Thursday, June 26, 2008
The night begins with prayer. A dozen parents and church members form a circle and shout invocations at the bustling corner of Natividad and East Laurel streets in Salinas. They ask for God’s protection before they walk a gang-ridden neighborhood this Saturday evening. Jose Soto Jr. stands by his wife, Leslie. They wear white T-shirts with a photo of their son, Jose “June Bug” Soto III, printed on their backs. Spray-painted words sparkle below Soto’s portrait: “Heaven Bound.”
Soto, a 16-year-old student who loved to rap, was shot and killed May 10 while walking back from a convenience store with friends. Now, in Soto’s memory, his parents and supporters are trying to stop further violence through an initiative dubbed “Operation June Bug.”
After the prayer, Jose Soto backs up his cherry 1984 Cadillac. Soto says he rolls in this ride to impress the gangsters. “We are doing our own kind of drive by,” he says. “We are doing our drive by the spiritual way.
“My son didn’t die in vain. He died doing things he liked. We miss him but you know what? We know where he is.”
Soto describes the first night of Operation June Bug. The group walked La Posada Drive, a Sureño stronghold. Soto says some gang members invited Soto and friends into their home, offering the church group carne asada. Most people would be terrified. But Soto says, “We are not afraid. What else can we lose?”
Undeterred, the Sotos and New Harvest parishioner Marissa Palacio walk to the next house. In the driveway a twenty-something man puts out a marijuana blunt. His yellow athletic shorts sag below his knees. He has faded tattoos and wears a gold chain around his neck.
The red-eyed guy hides the blunt behind his back. Soto recounts his son’s death and explains there are organizations that can help get his tattoos removed. “Since we have been out here there haven’t been any murders during the night,” Soto says. “All the murders are during the day.” The man gets nervous, though, when Soto tells him that I am a reporter.
“We are not here to condemn,” Soto says, adding that when Jesus walked the Earth he hung out with the poor and destitute. Soto says he used be involved with gangs when he lived in Chicago. And when he moved to Salinas, he worked at a nearby fruit stand.
The man apologizes for the weed. “That’s nothing to us,” Soto replies. “We are worried about the people killing people, shooting people.”
The man also says he’s sorry for what happened to Soto’s son. He says he was shot at the age of 13.
Next, the Sotos walk to the blue row houses overlooking César Chávez Park. They approach four teens, two girls and two guys, hanging out in a stairwell.
He repeats his son’s story. The teens listen quietly, and one dark-haired boy looks away, like he’s heard a similarly tragic tale before. Soto warns the girls: “You could be walking with your boyfriend right now and he ducks and you get hit.” After the stern word, Soto says they can call him or his wife anytime they need anything. He offers to give the teens his cell phone number. He then asks the boys if they’ve been shot before and the distant teen admits to taking a bullet.
Later, Soto meets up with more Operation June Bug volunteers. They split up and go door to door around Fremont Street. Soto engages a mother busy with her children, a man watching TV, and another man watering his immaculate lawn. All of them politely listen but respond like they would to any door-to-door solicitor. Soto then talks to a father while he vacuums out his white van, one of six vehicles in the driveway. The father says he is willing to help.
The last house on this side of the street hardly looks welcoming. A German Shepherd mix with one blue eye barks fiercely from his chain. The windows are barred. The house sits about five feet below the street. But someone inside says hello, so Soto asks if he can talk with him.
Tomás Perez comes out dressed in a tan Dickies shirt with matching pants. He listens intently to Soto’s words. Perez says his son dropped out of a neighborhood gang. But now he’s heard there is a hit on his son. Perez says he’s a man of faith. Still, he wants to retaliate against the gangsters who would hurt or kill his son. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks.
Leslie Soto, who has been silent up until now, speaks up. “We have to have faith in God,” she says, choking up with tears. “Trust God. My son did.” Leslie says 50 people were saved at her son’s funeral.
Perez says he’s been looking for a church. Jose gives him the number of his pastor.
In the days of César Chávez, Perez says, Latinos were united and strong. But now, he says, there is a divide between Norteños and Sureños, Latinos born here and recent immigrants. “They split us up. Now we got… nothing.”
Perez figures the kids that gang bang just want to impress their friends. Plus, he says, there is nothing for kids to do. Perez suggests a shop where young people could work on cars. He then invites us into his house.
Ultimate Fighting Championship booms on the big-screen TV. In Perez’s son’s old room, Perez shows off the leather interior for a ’65 Impala that he designed. After some chitchat, Perez respectfully critiques Operation June Bug. “You are offering [gang members] church, which is OK, but they are not going to listen,” he says. “You got to pique their interest. They want fame. They want cars. And they want to be out there.”
Soto says he wants to talk with Perez again. They exchange numbers.
It’s now getting dark. The volunteers meet up at the street corner where they started, and end with a prayer.
Operation June Bug is not about filling a church, Soto says. “The community came out and helped our son in his time,” he says. “This is our time to say thank you.”