South El Monte's first homicide of the year was an especially horrifying one.
A round-faced, 16-month-old toddler had been shot to death in gang gunfire. She just happened to be in the wrong place for a few very wrong moments; her mother had paused during a stroll
to chat with the people at the house where the shooting occurred.
But one of the most remarkable aspects of Maureen Ramirez's death was that it seemed to pass silently by in the city. No outraged residents gathered. No special City Council meeting was called. No reward was offered for the killers, who were arrested last week.
When questioned about the lack of outrage and action, city officials and residents seemed genuinely puzzled by their own lack of response. It's not as though the city is murder-weary; it generally logs three or four homicides a year.
After all, Pasadena residents rallied after the gang-related shooting deaths of three boys on Halloween night last year to create a citywide coalition that is still working to improve conditions in the city. The Coalition for a Non-Violent City is sponsoring a daylong seminar Oct. 1 at the Pasadena Center Conference Building.
San Marino city officials, outraged at the June 5 slaying of two boys at a high school graduation party, offered a reward for the arrest and conviction of the assailants and called a special hearing to answer questions from concerned parents.
"If you explore the city, the non-reaction is pretty anomalous because we've rallied around others in the past," said Father Joseph Greeley of Epiphany Catholic Church,
where the child's funeral was held.
Those interviewed seemed to agree that the lack of reaction seemed to say something about their city, but just what it said depended on who was doing the talking. Was it an aberration in a city that usually cares, as Greeley suggests? Or did it illustrate a lack of community spirit caused by a neighborhood physically splintered by industry and burdened by the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs?
Some residents blame the fractured City Council, wracked by political dissension for months, for the seeming failure to respond.
"The council is so divided that even when a tragedy occurs, they can't come together," said community activist Helen Lujan.
But city officials pointed the finger at residents, none of whom demanded action at a council meeting Sept. 8, a few days after the shooting.
"No one spoke," said Assistant City Manager Steve Henley.
Some said that community activists who might have galvanized the city were already exhausted by their recent successful ballot battle against a proposed card club. And others suggested that no reaction was necessary because South El Monte is already engaged in well-known anti-gang efforts.
The shooting occurred in the 2200 block of Sastre Avenue, an industrially zoned road outside the city's three main neighborhoods, Henley pointed out. Sastre is off Klingerman Street, which itself is lined with manufacturers' buildings and heavily traversed by 14-wheel trucks. Many of the neglected buildings on Sastre Avenue house renters and transients who seldom come forward to make their needs known, Henley said.
"If an incident occurs in a residential area, we know about it," he said. "If it occurs in a residential area in an industrial zone, the public has nothing to say."
Vice Mayor Albert G. Perez said he walked Sastre Avenue four years ago urging residents to attend council meetings. But few responded, he said.
"It's a historical kind of situation," he said of the area. "It's on the borderline of El Monte, and El Monte overshadows that area."
Perez added that the toddler's mother actually lived in El Monte and was not a South El Monte resident. He also said that residents of his city may not have been prompted to demand more anti-gang programs because they already know of the many efforts under way in the city.
Project U-Turn, a nonprofit agency that tries to direct youths away from gangs, has been working in South El Monte for years, he said. In addition, two years ago, city officials teamed up with residents to create South El Monte Amateur Athletics, which helps fund youth sports and compensate for city budget shortfalls.
Also, two years ago, city officials created a teen program and brought back the city's boxing program, both to counter an upsurge in youth gang graffiti, Perez said. As a result, graffiti is not appearing as frequently on buildings and streets, he said.
But South El Monte officials also insisted that factors involved in the Sastre Avenue shooting are not characteristic of their city of nearly 21,000 residents.
Investigators believe that local gang members targeted the house after they were cheated in a drug deal by alleged gang members from outside the San Gabriel Valley who had been staying at the residence, said Sheriff's Lt. Anthony Torres, who is the Temple Station liaison to South El Monte.
A week before Maureen Ramirez was killed, one young man was shot five times in the back on the same block. A day after the 16-month-old was slain, another young man on the block was stabbed 35 times, Torres said. Both victims survived. Investigators believe the violence is related to the Aug. 29 shooting of Maureen Ramirez and arose from gang rivalries.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies and El Monte police on Sept. 21 arrested Cesar Uribe, 18, Omar Colin, 21, both of El Monte, and a 16-year-old boy in the fatal shooting. A fourth suspect, another juvenile whose age was unavailable, was already in custody on other charges.
