Gilberto Ramirez spent three years in Oakland, California, working long hours pruning trees and grooming lawns with one goal in mind: saving up enough money for his wife and four children back in San Pedro Necta, Guatemala, to come join him.
In March 2016, Ramirez got his wish when his wife, three sons and daughter reunited with him in East Oakland. They joined the fast growing number of Central American immigrants building new lives in the Bay Area, many of whom came escaping violence and poverty in their home countries.
But within 19 months, the family’s youngest son, eighth-grader Anibal Andres Ramirez was shot and killed. Police found his body on a bench on the evening of 10 October 2017 near the intersection of Foothill Blvd and Seminary Ave, blocks from the apartment the family rented.
Anibal became the city’s youngest gun homicide victim that year at just 13 years old.
The case has not been solved, and nearly two and a half years later, Gilberto Ramirez is still trying to make sense of how his plan to give his son a better life in Oakland backfired so badly.
“It was my dream to have my family together in the United States,” Ramirez told the Guardian in a recent interview in Spanish, which is his second language after the indigenous language Mam. “So much effort and suffering to raise the money to bring my son here, only to have some lowlife cut off my son’s life. It hurts.”
Anibal Andres Ramirez’s arrival in Oakland coincided with a surge in the local immigrant youth population.
The number of “newcomers” – immigrant students who have arrived in the last three years and speak a language other than English – has nearly doubled in the Oakland unified school district since 2014. This year, one in seven high schoolers in the district are newcomers.
The kids come from countries all over the world, but the majority are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Some arrived with their parents, but many came as unaccompanied child migrants. Alameda county, where Oakland is located, has received more than 2,500 unaccompanied child migrants from federal shelters since 2015, making it California’s top destination for these young people after Los Angeles county.
Before arriving in Oakland, many newcomer kids have already lived through trauma in their home countries or on the journey to the US. And for some, violence continued to haunt them even after their arrival.
“When I first arrived here in Oakland, I felt less safe than in Guatemala,” student Kevin Xiloj said in Spanish, his second language after the native indigenous language K’iche.
Xiloj left Guatemala when he was 17 to get away from the gangs that dominated his rough neighborhood in the city of Huehuetenango. But when he finally made it to East Oakland in 2015, he was greeted by frequent gunfire in his new neighborhood.
He said his American peers mocked him for not speaking English and were eager to pick fights. Xiloj followed the same rules he had learned growing up in Huehuetenango: Listen. Watch. Stay quiet.
Yet he found Oakland’s unfamiliar streets more intimidating. At least back in Huehuetenango, Xiloj explained, “I knew people, I knew my neighborhood, I knew who was who.”
Even as the gun homicide rate in Oakland fell by 44% between 2007 and 2017, it remains a persistent problem. More than 60 people have been killed by gunshot wounds each year in the city for the past several years. People of color are disproportionately impacted. Latino Bay Area residents are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of gun homicides than their white counterparts. Black residents are 22 times more likely.
There are also signs that new immigrants in Oakland may be increasingly vulnerable.
Ricardo Garcia-Acosta of Youth ALIVE!, an Oakland-based violence intervention organization, found the tally of recent immigrant gun homicide victims have inched up in the past four years, even as total gun homicides in the city have fallen. In 2019, Youth ALIVE! documented eleven such cases in Oakland, up from six in 2016.
Many victims were Latin American adult men fatally shot in what appeared to be robberies, Garcia-Acosta said. He noted non-English speaking immigrants may be targeted because they are less likely to notify police and are often unfamiliar with “the landscape and rules of the uniquely challenging streets of Oakland”.
In Anibal’s case, older teenage boys seemed to have been after him, his parents said. On a few occasions, the boy came home beaten up. Once, he was robbed of his cellphone. “He was bullied,” his father, Gilberto Ramirez, recalled.
The 13-year-old often wore red clothing, which may have been a show of support for the gang that operated in his neighborhood, or a way to gain protection from it.
Nathaniel Dunstan, who oversees refugee and newcomer students for the district’s English language learners and multilingual achievement team, said he grew concerned about Anibal months before he was killed and initiated a number of home visits.
“At that time, the best way I knew to engage students at risk was to get them involved in Soccer Without Borders,” Dunstan recalled, referring to a soccer program for immigrant and refugee youth.
But Anibal was not interested in soccer, and Dunstan said his outreach efforts “felt really inadequate”.
Captain Trevelyon Jones of Oakland police department’s Ceasefire violence intervention program was one of the first officers on the scene the night Anibal was shot.
“I was there like maybe 45 seconds after he got shot,” Jones recalled. “I remember seeing him sitting there, [and] thinking like, ‘Wow, this is a little kid.’”
Anibal was wearing red the night he was shot. His clothing may have made him a target from rival groups. Oakland police department Sgt Brad Baker declined to provide details about the open homicide investigation, but said there are “gang connections” to the case.
Anibal’s shooting catalyzed Dunstan and other educators to take action.
“After Anibal was killed, my office and administrators from across the district realized that we needed another tool, another intervention, to support newcomers that had safety concerns,” Dunstan said.
