Spanish. They also lay claim to the imagery of and nostalgia for the Latino American labor movement in general and labor leader Cesar Chavez in particular, who came into contact with many Norteños while he was imprisoned for his union work.

Their principal rival gang, the Sureños (Southerners), is larger but less well organized and has its base in Southern California; they wear blue and also sport tattoos with three dots. The widely recognized border between North and South is 240 miles downstate, in Bakersfield. “It is true that this is marked territory,” Arturo Dado told the San Jose Mercury a few days after he lost his grandson. “It is marked red.”1

On November 23, 2013, Arturo’s grandson, eighteen-year-old Pedro Dado Cortez, wore black. His family insists he was not a gang member, although they feared he might be attracted to gang life. “I used to take away his red clothing,” said Silvia Dado, his grandmother.2 “He would always say he would be fine, to not worry about him or his friends, but I would worry anyway and still get rid of his red shirts.” Pedro lived with his grandparents, who described him as “popular but naive.” “They just like to hang out the way young men do,” said Arturo. “And they didn’t carry guns, shoot at people or rob them—none of that.”3

To friends and family, Pedro went by Junior or Moko. In most pictures he wears a wide-peaked baseball cap and a relaxed smile crowned with peach fuzz. In memorial videos he’s nearly always got his arm around someone—his sister or an assortment of young women—often with a bottle of Hennessy in the other hand. In one YouTube video he lip-synchs to “Beautiful Girls,” dancing his way in and out of self-consciousness as his friends, entangled in a pile on a mattress, laugh in encouragement. Pedro was legally blind—with a condition that had deteriorated considerably since he was thirteen—but managed to get by with what sight he had. He wore powerful contact lenses that he said were painful. He had dropped out of school and worked for his stepfather in a moving company. He was still hopeful that he could save up enough money to learn to drive and get a car.

Although he and one of his friends were wearing black that afternoon, it’s believed that another in their group may have been wearing red. They were walking up Van Winkle Lane at around four—in broad daylight and a very public place. This, it turns out, is the most dangerous time to be out in a gang-ridden area.

In several studies of gang homicides in Los Angeles, researchers uncovered a range of characteristics that distinguish gang killings from other killings. They are more likely to take place on the street, involve guns and cars, take place in the late afternoon, and have more participants of younger ages, usually men.4

To that extent, Pedro’s assassination was a textbook case. Before dusk could roll over the Diablo mountains, a black Camaro convertible pulled up alongside him and his friends, and a gunman wearing a bandanna over his face started shooting. The car then “took off burning rubber,” most likely down Galahad or Peter Pan, leaving Pedro with a bullet in the heart. He died right there. According to one local website, over the next twenty-four hours East San Jose crackled with gunfire in apparent retaliation, with some homes being shot at.5 That morning, Pedro had called his sister, Miranda Brianna, with whom he was close, just for a chat. That evening she downed some Hennessy—his favorite drink—in his memory: Pedro was on the “Heeeeeen Team.”

“Blue, red, orange, none of that is going to save you,” his stepfather told youngsters at a vigil in the park a few days later, listing the gang colors as his face flickered in the flames. “That didn’t save my Junior. I was supposed to be working with him today. Instead I went to work alone,” he said, his voice cracking and eyes welling. “I cried in the elevator.” One of Pedro’s memorial videos, showing pictures of him in everything from a tux to three-quarter-length shorts, scrolled to the sound of Philthy Rich’s “Thinking of You,” a rap ballad with a sampling of Diana Ross. “Shit is all the same, niggas die, mommas cry / Bitches turn sour now she fucking on that other guy. . . . Nothing to live for, my niggas doing life sentences / Either dead or in jail we doing life sentences.”

Finding money to bury Pedro was a problem. A fundraising site went up. “Please help with anything,” asked his aunt. On the Wednesday after his death, they held a car wash. At the candlelight vigil people collected coins and bills. It was more than two weeks before Pedro was finally laid to rest. According to her Facebook postings, by that time Miranda was struggling to get out of bed in the morning; by the New Year she was worried about her drinking. Requests went out for people not to wear gang colors to Pedro’s funeral. “No colors, no drama,” Miranda wrote on Facebook, “we are trying to have a good time saying our last goodbyes to Junior.”

IN MOST US CITIES where children got shot on the day profiled in this book, such a murder would have barely made it through a twenty-four-hour media cycle. A few seconds on the television, maybe. A few hundred words in the paper with a quote from a family member, maybe—and that’s it. If the perpetrator was caught, that too would merit a couple of hundred words. An event of note, but of precious little import. Pedro’s murder was different. His death appeared not only on the evening news in San Jose and in the next day’s paper but also in follow-up TV bulletins from the family vigil in the park a few days later and in a feature by San Jose Mercury columnist Joe Rodriguez titled “Teen Slain on Street Named for Kids’ Tales.” “In a neighborhood inspired by imagination and fantasy,” he wrote, “a starkness had set in, and there is a fear over what may come next.”6

Much was made of the fact that Pedro was the city’s forty-fourth homicide victim of the year.7 That’s forty-four too many. But still, for a city of San Jose’s size, by American standards it’s not that many. Most only bother to count if the homicide rate reaches a round number or a significant milestone, like exceeding the previous record or last year’s figure. Compared to other cities and towns featured in this book, only Grove City, where Jaiden Dixon was shot the day before, had a lower homicide rate. The deadliest city of all, Newark, had a rate more than ten times as high.8

But San Jose is different. It has grown exponentially since the Second World War to become the nation’s tenth largest city. Between 1950 and 1970 its population grew fivefold as large numbers of people relocated there after the war; between 1990 and 2010 it leapt another 20 percent thanks to the tech boom and immigration.9 “It used to be a cow town,” a friend from Oakland told me. “And then Silicon Valley happened, and it just blew up.” The consequent low-rise sprawl gives the city a distinctly suburban feel; it seems you are rarely more than fifteen minutes from anywhere but will probably have to take the interstate or the freeway to get there. It’s a city dwarfed in reputation by its two closest neighbors, San Francisco and Oakland, even as it continues to outgrow them.

Expansion brought its problems. San Jose once prided itself on the sobriquet Safest Big City in America.10 By the beginning of 2013, it was the fifth safest. It had a higher crime rate than the rest of America, and yet police were catching half as many criminals as they had a few years earlier.11 “San Jose never compared itself to places like Newark or Chicago,” explains Rodriguez, the newspaper columnist. We met one night for drinks while I was in town trying to find Pedro’s family. “It compares itself to how it used to be. Things went downhill pretty fast. When you’re doing really well and then suddenly you’re not, then you take the fall badly. It’s like Paradise Lost. So at the paper we followed up on all the deaths, because in San Jose these kind of shootings are still news.”

Four days after Pedro was shot, at around 8:30 p.m., San Jose Police Department’s Covert Response Unit, along with patrol officers, dogs, and officers from the Gang Suppression Unit, arrested twenty-year-old Balam Eugenio Gonzalez. He had bushy black eyebrows and thick black hair, compensating for what might one day pass for a mustache. They booked him immediately for Pedro’s murder but did not release his name for another few days, citing the sensitivity of the investigation. They believed the murder was gang-related, making it the tenth such homicide that year.12

After two-and-a-half years in prison, Balam was also charged with the fatal shooting of Armondo Miguel Heredia on August 23, 2012, as well as an attempted murder, on August 18, in another drive-by shooting that left one person wounded.13

I’M A LINGUIST BY training. I studied to be an interpreter and translator in French and Russian and hoped to one day be a Moscow correspondent. Then I did a placement at the Washington Post, fell in love with an American, and ended up there instead. From the time I was first posted in New York, I intended to learn Spanish but never did. For the most part, I could get away with it. When I went out West there were translators, and sometimes down South people would translate for me and I would muddle through. It wasn’t ideal. But thanks to my linguistic privilege as an English speaker, I could function. However, in stories as sensitive as this, in communities that can be hard to reach, my inability to speak Spanish may have been a problem.

From everything I could tell from their Facebook pages, most of Pedro’s family spoke English, although his grandparents, with whom he lived, spoke Spanish. I left notes and messages for them everywhere I could on social media. I sent letters (some translated into Spanish) everywhere I thought they might be in San Jose. I flew to San Jose and knocked on the doors for which I had addresses. I received no response. At this point I just started asking around. Elsewhere in the country, while pursuing stories for this book, that has worked. Here it didn’t. Not because nobody spoke English. I’m sure lots of people did. But in a gang-rife area that is 90 percent Latino, a black man with an English accent asking if anyone knew the family of a Latino teenager who’d been shot just couldn’t win the confidence of those who had come to the park to watch their children play and to have a stroll. It was one variable too many. Aside from Kenneth, Pedro was the only other child who was killed that day with whose family or friends I did not make a connection.

On the first day I walked around Capitol Park, where Pedro was shot, I saw a small shrine to his death next to the entrance sign. Some synthetic roses and a candle with a picture of the Virgin Mary on it—the kind that adorns so many sites of gun shootings—had been placed under it. Had I just stood there for twenty-four hours, rather than racing around to different addresses, I would certainly have met someone, for the next afternoon I came back, and the shrine was still there with one addition: an empty bottle of Hennessy—Pedro’s favorite tipple.