Reporter Reflects a Month After Death of Elijah Bañuelos

Feb. 24, 2012 / By

On January 25, Elijah Bañuelos was fatally shot while standing in an open garage with his father in a quiet Coachella neighborhood. His family held a carwash January 29 to raise funeral funds. One month after the shooting, the community is still thinking about the slain toddler. PHOTO: Tony Aguilar/Coachella Unincorporated

By Tony Aguilar
Coachella Unincorporated

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.


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Coachella Unincorporated

Coachella Unincorporated is a Youth Media Startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of The California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose of the project is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. Coachella Unincorporated refers to the region youth journalists cover but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset.