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Gun Violence

You might think America’s gun problem isn’t fixable. You never met Jose Quezada

WILMINGTON, Calif. – Plumes of fragrant smoke waft through the air and into Jose Refugio Quezada Jr.’s face. It’s so heavy he keeps having to run to the sink for a fresh towel to wipe the sting of tears streaming from his eyes.   

He’s perched at an oversized barrel grill, basting and flipping. The heat is high, the fire hot and fast. The smoke can be overwhelming, but he likes the way it sears. 

Jose – here, they call him Coach – is the pit master, the barbecue pro, the man who makes the bomb grilled Teriyaki chicken. 

It’s July 27 and Coach is cooking for hundreds of people at Wilhall Park.

When someone in Wilmington needed help – they got cancer, or got shot – Jose Quezada, right, rallied his friends for a barbecue fundraiser. At $10 a plate, they could raise a lot of money to help somebody else.

Tonight is Fiesta Night, part of Summer Night Lights, when folks turn out to make the park a place for families, instead of for the other things that happen in parks at night. 

Here, in one neat square, you’ll find Wilhall Park, the Wilmington Recreation Center, the Wilmington Teen Center and the John Mendez Center. Coach has been coaching youth baseball and basketball here since he was 18, nearly 30 years ago now. A lot of people know Coach here in Wilmas. 

If you’re from Wilmington, you know to call it Wilmas – this place boxed in by the harbor, the oil refineries and the elevated freeways. 

Here’s what else you know if you’re from Wilmas. You know gang members sling, and guns fly out of trunks and trap houses, a few hundred dollars apiece. You know if you’re from the east side or the west side, and who rules each. You know there are rules to this life. If you’re on the street, there may be beef. So there will be guns. 

But kids can stay out of all that, as long as they have good people in their heads. That’s why Coach keeps coaching. Sports keeps kids on the right path, he always says. 

Jose stopped playing baseball as a kid, but as an adult, he found he could coach it. Eventually, people in Wilmington knew him as Coach.

When he’s not coaching, he’s grilling that bomb chicken. Fundraisers for people who got cancer. Got COVID. Got in an accident. Got shot. For $10, you get chicken, rice and macaroni salad or cabbage slaw. Buy a plate, take home the extra. It’s enough to last you a day or two.

He rallies his friends. “Help out, carnal,” he says. They all pitch in. Sometimes it’s a fundraiser. Tonight, it’s just an event at the park. Either way, Coach always eats last. Nothing for him until everybody else has their plate.  

It’s a lot of work, the grilling, the volunteering, for a man with a maintenance job and a family of his own. He’s 46. He has dreams for his future. Buy a food truck, maybe, and put his skills to the real test.

Sometimes his wife, Sandy DeLaMora, tells him to take a break.

“No, Honey,” he tells her. “I bless to be blessed. God looks after me because of what I do for people, and you just never know. One day I may need it.’”

Things happen on other nights in Wilhall Park, but tonight is supposed to be different. There’s a live band out here now. Kids play on the swings, kick soccer balls and chase one another blissfully. Little ones gather at tables for arts and crafts. Girls do baile folklórico.

About two hours in, a stranger stops by to thank Coach. This is a lot of work to put in for your community, he says. They chat, but not for long. “Hey, I got to get back to the grill,” Coach says. 

Tonight, the recipe is carne asada and chicken tacos. Volunteers whisk away each batch in aluminum pans, chop it up, serve more plates. 

Finally, it’s 9:45 p.m. and the grilling is over. Success. It’s time to kick back. In the gym, the kids are playing ball. Outside, the adults are having a Corona. Come on, take a shot of tequila, Jose begs. Just one. The utensils are cleaned and packed in the truck. Coach tells his wife they’ll leave soon. He’ll be right back. 

And then Jose Refugio Quezada Jr. steps out into the dark. 

Love story 

It’s December 1996, at a baptism in Wilmington. Jose Quezada meets Sandy DeLaMora. 

The connection is instant. He makes her laugh harder than she ever has. She hears the way he speaks to her with complete respect. 

She sees the way he loves his family. The way they welcome her with a hug and a kiss the moment she walks in the door, even if they just saw her yesterday. Sandy didn’t grow up that way. She likes it.

