Thursday, July 2, 2009
Before his tears were dry, Jose Soto fearlessly walked Salinas’ most dangerous neighborhoods, determined to not let the death of his son, Jose “June Bug” Soto III, go unnoticed. Wearing a white shirt with his son’s young face on the back, Soto told parents and teens about June Bug, who was shot and killed last May while walking from a convenience store on Marin Avenue. Soto took what would have been just another obituary and turned it into rallying cry for youth to find alternatives to gangs.
A year later, Soto’s passion is unwavering. His initiative, dubbed “Operation June Bug,” doesn’t go door-to-door anymore but focuses on community rallies. Soto and supporters put together Unity Jam on June 20 where lowriders shared the lawn at Natividad Creek Park with bands, small businesses and social service agencies. Twenty homeless families received VIP treatment and Mayor Dennis Donohue plunged into the dunk tank to raise money for the families.
Soto says the event was centered on unity because Salinas can’t stop gang violence until the community comes together. “Don’t blame the police. Don’t blame the mayor,” he says. “We need to step forward and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
The music and tricked-out cars, Soto says, attracts young people, who need to know that they are cared for. “It’s not anti-gangs or anti-drugs,” he says. “We want to pull them before they destroy their lives or destroy somebody else’s.”
Even before his son was killed, Soto helped organize events for mothers who lost their kids to gang violence. Not long before June Bug was shot down, the 16-year-old North Salinas High School student performed a rap song in honor of the family of Jose Carrillo, another victim in the city’s gang war. Soto says he is motivated by gratitude for the people who honored June Bug at his funeral. “My son was buried like a king… so we want to give back to the community,” he says.
He also has a strong desire to find his son’s killer, who is still on the loose. “It’s not about rallies. I lost my son. My wife needs closure. My family needs closure. I want justice. We’re not going to sit back and allow this coward to say, ‘Ha, I got one. I’m going to move up in ranks in my gang.’”
Deborah Aguilar, founder of A Time for Grieving, a gang violence victims’ support group, knew June Bug. She says after the loss of her son Stephen to gang violence in 2002, June Bug would come and wash her Cadillac, which helped her deal with the loss. Aguilar says Soto has a knack for organizing: “He is a good talker. He’s an inspiration for those fathers so they can get up and take back their streets.”
Soto, who has shied away from A Time for Grieving vigils, is staying busy, planning a fundraiser for the Salinas Police Activities League in September.
“I don’t want to grieve any more,” Soto says. “Grieving is very hurtful and very painful. With that energy I want to do something positive, so no other parents will grieve.”