The district had already hired bilingual social workers and therapists to work specifically with newcomers and their families. It had also forged relationships with local pro bono immigration attorneys to take on students’ immigration cases. And since many older newcomer students must support themselves, the district had opened a new continuation high school, Rudsdale Newcomer high school, with a class schedule designed to make it easier for students to juggle classes and jobs.
When Rudsdale first opened its doors, Emma Batten-Bowman, the founding assistant principal, noticed her incoming students often faced danger walking to and from school. “Our newcomers are targeted. They’re jumped. They’re held at gunpoint,” she said.
In the months following Anibal’s murder, educators, community partners and newcomer students met periodically to brainstorm about what else to do. They identified dozens of factors making newcomer students vulnerable to becoming victims or perpetrators of violence, including dangerous local neighborhoods, past trauma, poverty, debts to smugglers and a lack of support systems. It became clear no existing local youth violence prevention program addressed the specific challenges facing newcomers.
Ultimately, the school district partnered with a local not-for-profit, Bay Area Community Resources, to hire safety specialists to implement a school district-wide violence prevention program for newcomers.
The new initiative launched the following school year.
Starting up the new violence prevention program fell to Ernesto Quiñonez, the district’s first newcomer safety specialist.
Quiñonez, who was born in San Francisco’s Mission District, was active in the Norteño gang as a teenager and had been incarcerated for a string of offenses he committed as a juvenile, including assault and battery with a deadly weapon and armed robbery.
By August 2018, Quiñonez had been out of prison three years, and wanted to spend his time helping youth and “undo some of the violence that I’ve done”.
He spent the fall of 2018 based out of Rudsdale Newcomer high school, a small campus of portable classrooms clustered around a courtyard.
Quiñonez’s background allowed him to understand the unique pressures her students were facing, Batten-Bowman, the assistant principal, said: “You need somebody who knows the streets.”
Right away, Quiñonez was busy.
A new student who had arrived only months earlier from Guatemala and did not yet understand the seriousness of gang colors, wore red T-shirts to school and was followed home and shot at by another student with a realistic-looking BB gun. A recent graduate was hospitalized after he was shot twice in the stomach. Students were jumped.
“There were so many violent incidents that I was responding to them as fast as I could,” Quiñonez recalled.
Quiñonez needed to help newcomer students across the school district, so he recruited Jose Garcia to take over as safety specialist for Rudsdale Newcomer.
Garcia, a youth educator, activist and artist who had himself immigrated to Oakland as an 11-year-old from Mexico, discovered that adults involved in local criminal organizations were manipulating some newcomer students. The students were coerced into selling drugs or stealing in exchange for housing, he said. Some female students were ensnared by sex trafficking rings.
“A lot of these kids are falling into a lot of predatory dynamics just because they have no family,” Garcia said. “They have no support system, they really have nobody.”
The new safety specialists became that support system for the most at-risk newcomers. Quiñonez and Garcia designed a program to cycle the most vulnerable students into intensive case management – supporting them as they got out of dangerous situations, assisting them if they had run-ins with the criminal justice system, checking whether they had safe housing, linking them to social services, and eventually, helping students plan for their futures.
They created a class where at-risk students practice non-violent conflict resolution techniques, learn about commonalities between their Central American cultures, express themselves through art projects and burn off frustration with physical exercises like boxing.
Garcia named the program “Young Hawks” because hawks are sacred to many indigenous groups in the Americas. “But the problem with the hawk’s energy is that if it’s not channeled or is not given a purpose, then it can be destructive,” Garcia said.
He noticed many students came to the US fleeing gangs and violence from Central America, but had little knowledge of the historical context that created those conditions.
“They just blame [themselves] automatically for everything wrong with them and their communities,” Garcia said. “They just feel like that’s how the world works.”
Garcia responded by immersing his students in history, teaching about the violence indigenous peoples suffered during Europe’s colonization of the Americas, and the United States’ record of fueling violent conflicts in Central America. He explains that a high portion of guns in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador can be traced back to the United States.
“We dive into those things so that they don’t blame themselves or their parents for the world they inherited,” Garcia said.
At the beginning of this school year, the Bay Area violence that Ernesto Quiñonez had been helping to quell struck close to home. His 19-year-old younger brother was shot and killed in San Francisco.
The tragedy deepened his resolve. “We’re committed to this work,” Quiñonez said. “And we need to keep doing it.”
Quiñonez has moved on to an oversight role of the Young Hawks program at Bay Area Community Resources and Garcia now supervises two other full-time safety specialists. The three safety specialists manage caseloads for about 120 newcomer students district-wide.
Earlier this year, Garcia said his workday began “whenever that phone rings”.
“Sometimes it starts at 3 in the morning,” he said. “It might not be on my contract. But that’s what it takes to get the job done correctly.”
“Whenever I need him, he is there,” said Michael, a 17-year-old student who asked to only be identified by his first name for safety reasons. In an interview in Spanish, he called Garcia, “A loyal friend.”
Michael said he left El Salvador when he was 13 because a cousin insisted he had to either join his gang, or be killed. Other relatives helped smuggle him out of town, and he eventually made it to Oakland.