Work and family can put a lot of pressures on a marriage. Jose and Sandy made sure to take one trip every year that was just the two of them.

Soon they’re driving the coast together. She spends the night and the next day, she just doesn’t leave. The days turn into weeks. He never actually asks, “Would you be my girlfriend?” It just happens. 

She moves out of her mom’s house in Torrance and into his apartment. By April she’s pregnant. He’s working painting houses in the day, coaching baseball at night. He prays for a son. 

“My dad would put me in sports to keep me away from the streets,” he tells her. “Sports keep you focused in the right direction.” 

She wonders why he always coaches and never plays, but she comes to understand, just as she comes to know everything about him. 

It’s the 1980s. Jose is the baby of his family. He’s obsessed with sports. He plays catch with his pops. He practices in the park, with his dad coaching him, lying in the grass, in the shade of a tree by the field. 

They go to games together. Jose watches his dad barbecue. Learns to love the grill as much as the ball. Then, one day, his father drops dead of a stroke. Jose’s 11. He never picks up a glove to play again. 

Jose starts to hang in the streets. Gets in a little trouble. Fighting, mostly. But he has homies exploring the gang life. He meets people who preach family even as they gangbang. 

He’s teetering. There’s nobody there in the shade of the tree anymore, calling out his next move. Then he meets Manuel. An older man.

Years later, it will be hard for anyone to remember Manuel’s last name for sure. Flores, maybe? Yes, Manuel Flores. 

“Jose, you got to go in the right direction,” Manuel tells him.

Somehow, Manuel’s always there, telling Jose what he’s got to do. You got to do this. You got to do that. You got to stay away from these people. You got to stay away from those streets. 

Manuel takes Jose to his house to help with yard work. Shows him how to take care of the grass, keep it tidy. 

He takes him to the Wilmington Teen Center. There’s boxing, pingpong, sports, summer jobs and apprenticeships. There’s Manuel telling him which way to go.

The Wilmington Teen Center was born out of the aftermath of the Watts Riots. It still offers kids sports and guidance, and a chance to take some direction from someone like Jose.

Jose works through his grief on the basketball courts. Always rocking a Raiders T-shirt or hoodie, he hoops with the fellas three to four times a week. 

By the time he turns 18, he doesn’t play baseball, but he can coach it, and he starts volunteering. He works painting houses. Then he meets a beautiful girl who laughs like nobody else.

Soon, she’s pregnant. But before the baby can even get here, one of Sandy’s sisters hits a rough patch. She can’t take care of her own kids. 

Jose and Sandy talk about it, but it doesn’t take much of a discussion. A niece and two nephews move in. Now Uncle Joe – or Sandy’s side calls him Uncle Cuco, short for Refugio – is raising them. Taking the boys to baseball and basketball practice at Wilhall Park. Taking Bianca, his niece, to the store and introducing her to everyone as his daughter. At home, he calls her “mija.” 

All while waiting for a baby of his own. Jose is sure it’s going to be a boy. He’s right. 

Jose III is born on Christmas Eve 1997. His first word is “ball.”

Jose and Sandy both work full time, raising those children. But Jose’s mother, Maria Martin, is there to help. And Jose loves his mother. “Mi chingilini,” he calls her. She is humble, she is loving, she is Mexican American, she is Wilmas. 

Jose spoils the kids in his family. Ice cream. Agua fresca. Sweet snacks, especially lollipops. All before dinner. He goes to the store just to get them. He laughs when Sandy and the other sisters fuss. He talks trash. Teases them and then hands the children those lollipops.  

Blink and it’s almost four years later and another boy, Andrew, is being born. Blink again and it’s 2007. By now, Jose probably doesn’t actually need to ask, so he just says it. “I need to marry you,” he says. “Let’s just do it.”

Jose and Sandy with their three boys, Jose III (left), Andrew, and the youngest, Brandon.

So they do it, in a little ceremony in Mexico, 11 years to the day from when they first met. He calls her Wifey. She calls him Honey. Six years later they have another baby boy, Brandon.

