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.