He described feeling a mix of surprise and disappointment when he discovered gangs were also active in his new neighborhood, and a sense of relief when he realized safety specialists could help him.
Michael said last year he and a friend crossed paths with a group of men on Oakland’s Bancroft Avenue who claimed to be gang members and tried to start a fight. Police arrived. At the time, Michael was attending Castlemont high school, and called that school’s newcomer safety specialist, Daniel Silva, for advice.
Silva’s response was immediate.
“He arrived to help me,” Michael said. “The police let me and my friend go.”
Michael transferred to Rudsdale Newcomer last fall. He sometimes went to class after spending the entire previous night on his feet packing produce at a warehouse.
“It relaxes me,” he said about being on campus. Other Rudsdale Newcomer students echoed the same sentiment.
Rudsdale Newcomer had turned a corner.
Emma Batten-Bowman, the assistant principal, said there has not been any violence on campus or shootings involving her students so far this school year. She credits the safety specialists and Young Hawks.
“Having a support person on campus who really understands what the kids are going through, the kids open up about their actual needs rather than make a bad decision,” Batten-Bowman said.
“It was just such a huge shift,” she added.
But just as the Young Hawks program was showing signs of sustained success, the Covid-19 pandemic upended the routines educators had worked hard to build. Oakland unified school district closed school campuses in mid-March, and Garcia and his colleagues now keep up with students individually by phone and social media.
Many students are facing financial emergencies after losing jobs at the same time school abruptly shuttered.
“Kids were using school to get food, encouragement and support,” Batten-Bowman said. “Now they don’t have that outlet.”
Oakland police department does not track homicide victims by immigration status or country of origin, but in an interview in early March, Captain Jones of the Ceasefire program said it had been several months since he has heard of a new shooting involving Central American newcomer youth.
“It’s nothing compared to what we typically see with our traditional groups and gangs in the city of Oakland, which we spend most of our time focusing on,” Jones said.
He said therapeutic approaches to gang intervention seem to be lowering Oakland’s overall gang population and gun violence. “We know now we don’t have a huge influx of gang members like we used to. So something’s working.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, both Nathaniel Dunstan at the school district and Jose Garcia hoped to see the Young Hawks program expand to all six Oakland unified school district schools serving high school-age newcomers.
But more funding is needed to hire additional safety specialists, and Garcia said fundraising for newcomer safety was challenging even before the outbreak-related economic crisis.
Garcia said although it is common to hear outrage in the Bay Area about how child migrants are treated by the federal government – including protests over “kids in cages” – that has not translated into resources for children when they are released into the community.
Last month, Rudsdale Newcomer school administrators launched a GoFundMe to help their students pay for rent, bills and food through the summer. School staff, including Garcia, are assisting students to avoid eviction, pick up food at school sites, get internet access, find new jobs and apply for unemployment benefits if they qualify. They are also pleading with cellphone companies to not shut off students’ phones over unpaid bills.
“We are all social workers now,” Batten-Bowman said.
Garcia said he is grateful he had the chance to help at-risk students practice healthy habits and create positive support systems before this crisis hit. But he worries about very recent newcomers who have not yet enrolled in school or established a safety net.
“I’m just kind of afraid that this [pandemic] is going to roll the boulder down the hill,” Garcia said from his home where he is working remotely. “It might create a spike in violence or crime just out of sheer survival.”
These days, Gilberto Ramirez, his wife and children are cloistered together at home, sheltering in place.
After Anibal’s death, they moved away from their old neighborhood and now live in a rental home closer to the city’s Fruitvale district. They don’t hear nearly as many gunshots anymore.
A framed photo of Anibal hangs over the family’s couch. He is pictured with neatly gelled black hair, holding his hands up in the shape of a heart.
Ramirez has not been able to work since everything in the Bay Area shut down last month.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Ramirez said about whether his job delivering office furniture will ever start up again. “We are waiting to see.”
The long days at home, sharing simple meals of rice, beans and chicken soup with his children, give Ramirez time to ponder whether anyone will ever be punished for Anibal’s murder. He is growing agitated that nearly two and a half years have passed and police have not arrested anyone.
“Why won’t they do justice in this case?” Ramirez questions. “Police will arrest you for speeding, but how come if someone is doing violence, harming your family, why not then?”
He said he can’t help wondering if justice for a poor Latino boy is not a police priority.
The Oakland police department Sgt Brad Baker said the homicide is “still an open, active investigation”, and that, “we treat all these cases equally across the board”.
Anibal’s mother, Florinda, described him in her limited Spanish as “a good son” who always offered to help her by running errands for her at the store.
In the period after his death, Ramirez said his wife wept constantly and was too distraught to leave the house.
Late last year, they welcomed a new baby girl.
Ramirez has started to wonder if he should think about moving his family of six out of Oakland for safety reasons.
“There are a lot of criminals and murderers here,” Ramirez said. “People don’t fight with their hands – they fight with guns.”
Still, he is grateful to Oakland for one kindness. A city official raised money for Anibal’s funeral expenses.
The donations helped Ramirez send Anibal’s body back to Guatemala, where the boy is buried in his hometown.