In 2019, they buy a house in Carson, just up the street from Wilmington. It takes six months to renovate it. A new kitchen. Outside entertaining space – for grilling, with family and friends. 

Jose becomes obsessed with his grass. Keeps it green and pristine. He loves to lie in it, just like his father. He’s proud of the life he’s built with Sandy.

The older boys grow into men, and now Jose prays for a grandson. “Babe, I can’t wait to have grandbabies,” he says. “I can wait!” Sandy replies, laughing. 

But they don’t have to wait. Andrew meets a woman who has a baby from a previous relationship, and it doesn’t take much of a discussion. Soon, all three of them are living in the casita in the backyard. There is noise, crying, crawling. There is 7-month-old Xavier. 

And Jose is down on the floor playing, swinging him around outside, patting his belly and calling him “mi guerito panzas” – his fair-skinned, potbellied baby boy, the one who makes Jose a grandpa early. Or just in time. 

Andrew (left), Sandy, Jose and Jose III on vacation. Jose helped raise an extended family, and he dreamed of grandchildren.

Honey and Wifey also spend 27 and a half years spoiling each other. He brews her a cup of coffee every morning. They take family vacations, yes, but every year they take one trip together, without the kids. Mexico. London. Hawaii. Paris. 

She buys him fancy grill after fancy grill. He calls them his toys. 

Then, in 2018, she gives him his dream: A 1965 Chevy Super Sport Impala. Hardtop. It's gray. In honor of the Raiders. They meet up with car-club friends on Friday nights and cruise Avalon Boulevard. On Sundays, they drive the coast, just like when they first met – a great American love story. She tells him, “Honey, that is your Father’s Day, your birthday, your Christmas, for the next 10 years.” 

But she doesn’t mean it. For Father's Day five years later, she buys him a Traeger Ironwood XL grill, the fanciest toy of them all. He gets to use it exactly twice.

One side of town 

When the sun rises in Wilmington, the first long shadows stretch out from the Mexican fan palms. While the light is still red fading into orange, the lowest wavelengths creep down between the buildings and across the strip mall parking lots until they cast a warming glow on the murals.

They’re everywhere here, these murals. Chicano heritage; the oil and shipping industry; fathers and babies; children in parks: Wilmington. This town was annexed by Los Angeles more than a century ago, but forever, people will tell you they are from “Wilmington” and not from “L.A.”

Past the murals, the narrow side streets sprout tidy bungalows, homes for longshoremen. The harbor begins right where Wilmington’s streets end, where stacks of colorful shipping containers and mammoth cranes rise above the terminals. 

Running right through the middle of town is Avalon Boulevard. 

At the Wilmington Recreation Center, children play in still life in the mural on the wall. They're everywhere in Wilmington, these murals, evoking the city's industries and its families.

Envision the Great Depression. A public labor project puts the unemployed on the job. They dig 218 holes and plant those palm trees, in two straight lines, up and down Avalon. Now picture World War II. From the fountain of federal spending, a military housing project springs forth, down near the harbor, called Dana Strand Village.

Now it’s 1965. Take a short trip up the street and watch police officers pulling over a car, right there on Avalon. They’re trying to arrest a young Black man named Marquette Frye. If this starts to sound like a familiar story, that’s because it is.  

During the arrest, Frye’s brother goes to retrieve their mother, who comes outside and tries to stop the police. Soon officers are beating Frye and arresting the whole family, and a crowd of hundreds is gathering to watch it all happen. Outrage spreads, and the Watts Riots leave a community in flames. In all, 34 people die, including 23 killed by Los Angeles police officers or National Guard troops.

But after the riots, city officials launch a youth initiative to offer safe spaces from the streets. The Wilmington Teen Center is one. 

It sits just north of Wilmington Waterfront Park, which isn’t really on the water, but is just across the train tracks from those stacks of shipping containers.

Also just north of the park is that old military housing development. By the 1980s, Dana Strand is known as the projects. It’s overrun by gangs, until 2003, when it’s torn down and rebuilt as senior housing and affordable apartments.

In 2011, a painter gets hired there, to work as a maintenance man. His name is Jose Quezada. 

Jose loves the job. Meeting people, helping people, putting a smile on their faces. And his own. He gets to do it for 12 years. 