Sheriff's deputies agree with city officials that South El Monte does not usually suffer high levels of crime. Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Falls, who prosecutes gang cases in Pomona Superior Court, said he could not recall a single case he has handled against South El Monte gang members.
The number of reported serious felonies, such as rape, assault, robbery and auto theft, are lower in South El Monte than in surrounding cities, Torres said. Of 30 San Gabriel Valley cities, South El Monte ranks near the middle in the number of major crimes--1,300 to 1,400--reported annually.
Gang violence is usually kept to a minimum by El Monte gang members who call South El Monte home and quickly retaliate for crimes committed in their home neighborhoods, Torres said. Fights and knifings, not gang shootings, are the typical gang-related violence in the city, he said. And deputies are not usually called out to handle gang-related crimes; the most commonly reported crimes are burglaries of the many small industrial companies located in the city, he said.
Still, some residents said the council's failure to respond to the fatal shooting betrays not the city's low-crime profile, but the council's constant bickering that has stalled action on many fronts.
Council votes often stack up 3 to 2, with the mayor and two other council members outvoting two newcomers: Jerry Salas and Joseph Gonzales. The council argues about even the smallest issues, such as the recent impasse over spending $12,000 to pave a parking lot leased from the school district.
Said Salas of the bickering: "It's strictly personal and beyond comprehension at this point."
"I don't understand it," added activist Lujan. "I'm so tired of going to council meetings (where) they're not unified (and) things are not happening."
When the council does take action, such as a proposed $16-million card club supported by Mayor Vera Valdiviez, residents have to organize mightily to have their ideas heard, some said. On the card club issue, opponents formed a coalition to defeat the proposal in a vote Aug. 9.
Lujan said residents may have been so exhausted by the card club issue and other battles with the council that they lacked the energy to summon outrage on yet another issue and lobby for action.
"I think we need to do that on more issues, but we don't know how to do it," she said. "I think it's a question of, 'Is our leadership strong enough to pull us together?' "
But Valdiviez says city leaders are, in fact, busy addressing many pressing city issues, including economic development and improvement of the city's image.
"The city has a very negative reputation," Valdiviez said. "But people who do live here, they like it. It's not that bad of a city."
Indeed, the city's sensitivity to its image was demonstrated earlier this year when some officials proposed changing South El Monte's name to Potrero Grande or Santa Anita. They sought to end what they considered a negative identification with larger El Monte, north of them. The idea went no further than talk.
South El Monte's image problem may stem from its beginnings as an unincorporated county territory where chrome platers, machine shops and metal fabricators operated. The city never was a master-planned community, said Greg Lantz, the city's economic development coordinator.
. As a result, the city lacks a retail downtown, designates 70% of its land for industrial use and has a mainly blue-collar resident population, 85% of it Latino.
This mix suited civic leaders until recently, Lantz said. Five years ago, the recession brought city budget cutbacks, state officials held on to state funds previously allocated to cities, and South El Monte's small manufacturing plants began moving out or their retired owners closed up shop. Garment manufacturers have since moved in, replacing many of the $12-an-hour manufacturing employees with minimum-wage workers, Lantz said.
The city's unemployment rate shot up. In June, the last month for which figures were available, the city's unemployment rate was 15.5%, compared with 10% for Los Angeles County overall and 7% for the San Gabriel Valley.
Last month, the council approved an economic development program that calls for retail development, aggressive marketing and the possible opening of a mercado for local manufacturers to sell their goods at discount, he said.
The city also teamed up with the cities of El Monte, Rosemead and Irwindale to apply for a joint $3-million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that would create enterprise zones to encourage business development.
"We're doing as much as we can," Valdiviez said. "But the residents also need to get out and help."
Maureen Ramirez's mother, Elaine Mendoza, buried her daughter at Resurrection Cemetery earlier this month in a ceremony attended by nearly 200 mourners.
Donations from family members and a car wash organized by the toddler's father, who lives apart from the family, helped cover the cost of a burial plot.
"It was so beautiful," the 30-year-old mother of three said, weeping. "We had all the kids circle around the casket and they let go pink and white balloons. It was like the balloons were going up to heaven to my baby."
South El Monte at a Glance
Incorporated: July 30, 1958
Ethnic makeup: Latino--85%; White--10%; Asian--5%; Black--less than 1%; Other--less than 1% (Total is more than 100% because of rounding.)
Foreign born: 9,613 (46%)
Median house price: $161,600
Median household income: $27,074
Unemployment rate in June, 1994: 15.5% (the rate for all of Los Angeles County in July was 10%)
Source: 1990 U.S. Census and California Employment Development Department.