There are some 2,000 gang-related deaths each year in the United States. Yulil Alonso-Garza’s son was one of them.
Five years after her 17-year-old son, Martin Alberto Garza, was fatally stabbed by a gang member, Alonso-Garza remains brokenhearted but unyielding in her efforts to fight gang violence in her community.
After putting in a day of teaching at Enrique Camarena Junior High in Calexico, Alonso-Garza starts her work on behalf of Mothers and Men Against Gangs (MAG) Coalition.
“The moment I leave class, I put my other hat on and go to meet with elected officials or to a community event. I work out of my home, my car, and sometimes I set aside my lunch period,” says the Associated Calexico Teachers member.
Just days after her son’s death in 2013, Alonso-Garza and her husband, Martin Garza, founded MAG Coalition, an organization that provides local scholarships and promotes anti-gang initiatives throughout Imperial County.
“As long as I have a heartbeat, I’m going to do everything I can.”
The coalition has made an impact in the community since it was launched, and last year was honored in the state capitol as “Nonprofit of the Year” for the 56th Assembly District.
Earlier this year, the couple traveled to Sacramento to witness the approval of Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 134, sponsored by their state Assembly member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), which declared the month of January 2018 as Gang Awareness and Prevention Month. The couple hopes that the resolution will encourage more school districts and governments to adopt similar resolutions.
Alonso-Garcia and her husband are no strangers to gang violence. She herself was assaulted several years ago by a gang member in her classroom and mounted a citizen’s arrest. Her husband sees the impact on society through his work as a prison corrections officer. But neither of them could ever have anticipated the violent death of their teenage son at the hands of a gang member.
Martin was fatally stabbed on Jan. 6, 2013, just outside a holiday party he and his sister attended in El Centro, the random target of a young gang member who had just been released from jail. A well-regarded athlete at Brawley High School, Martin was about to begin the last semester of his senior year and had plans to enter college that fall. Instead, that night, he was cradled in his sister’s arms before being taken to the hospital, where he died.
“January 6 (the Three Kings Day) was his favorite holiday,” Alonso-Garcia says. She and her family now mark the date by participating in an annual peace vigil. “It’s a celebration of life,” she says.
The entire community was shaken by the news that day of Martin’s death, and the law enforcement community worked around the clock until they caught the suspect. So many donations came in to the family that the couple decided to establish a scholarship fund, and later formed MAG, which bears the same initials of their son.
Although MAG began as a scholarship fund, Alonso-Garcia and the coalition decided to further push the community into addressing gang violence and prevention.
“At first, no one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room because once you accept that there is a problem, you have to do something about it,” she says.
Through sheer persistence, the MAG Coalition was able to bring the community together to take action.
She reached out to the county board of supervisors, city councils, local businesses, Imperial Valley College and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association to endorse and participate in gang prevention programs, youth events and outreach programs.
In 2016, Alonso-Garza piloted a student club at her school, where students meet once a week to organize school activities that promote tolerance, a drug free campus, non-violence and community building. This year MAG Teens will expand to all Imperial County middle and high schools. She would like to see schools throughout the state launch similar clubs.
“No one grows up wanting to be a gang member. No parent wants their child to grow up to become a gang member. But there are day-to-day survival skills that drive our youth in that direction. We need to provide a different direction,” she says.
More recently, Alonso-Garza met with state Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, her CTA representatives and CTA officers, to promote gang prevention efforts, both state and nationwide.
There was a brief period when Alonso-Garza herself feared gang retaliation and stepped back from her work with the coalition. But now, she is more involved than ever.
“As long as I have a heartbeat, I’m going to do everything I can,” she says.
For more, go to @MAGCoalition and Facebook.com/MAGCoalition.