He tends to tenants like Patricia Mathis. She’s in her 60s. He calls her Mama – his Black Mama. She calls him “my Mexican son.” She meets Sandy and calls her Princess.

When something breaks, Mathis knows she can call Jose on his personal cellphone. As a thank you, she cooks him sweet potato pies and cheesecakes, collard greens, cornbread. Soul food. She finds out Jose and her own son share the same birthday. If she’s cooking for one, she cooks for the other. Their families grow tight. 

When he’s not working, Jose is helping keep the Wilmington Teen Center afloat. He helps out people like Lorenzo “Mooney” Zepeda, the program director there. Mooney’s 20 years older. He’s known Jose since he was a kid. Now, like everyone else, he knows Jose as Coach. 

When kids start, they don’t even know which direction to run the bases. Coach stays focused on the fundamentals. When the park dugouts need to be painted, Jose just does it himself. When the leagues offer to pay him, he makes them donate the money to a family that can’t afford the fees for their kid to play. 

“You guys need anything?” Jose always says to Mooney. “Let me know.” 

Gangs seem to know the teen center is neutral ground. The cops know it too. Jacqueline Lopez works a job commonly known as community resource officer for the LAPD out of the Harbor station. Her official title is senior lead officer. In Wilmas, she’s Officer Lopez. 

When she meets Jose, he offers to help her out, and she lets him. She holds community events and sometimes has to fund them from her own pocket. So he donates water and soda. One time, when she needs a generator, she knows whose cellphone to ping. Jose makes sure she gets one. He’s somebody she can count on. He makes things happen. His word is his bond.

Jose knows he has his boys – and his teams – watching how he moves.

Officer Lopez discovers Jose has the uncanny ability to hang out with anyone. Cops, kids, former gang members. He never badmouths and never judges.  

If somebody’s getting out of the game to raise their children right, he’s supportive. They might dress crispy or drive a certain car. Have tattoos. None of that matters. After all, Jose knows what he looks like. He can even laugh about it with the police he meets. Shaved head, goatee, ’65 Chevy lowrider. But to Jose it doesn't matter what you look like, just what you do. 

Jose knows a life can turn in the right direction. Maybe you’re an old friend who spent too much time on the street, bought into the promise that a gang would take care of you, ended up getting shot. Even then, it’s hard to leave the gang life. It feels like you’re losing your family. 

But they’re not your family. Jose looks you in the eye and says, “I’m your brother.”

The other side 

It’s evening in Wilmington, and the California sky streaks ribbons of pink and orange and pale yellow. 

Swirls and dots of brilliant color dance with the flames and steam from the oil refinery smokestacks. Like so many vivid sunsets, this one is an illusion. What it smells like depends on what day it is. Often there’s an acrid stench.

Though the Pacific is only a few miles away, there’s rarely a whiff of salt air. Wilmington sits alongside the third largest oil field in the contiguous U.S. Refinery stacks tower into the sky. Those colorful shipping containers arrive by sea and depart by truck, in a constant din of diesel exhaust.

Refinery stacks rise into a hazy summer sky. Wilmington has higher than normal rates of respiratory illness, cardiac disease and asthma. It also happens to be almost 90% Hispanic.

In the shadow of this industry, people in Wilmas suffer from higher rates of respiratory illnesses, cardiac disease, asthma, eye irritation and chronic migraines. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this place has one of the highest death rates in all of Los Angeles County. Experts believe the deadly virus is exacerbated by elevated levels of industrial pollution.

Because this is what we do to people of color. People struggling to put food on the table. Of 53,000 or so, nearly 90% are Hispanic; 78% speak Spanish at home. About 26% of households live below the federal poverty line. 

Like so many places, Wilmington has a line that divides it against itself: Avalon Boulevard. If you live west of Avalon, the neighborhood is governed by the Westside Wilmas. East, the Eastside Wilmas. The rival gangs have existed for decades.

If you’re a “G” in Wilmas, you’re likely slinging. Cocaine, fentanyl and meth. Or trafficking guns. Especially the ones that are easily smuggled, easily assembled and difficult to trace because the serial numbers are scrubbed. No background check required. Ghost guns come in handy in this life. Sometimes you have two choices: Take someone out or get taken out.

