Blanca Garcia didn’t want a quinceañera.
Instead of a dance in her honor, she told her mother, she’d rather have a red car. At 14, she was that rare kind of cool, a perfect mix of low-maintenance and beautiful, a tomboy who was also the object of crushes.
At her funeral, I didn’t notice she was dressed in a white-laced gown, a nod to what she would have worn had she made it to 15 and had she agreed, even grudgingly, to a quinceañera. Her mother reminded me of that detail only recently. I was 13 when I stood over Blanca’s casket and my eyes focused on the one thing they weren’t supposed to see — the makeup that was supposed to cover the wounds on her face, caused when a bullet struck the back of her head and led her to fall forward.
Blanca and many of my other middle school classmates were at a birthday party on the Southside of San Antonio in 1992 when a group of gang members burst in the front door and started shooting. They had the wrong address, but seeing a roomful of schoolchildren didn’t stop them from firing, again and again, from handguns and shotguns. One bullet hit the birthday girl’s father. Several burrowed through other teenagers and parents who had been chaperoning.
After Blanca was shot, a friend held her.
That detail didn’t appear in any news articles. Not that I read any at the time. Only recently did I research Blanca’s death and learn that it affected not only our middle school but also the whole city. It led to the creation of special law enforcement units and fueled state legislation on youth sentencing. One newspaper article characterized the shooting as “a turning point in San Antonio that focused city and state officials and residents on teen gang violence.” Another described how when the last of six gang members surrendered, he had to walk past 50 officers who lined a hallway and a courtroom.
I knew none of that then.
I remember only the vacantness of her desk.
This year marks 26 years since Blanca’s death, and those who knew her still talk about her. A photo of her with perpetually hair-sprayed bangs usually finds its way onto social media a few times a year. It is often followed by memories and confessions about how her loss affected each of us.
One of our classmates became a police officer and thinks about her when he gauges whether recruits understand what it’s like to be on the other end of crime.
Another classmate is a nurse, and instead of avoiding unfair deaths, she volunteers at a camp for children with cancer.
I won’t say Blanca’s loss pushed me into journalism, but I think about her each time I write about a young person who has been killed — and in the nearly two decades I have been a reporter, there have been too many to count. I have hugged parents as they have sobbed, and I have listened as they have cursed. I have filled piles of notebooks with quotes and witnessed how, in grief, cliches are sometimes easier to grasp than specific memories. The phrase “always had a smile” makes me wince internally because I’ve heard it said so often by people searching for the right words to capture the uniqueness of their loss.
While Blanca is not why I became a reporter, she is one of the reasons I have taken on the task of writing a twice-weekly local column. Some people are born to share their thoughts. That is not me. I am in many ways a reluctant columnist. I have always felt more comfortable in the back of the class, listening and absorbing, raising my hand to say something significant only when I have felt an important point was missed.
Well recently so much has been missed. We have picked sides, choosing an us and a them, a working class and an elite, a right and a wrong. We have decided who is racist and who is righteous.
I have been lucky to have spent my life on different sides of many lines. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and attended two of the country’s top universities. I have had people shout at me, “Go back to your country!” (“I guess Texas finally seceded?” is what I should have yelled back), and I have had people criticize me for not speaking Spanish well enough. I have lived overseas with Americans who have surrendered to wanderlust, and I have grown up with people who have never left their neighborhood.
I hope in this column to call out wrongdoing and to give voice to those who aren’t often heard. But I also hope to use my own experiences to explore the complicated nuances of issues and to strike at truths beyond comfort zones.
Take the issue of MS-13. The resurgence of the gang — which has been attributed to an influx of unaccompanied minors — has rightfully sounded alarms in the Washington region and other cities that have lost young people to particularly vicious killings in the past few years. The Washington Post and my former employer, Newsday, have done impressive work revealing the inner workings of the gang and its disturbing toll.
We should be concerned about MS-13. And we should discuss the most responsible way to screen new immigrants for potential gang affiliation. But let’s be real. Talk to those who live in neighborhoods where gang violence has long existed, and they will tell you this: The brutal deaths of young people is not a new problem, and it is not unique to immigrant youths.
To believe otherwise is to conveniently forget about the Bloods and the Crips and the Mexican Mafia and all the nameless crews that have wreaked havoc from Los Angeles to D.C.
It is to forget about Blanca whose purple jersey still hangs in our middle school gym.
I found my middle school yearbook a few months ago while cleaning out boxes at my father’s house. I had scribbled short descriptions next to many of my classmates’ pictures. Some were “cool.” More than a few were “nerds.”
Under Blanca’s photo, I had written: “Always has a smile.”