By Tony Aguilar
THERMAL, Calif. – Growing up in the Eastern Coachella Valley, I spent a lot of time indoors enjoying the comforts of home. Like many East Valley families we lack parks and public facilities to gather and play, so home had to suffice. My mother was a single parent who worked full-time and attended community college at night, so my brothers and I were often left under the care of our grandparents. Fearing we might be struck by a rancher’s stray bullet, as they tried to scare off a coyote or flock of pigeons or caught in the crossfire of a local gang fight, they rarely allowed us to stray far from the house.
Safe within the confines of our grandparents’ home, the thought of being in danger never crossed our minds — that is, unless we stepped outside. There was something sacrosanct about their home that made us feel safe and secure. The walls of the house felt impenetrable.
Two-year-old Elijah Bañuelos probably never knew fear at home, either. One month ago, on January 25, young Elijah was fatally shot while standing in an open garage with his father in a quiet Coachella neighborhood.
Maybe I felt safe because of the rosaries that my grandmother and her friends prayed with daily in our living room. Or maybe I found assurance in the altar set up in the living room to honor my grandmother’s youngest child, my uncle, who had passed away. Or maybe it was the feeling that if I could survive New Year’s Eve in my neighborhood, I could survive anything. With so many of our drunken neighbors celebrating by shooting weapons into the air, it seemed like a miracle to wake up alive on January 1st.
Sadly, Elijah doesn’t get to see another New Year, or even celebrate his third birthday.
In tight-knit Latino families like mine, life revolves around the home. On any given weekend you will find multiple generations cooking up a simple meal of carne asada or celebrating a quinceañera in their homes and backyards. A tragedy, such as Elijah’s death, shatters the sanctity and drives a spear through the heart of that home that was once a safe haven for the family.
Mario Campos, a father from Coachella, says that his family life has changed since the murder of Elijah.
“I don’t let my children play in the front yard anymore, only the backyard,” says Campos. “I don’t like playing the bad parent, but I recently started enforcing a curfew for my daughters. I’d much rather know that my kids are home safe, than out on the streets where anything can happen.”
Lorena Gomar, also of Coachella, says she has seen crime increase to the point where she no longer feels safe in her hometown.
“I don’t go out at night time as often anymore and when I do, I ready my car keys before I exit the store,” says Gomar. “I don’t live in a neighborhood. I own [an isolated] property in Coachella and even then, I fear for my children.”
Gomar doesn’t let her children stray far from her sight, even when they step outside to make a phone call. “I have a seven-year-old, and her safety is my number one priority. I don’t want her taken away from me like Elijah was taken from his parents.”
One short month after the passing of Elijah Bañuelos, the fear residents like Campos and Gomar feel is understandable. A home is for raising a family and making memories, not a place where a toddler should suffer a violent death.