If you’re from Wilmington, you know this. Mike Herrera knows it. He’s the director at the Wilmington Teen Center, where he’s been working for decades.  

Mike Herrera has worked at the Wilmington Teen Center for decades. He remembers plenty of violence from back when he was growing up. But back then, it would be stabbings. Now it's shootings.

Come down to the teen center and he’ll proudly give you a tour of the old building. Weathered newspaper articles on the walls proclaim “Wilmington Teen Post has new home” or “Raffle aims to help teen center.” 

Back when he was a kid, there was plenty of violence. But back then, someone would get stabbed. 

“Now it’s shootings,” he’ll tell you. “They have guns. And that’s the scary part.”

Mike wonders about gun laws. What difference would they make? The shooters are just kids themselves. They can’t buy guns legally. But they get them, from parents, or from older gang members, or from street peddlers. Ghosts. 

Across the park, at the recreation center, a mural covers one whole wall, calling for peace among Wilmington’s youth. Silhouetted figures hold a shotgun on the left, a pistol on the right.

Go meet LAPD Capt. Brent McGuyre at the Harbor Community Police Station, and he’ll tell you about the gangs. 

The Harbor Community Police Station covers Wilmington and the nearby neighborhoods. Here, officers saw murder rates declining in the last few years.

Wilhall Park is a known gathering place for those who bang. It’s usually safe during daylight, but it’s a different place after dark. 

The gangs here fall under the hierarchy of the Mexican Mafia, a California prison gang that controls many of the Latino street gangs in Southern California. Its leaders direct the Wilmas gangs from behind bars using smuggled cellphones. 

For new recruits, they look to the kids on the streets. The ones who are teetering. Indoctrination is at the heart of gang culture. Street code sometimes dictates that a random kill is required to become family.

Or sometimes, the game is all these kids know. Grandpa was a banger. Dad was a banger. And naturally, the child becomes a banger. Because nobody’s there on the sidelines, coaching them on their next move.

It’s 2008 in L.A., and the city has spent two decades reeling from a spike in gang homicides and violent crime when officials decide to start something called Summer Night Lights. 

Everybody knows violent crime ticks up during the summer. The solution is to pull kids off the streets and into something else, in parks all over the city. Entertain them. Feed them. Play movies on big screens, and let them run and play after dark. 

They keep doing these parties over the years, where gangs are most active, with help from people like Officer Lopez, from people like Coach.  

Parties can be problematic spots, too, of course. But Officer Lopez is plugged in. If someone is planning to bring trouble, she’ll often get a tip. Usually, things go fine. 

Who’s to say why it all happens – the policing, the parties, the economy, the people like Coach – but something is working. It’s 2021, and in the region of the Harbor station, 22 people are murdered. Now it’s 2022 and the number drops to 14. 

When you’re a police officer, those numbers feel like real people you actually meet. In 2022, it feels like there are eight people who were going to be dead but are alive today instead. 

Now it’s the middle of 2023, and the number is down to only four – four murders so far all year.

Jose on vacation in Paris. He was proud of the life he built with Sandy.

“I don't think that happens by accident, and it's definitely not the police alone that are causing that drastic reduction in crime,” McGuyre will say. “And I give a lot of credit to people like Jose.”

It’s summer now and it’s time for Summer Night Lights again. The center is getting ready, and the pit masters are pulling out the grills and the cops have an ear out for signs of trouble, and there aren’t any. 

It’s July 2023, and at the harbor there have been only four murders all year long. And then there is a fifth.

Fiesta Night

Coach is at the grill. Thick smoke billows from the hot coals and searing meat, burning his eyes. He can’t stop sweating. He takes quick breaks to wet a towel for his face. 

Sandy didn’t really want to go to Fiesta Night tonight. She had hoped to work out. But Jose was adamant. “Baby, you have to go! It’s Fiesta Night!” he said. “I just want you to be there.” Finally, she relented. 

She arrives with Jose III in tow. Her husband greets her with a hug and a kiss. He’s cooking and wiping his eyes. 

