By Alejandra Espasande Bouza
On Wednesday, December 26th of 2001, a day most American kids spent playing with their toys, Leslie Zepeda, the eleven-year-old daughter of Julia and Benito, was no exception. Earlier that day, she had gone to visit her neighboring friend Kenia Salinas, bringing with her the large, and beautiful, blonde doll she had gotten for Christmas.
Soon after, Kenia's mother, Nelida Avellaneda, and a friend, Jose Aguilar, took the girls to the mall where they would spend most of the evening. It was at around eight-thirty p.m., when about to be dropped off at her house, that Leslie remembered her doll. She had left it at Kenia's house. Not planning to let a day pass without the gift she had grown so attached to, Leslie requested to go back to pick it up. Since both lived a few houses apart it was just a matter of turning around and backing into the driveway.
Sadly the doll never got to her. Right after getting to the driveway a shoot-out between alleged gang members ensued in front of the house, causing a stray bullet to wound Kenia, and another to end Leslie's life.
On Saturday, December 29th, at Hawthorne's Saint Joseph Catholic Church, Julia and Benito Zepeda gave their final farewell to Leslie with a funeral Mass at the end of which the casket received the blessing of the priest. Walking right behind, one of her sisters followed the somber procession holding Leslie's doll.
There's not much we can say or do to appease the pain of the Zepeda family, because there's absolutely nothing we can do or say to bring their daughter back to life. We have two choices: We can add Leslie's story to our memories of tragic events, and go "back to normal," or we can take action to prevent further happenings like this one to repeat.
In Hawthorne, Leslie's death brought about some action on the part of a group of her neighbors that came together to form the Eucalyptus Neighborhood Association -- an effort to control the level of delinquency in the area, and plans to honor her memory culminated in a Memorial Fund that carries her name. If any positive came out of this tragedy it was the pulling together of the community and its city officials. But organizations and fundraisings are not enough of a solution.
There are an overwhelming series of social problems that we have yet to confront.
If we come to think of the person that shot the gun, we have to consider that this person has also grown up under our social system and that somewhere and somehow society failed. As a society we failed to offer Leslie the right to a full and blooming life, and conversely, we failed to prevent another life from developing into a host of violence that only serves to destroy, and cause tragedy to families like the Zepeda's.
Can we look at our children and know which ones will be the victims and which the victimizers. Of course we can't. But how can we prevent them from going into the wrong paths. Yes, we have the schools with all their special programs but what can we do if some of our children have to go back home to an environment plagued with poverty, crime, violence, and drugs.
Why do we as a city have to wait for this irreversible tragedy to bring light to an issue that is the very cancer of our society? Why live in denial? Why let it drag on and on? Why ignore the severity of the consequences of adapting, and accepting as normal, the violence that surrounds our everyday life?
When I was growing up I had respect and faith in the adult world. I thought they had the answers to everything. The day I attended Leslie's funeral mass I was reminded of the contrary.
What is left to say but the facts: A young and beautiful girl of eleven, from Hawthorne Intermediate, lost her life to the war that we have not been able to win -- the war on crime. And whose fault is it? Ours only.
I would like to finish this article with the childlike ideal I once had -- that there's hope for change -- and that we, as a city, have the right leaders and citizens to make it happen.
On Friday, December 13, 2002, twenty-four year old Hawthorne resident Juan Baeza, was charged with the murder of Leslie in what was considered an attack meant to harm a member of a rival gang who lived right across Kenia's residence.