Debbie Aguilar made it her mission in life that her son’s name, Stephen Aguilar, never be forgotten | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas
| IN MEMORIAM
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
January is almost over and the jubilation many of us felt in December — new year, the vaccine is here, a new administration comprised of competent adults would soon be in charge, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — has given way to the sobering reality that the pandemic is still very much with us.
The previous administration left no plan for distribution of the vaccine, and without adequate support for working families in Salinas and everywhere else in the nation, the virus rages on, destroying the economy, our social fabric, our collective mental and physical health. Like a vampire, this infinitesimal creature is sucking the life out of us, both figuratively and literally. It’s killing our people. Turns out, the light was just another train heading our way.
As of Thursday, 280 people have died of COVID-19 in Monterey County and 135 in Santa Cruz County. A few months ago, I would still run into deniers who would be puzzled that Monterey County had such stringent pandemic measures: “I don’t know anybody who’s been affected by the virus.”
They didn’t have reason to come to East Salinas, I would gather. Because of the nature of the pandemic, all the suffering has been done in the shadows, in the privacy of people’s homes and the solitude of hospital rooms. We’ve all been grieving in silence, the comfort of public funerals and religious services also stripped from us by the dastardly virus.
We know these men and women mostly as statistics. The vast majority — 167 of them, to be exact – were 65 years and over. My mother’s age. Somebody’s grandpa, somebody’s aunt, somebody’s sister. Somebody’s mother. The next category includes people 55 to 64 years old. Grandmas too, cousins, daughters and sons. Just under 15 percent of the casualties were people under 54 years of age. The younger you are, the more chances you have of beating COVID-19.
Rarely do we see among those names someone we recognize, and that’s why it’s been so shockingly heartbreaking to see Debbie Aguilar’s among them. Debbie, the 60-year-old fierce yet compassionate defender of victim’s rights. Debbie Aguilar, the well-known, God-loving, all- forgiving public speaker who never let you forget she lost her son when he was only 18.
Say his name, she would command a crowd of hundreds of prisoners at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. Sheepishly, the hardened men would reply: Stephen.
Debbie Aguilar didn’t want anybody to forget that her son was killed Nov. 16, 2002, two months after turning 18. In excruciating detail, she would tell those who attended her presentations what she was doing that fateful night. How Stephen died. He and his friend Armando had gone to the store to buy snacks. Stephen was driving his first car, a gift from his father after graduating from high school. A car began following them, and as the car slowed down on that dreaded dip on North Main Street, the pursuers overtook them and began shooting. A bullet hit Stephen in the back of his head. The car, out of control, crashed into a parked tow truck with such force that the car split in half. Armando tried to talk to Stephen but realized he was dead.
I heard Debbie speak many times, but her presentation at the Correctional Training Facility on April 10, 2018, was quite remarkable. By the time she finished telling the story of Stephen dying, you could see the men were shook up: heads bowed down, arms crossed, some even with tears welling up.
Stephen grew up with a mom who drank, Debbie confessed that day. “I know where you’ve been, because I’ve been there. You know what it’s like. You start Friday and go on Saturday and Sunday. And I hated Mondays, right,” and a chorus of men would murmur “yes.”
But she had been promising her children she would stop, she went on. She had started going to church three weeks before Stephen died, she had been clean for that long. But the night Stephen died she had gone out drinking, so she wasn’t home when the phone began to ring.
When Debbie learned from her husband the news, she was standing in the family’s driveway, and she let out the primal scream most people only know through Hollywood films. If you have never been to the funeral of children, consoled their mothers as they utterly disappear under the unbearable weight of the pain, if you haven’t heard those soul-crushing screams, consider yourself blessed.
“I help families, that’s my way of coping,” Debbie told inmates at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad in 2018 during Victims Rights Week, one of the many times she spoke there. “I carry a lot of their grief.”
Debbie began helping Salinas families cope with their losses a year after Stephen died. “A Time for Grieving,” the organization she founded to support victims of violence, had its first meeting on Oct. 13, 2003. She would go on to help countless families, most of them survivors of gun violence, to elevate their voices in Monterey County and beyond.
When Celina Garcia’s husband was killed in a domestic dispute on Christmas Eve 2012, Debbie showed up out of the blue, ready to lend a hand.
“She was just there and came to help with what I need from the kids,” said Garcia. “From that point forward she stayed by our side. We got very close. Debbie remained faithful being here for me and my kids praying for me, coming over, checking on me and she would invite me a couple of times to be with her hen she’d go on scenes to help other crime victims. I only went a few time. That was such a heaviness and I can’t believe she did it so many many years, and all the grief from all the mothers she carried.”
Debbie received countless accolades, spoke on numerous occasions, organized hundreds of gatherings so nobody could forget her son’s name. Or the names of the many young males who have died in Salinas’ ugly gang wars. In remembering Stephen, she forced us all to never forget it was Salinas children whose blood was spilled on its streets.
Debbie also supported the women who had lost their children to incarceration. The perpetrators. The men she scolded at CTF, the men she called “brothers” over and over and over again.
“You’re really young, my heart goes out to you. I think about my son. He’s gone now, but I have another one, I would hate for him to be locked up here,” she said.
And that’s what was so special about Debbie: In her quest to find God she found a Love Supreme, that special of feelings that brings you peace, utter acceptance, compassion and complete abandonment to your fate and your destiny. Debbie, huggy Debbie, the generous dispenser of blessings and prayers, knew the Love Supreme is just too sweet to wait for heaven to enjoy it. You must begin savoring it here on earth, with your next-door neighbor, with your family, with your journalist friend and, above all, with those who killed your baby. The Love Supreme knows no rancor or revenge. Only love lives here.
And that’s why, of everything that COVID has taken from us so far, taking Debbie feels especially hard, especially painful. Debbie, mother of Sergio, Stephen, Francesca and Christopher; grandmother of Sergio Jr., Abraham Stephen, Oscar, Ginger and Stella. Widow of Oscar Aguilar. Daughter of Carmen, sister of Robert, Anthony, Christina and hundreds of members of New Harvest Church. Debbie, the face of this city’s unending pain and unbreakable courage.
“If you see how much she loved the community, she loved her family that way only 10 times more,” Sergio Aguilar said in a statement to Voices. “No matter what life threw at her, she was always strong, always saying: put your armor of God. I can’t believe the virus took her from us too soon. We’re heartbroken. But I know she’s with my Dad and Brother Stephen now, and would want me to be strong.”
There goes Love Supreme incarnate, the embodiment of a city that, in spite of all the hurt and sorrow, keeps on giving and giving and giving everything she has, unselfishly and unconditionally, until she has taken her last breath.
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