The band in the park is playing now. Hundreds of people are milling about eating and laughing. There’s agua fresca, salsa tasting, carne asada and chicken tacos. Baby girls and big girls dance baile folklórico. Kids play on park swings, kick soccer balls and chase each other blissfully. Little ones gather at tables for arts and crafts. Teens hoop on the outdoor basketball courts and in the gym.  

Jose introduces Sandy to Officer Lopez. Two hours in, he wipes his hands and walks over to introduce himself to McGuyre, the police captain. They’ve never met before, but the cops here make sure the captain knows about Coach. McGuyre thanks Jose for what he’s doing – this is a lot of work to put in for your community. 

They shake hands. Soon Coach is cracking a joke about his bald head and goatee. “Hey, I know I look like a gangster,” he says, “but I’m here to serve my community.” 

McGuyre would keep chatting, but Coach cuts it short. “Hey, I got to get back to the grill,” he says. 

It’s about 9 p.m. now. Sandy and her son are ready to leave. “No, don’t go, babe,” Jose implores. She sends her son home in her car. Jose promises her they can leave together by 10:30.

The grilling is finally over, the beer is flowing, shots of tequila, too. People are dancing. Jose sits with Sandy, his hand on her thigh. Brandon is inside playing basketball. He’s 10 years old. 

It’s 9:45 and Jose tells Sandy the fellas are in the park and he’s going to holler at them. Sandy spots him standing near the baseball field talking with friends. They make eye contact. She nods as a question. He answers with a thumbs-up. She turns back to her friends as he slips out of sight. 

The live band is loud. About 10 or 15 minutes later, Sandy hears something that sounds like fireworks. Her friends know that it isn’t fireworks. 

Then they all start running. 

Sandy thinks of Brandon, her youngest son, and breaks for the gym. They’ve closed the rec center doors to protect everyone inside, but she sees him, safe, peeking his head out. She veers back toward the crowd in the park, until some of her friends are there, in her face, stopping her. 

“Why?” she asks. “Where’s Jose?” 

She sees their faces. She fights to get past them. Punches. Kicks. They try to hold her back. 

“You can’t go over there, Mama,” they say.

Officer Lopez is standing in the park, maybe 60 yards from the baseball field. She hears the pop-pop five times and knows exactly what it is. 

She sees two people running away. She radios for backup. She hears yelling. Somebody’s down. She runs toward the scene. She has no idea who it is.

She doesn’t know it’s Jose until she turns him over on the sidewalk and sees his face. She starts CPR. Jose has been shot once in the head. She pounds his chest.

It doesn’t help.

McGuyre has already left the party to visit other Summer Night Lights events. Radio chatter grabs his attention: Shots fired at the Wilmington Recreation Center. Person down. He gets in his car and races back.

He’s still listening to radio traffic as he approaches. The victim has been identified. It is Jose Quezada – the man he just met. McGuyre stops cold, like he’s been punched in the gut. 

Officer Lopez gets up from the sidewalk. She steps toward the edge of the scene, where yellow tape is already going up. There’s a woman struggling just beyond the tape. She sees it’s the woman she just met tonight. It’s Sandy.

“That's my husband!” Sandy shouts. “What’s wrong with him? I need to see him.” 

Sandy hears Officer Lopez reply, and the words sink in: “I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you I tried, and it’s not good.” 

On the night a gunshot ends his life, Jose Refugio Quezada Jr. is a son to a mother who no longer has him as a son, a husband to a wife who no longer has him as a husband, a father to a family that no longer has its father. He is an uncle, a coach, a grill master, a fundraiser, a trusted mentor, a faithful friend, a member of a community who defines what it means to be a part of a community. 

He is 46 years old and now, he is gone. 

The funeral

It’s Aug. 18 and the front of Harbor Christian Center is overrun with flowers. 

Bright sprays of red, blue and white. A blue arrangement spells out “POPS.” White carnations form in the shape of a baseball with red carnations serving as the ball’s seams. The logo of Jose’s beloved Raiders is embedded in white roses.

The memorial to Jose spills across the sidewalk at the edge of Wilhall Park.

Hundreds of people are already here, and more are still on their way in, for a funeral of this sort that ought to be rare but instead is all too familiar. Blink and you could be in Seattle or Indianapolis, or Baltimore or Miami, because there’s a funeral for somebody like Jose happening in every big city in America – and if you don’t think so, it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention. 

Ushers hustle to find more seats. Last night, the visitation spilled out into the parking lot of the funeral home, so big it turned into a party. Call it a party, a celebration of life. But there’s plenty of sorrow inside the church now. Hung heads. Excruciating sobs. Hugs and kisses are offered as comfort, though it’s difficult to find any. 

Jose's family gathers outside the recreation center on a gray Friday evening, waiting for an event that will honor him.

The memorial begins and a love story plays out on the big screen, a photo montage. There’s Jose with his mother and siblings. There’s Jose with his teams. With Sandy and their boys. With the fellas. With Xavier. At the grill, until every last person has been fed. 

As the casket is carried into the church, a song in Spanish begins to play. The song is “Yo te extrañare” by Tercer Cielo.

Sandy trails behind the casket, stoic. 

Pastor Louie Trevino attempts to answer the questions overtaking his church: Why Jose? Why this man? Why was this man of service cut down in a flash of violence when he loved so hard?

“Jesus was asked the question of why,” Trevino says. “And I think Jesus’ answer is appropriate for today. He said, ‘So that the works of God can be displayed.’” 

Pastor Tony Ceja promises to speak in a little English and a little Spanish. It’s so everybody present can receive the word of God, he explains. If you’re there, maybe you understand one half or the other, but you feel every word in your chest.

“He was a great, great lesson for the community,” Ceja says in English. “He was able to help all those young men to keep them out of the street. Keep them out of gangs. Keep them out of things that they're not supposed to be doing.” 

Sandy, 44, gives the eulogy. Call it a eulogy, but really, what she delivers is a love letter. 

Sandy tends to Jose's headstone in a Long Beach cemetery. In addition to his photo, it shows images of his Super Sport Impala, and of the mural opposing youth violence from the Wilmington Recreation Center.

She paints a picture of a family man and a best friend. The one who had four siblings, but happily inherited eight more – her brothers and sisters. The one who always said he had three beautiful ladies in his life: his wife, his mom and his mother-in-law. The one who loved to host the holidays and argue about whose turkey tasted the best. The one who sang and danced for his nieces and nephews. The one who, on his way to work in the mornings, would detour to drive slowly past his mother’s house, just to blow her a kiss. The one who rode hard for his lifelong friends like they were blood – the fellas. 

In the pews, Mooney’s listening. Mike Herrera’s listening. Jose’s Black Mama is listening, and murmuring back. “Give her strength, Lord.” “It’s OK, Princess.” 

“A huge part of my heart was taken from us,” Sandy says. “And just know that I’m one lucky, proud woman to say that was my husband and the father to our boys. ‘Til we see each other again. Love, Wifey.”

Outside, now, the procession is rolling toward the cemetery. The colors, lines and curves are stunning – classic cars, lowriders. Cherry red. Baby blue. Iron gray. Pale green. Bold black. Thick wheel wells. Juicy tires. Blinged out rims. Hardtops and convertibles. Most are Chevys, like Jose’s. An Impala SS. A Powerglide. A Deluxe.

The burial service at All Souls Cemetery in Long Beach. At the end, the family releases doves into the sky.

Each car creeps out of the church parking lot. They could be headed for a cruise up Avalon, if not for the orange “FUNERAL” flags on each windshield.

The black hearse has two Raiders flags flying from the driver and passenger windows. The long procession travels through Wilmington. Past the baseball diamonds where Coach used to coach. Past his mother’s house. Past the oil refineries. Past the teen center. Past the park where he played basketball. Where he died on a sidewalk. 

At the cemetery, in Long Beach, there’s bottled water, soda, beer and pizza. A mariachi band guides the pallbearers. The casket is decorated with four metal decals that say: “Dad.” “Beloved husband.” “Son.” “Friend.”

“The word of God says that He created man from the dust of the earth,” Ceja says at the graveside. “This is going to be our last encounter here on earth with him. … But this place, this cemetery, is not going to be his permanent place.”

Each member of the family releases a dove in his honor. Brandon releases one of the final doves with his mother. Sandy kisses it before letting go. As it flies higher than the others, Brandon does not cry. Instead he watches it and says, “I love you, bird.”

Memorial T-shirts for Jose.

The end 

The day after Jose is shot and killed, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass releases a statement. 

"This community leader lost his life to the very type of violence he was working so hard to prevent,” it says. “This incident is a tragic reminder that we must fight even harder to ensure that our communities have the tools that they need to stop this senseless violence.” 

It’s autumn now, and still, no arrests have been made. Investigators say they have promising leads, but need some eyewitnesses to come forward to break the case open. 

Outside the Wilmington Recreation Center, a memorial to Jose grew. One of the candles was signed, "I love you! Wifey."

Jose was standing talking with friends when the bullet that killed him was fired from an alley across the street, police say. There were no exchanged words. Just an arbitrary shooting. A seemingly random act of violence.

Homicide investigators believe the shooters are gang members and they may have attended the Summer Night Lights event. No evidence has surfaced that would suggest Jose was an intended target. 

While they’re investigating, police won’t say more about the shooting, the gun, the one bullet that struck Jose in the head. 

On the streets of Wilmas, people think the shooting could have been a gang initiation. It’s called a strike. Sometimes there are rules to this “G” life. Sometimes you bag a random kill to become one of the family. 

In California, where stringent laws already bar many past offenders from buying guns and require a registry of all handgun purchases, Gov. Gavin Newsom signs new safety measures two months after Jose’s death.

In 2018, Sandy gave Jose his dream gift. A 1965 Chevy Super Sport Impala. Hard-top. Raiders gray. She said, “Honey, that is your Father’s Day, your birthday, your Christmas, for the next 10 years.” But she didn't mean it.

One prohibits homemade gun kits without serial numbers – ghosts. Another requires special markings on semiautomatic pistols to help trace spent bullet cartridges back to the owner. Still another prohibits people from carrying firearms in most public places, including parks. Like Wilhall Park. 

Yet in America – where people still say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” – close to half of all homicides continue to go unsolved. 

In Wilmington, in the three months that follow Jose’s death, three more men are killed. Fatal shootings, all of them. Those, too, are gang related, according to police. No arrests have been made. 

It’s months after the funeral now, but somehow by 4:30 every afternoon, Sandy still expects to see her husband walking through the door. 

Instead, she tries to stay strong for her children, for her young men who must now be men, for Brandon, who’s one year younger than Jose was when his own father died. As it grows dark, she prays for guidance. Then she lies in bed with her phone, watching old videos of Jose.

In the background a memorial sign for Jose is a photo of the Wilmington Recreation Center. Its mural shows the silhouettes of children holding a shotgun and a pistol. It's a call for peace.

Downtown, City Councilman Tim McOsker – his district includes Wilmas – secures a vote to designate the edge of the park as “Coach Jose Quezada Memorial Square.” On a gray Friday evening in October, as the faint sun fades to pink, Sandy and a crowd of about 100 gather for a dedication ceremony. A crew puts up two signs.  

And I finish writing the story of a man I’ve never met and never will, another neighborhood hero who has fallen victim to our most American contagion. A man who exists now only as a name on a Long Beach headstone, right between an etching of his ’65 Chevy and another of the mural near Wilhall Park. Or in the black stamped letters of a sign on a lamppost on a Wilmington street corner. A sign that will never lie in the grass by the side of the field and coach a kid on his next move. You got to do this, you got to do that. You got to go in the right direction. 

Someone else in Wilmas will follow Jose’s example, pick up his barbecue tongs, bless to be blessed. Because that is the meaning of community. Because there is a neighborhood hero in every city and on every corner in America, if you’re willing to see. 

But it’s November now. The clocks have changed. The dark arrives earlier each day, and that place in the song feels very far away. A place where there is no evil, where there is peace. 

The sun is setting in Southern California, streaks of pink and orange and pale yellow. And Jose Refugio Quezada Jr. is in a place full of light. 

The baseball field at Wilhall Park is usually safe during daylight, but it can be a different place after dark.

Suzette Hackney is a national columnist. Reach her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.

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