Part of the memorial set up to honor Andy Lopez, shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy. (Rachel Dornhelm/KQED)
Part of the memorial set up to honor Andy Lopez, shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy. (Rachel Dornhelm/KQED)

People in Santa Rosa have held march after march in the two weeks since a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Santa Rosa eighth-grader Andy Lopez. One theme that’s emerged during the protests is what many say is a deep gulf between Sonoma County’s Latino residents and the rest of the community.

Professor Francisco Vazquez, a historian at Sonoma State University, says he knows why the Lopez killing has sparked anger among Latino residents. Vasquez has lived in the county for 30 years, some of that in the largely Latino Roseland neighborhood where the boy was shot.

“When you live day in and day out a lot of violations to your own human dignity and there’s really no outlets, then when an incident like this shooting happens, then all hell breaks loose,” he says. “And then people from the outside who don’t take part of this experience are surprised and shocked.”

Vazquez says those indignities can be personal, like getting poor customer service at stores when he’s not dressed professionally. But they can also be systemic. Latinos in Sonoma County are half as likely as those in the rest of the state to graduate with necessary courses to go on to a four-year university. And Latinos are three times more likely to be living in poverty compared to other county residents.

Politically, despite making up a quarter of Santa Rosa’s population, there was no Latino representative on the City Council until 2008.

A group of Latino leaders are working to change issues around representation. Los Cien is a local group that is working within the community to help groom future leaders and build unity, says the group’s founder, Herman Hernandez.

One member of Los Cien is Wanda Tapia. She showed me around Roseland, the neighborhood where she raised her kids. It’s where most of Santa Rosa Latinos live, on the city’s west side.

“I know some of the mindset of walking into a store and people looking at you because they think you’re going to steal something,” she says. “I’m not going to steal anything, I have enough money, you know?”

Tapia sits on several community boards, like the Chamber of Commerce, and is the cofounder of Latino Service Providers. She attended one of the marches to protest Andy Lopez’s killing, the first time she was moved to go to a political rally.

Tapia says some changes need to come from institutions: educating law enforcement about the community, addressing inequities in the school system. And some changes are needed to improve basic infrastructure in the Roseland district. She points out the lack of lighting.

“As you can see, there is only one side you can walk on this road,” Tapia says. “There are young people walking through here all the time and we really need to make it a safer place for them.”

George Ortiz has lived in Sonoma County since 1964, when he took a job as a social worker to field laborers. Soon after, Ortiz founded the community group California Human Development. He says the Lopez killing “breached the peace” for Latino residents.

“You know there are very good people and leaders on the white community side, there’s no question,” Ortiz says. “But we’re a very big segment of the population, we speak Spanish, our culture is different, our viewpoints are not quite the same.”

Ortiz says by and large he’s been very happy in Sonoma County. But he says the Lopez shooting is a reminder of the problems Latinos face: “We are not looked upon as people who are bona fide residents and citizen of this community, which I take great exception to.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley says he doesn’t perceive racial tensions in the city. But he says he wants to hear from residents in a series of community forums organized after the Lopez shooting.

“There are probably 100 issues tied into this,” he says. “And we need to hear what those issues are and then we need to decide how does government address them, how does government interact with them.”

He adds: “You want to say, well, it’s not me. Well, it is all of us, as a community.”

At the field where Lopez died, residents have built a giant Day of the Dead altar draped in white. The fragrance of votive candles hangs in the air. Nearby are a small plastic slide and playhouse, set up so kids could play at the site.

Eliseo Avalos watches his 2-year-old daughter play on the slide, and points out there are no parks in his neighborhood.

“There isn’t a park here within walking distance — you have to drive,” he says. “I think the kids can use a park here especially if their parents are working or can’t drive them.”

Avalos is helping keep the candles lit for Andy Lopez. And he’s been heartened by the outpouring of support. He says he hopes something good, whether it’s a playground or greater understanding in the community, comes out of the tragedy.

Andy Lopez Killing Exposes Rift in Sonoma County Community 7 November,2013Rachel Dornhelm

  • bgal4

    Nonetheless, Airsoft guns are firearms, close cousins to real guns and require similar respect. Lopez bought his two sons, ages 13 and 10, Airsoft guns but he keeps those guns locked in a cabinet, just like any firearm, available to his sons only with express permission. The boys shoot their Airsoft guns at the gun range or on appropriate private land, and then only when they wear appropriate safety equipment and have
    direct adult supervision.

    ” It took a lot of money and a lot of effort to raise my kids,” said Officer Lopez. “They’re great kids. I don’t want anybody shooting at them unless I’m around.”

    But the definition of “supervision” can be subjective. Not everyone takes it as seriously as Officer Lopez does. When Al Corso, president ofthe Martinez Gun Club, first saw his neighbors with Airsoft guns, they were running in the street with no eye protection, shooting at parked cars and into gardens.

    “I told (their father) that it didn’t matter that he considered it a toy,” Corso recalled. “If it shoots a projectile, it is a gun … You haven’t taught them gun safety. When they get a real gun in their hands,how are they going to know the difference?”

    *In an article on, author Robin Fox puts it into
    perspective. She recalls a conversation between herself and Peter Ho
    (co-owner of Airsoft Extreme out of Santa Clara, CA) in which Ho states
    that he has noticed a “disturbing trend.” The trend is that many parents
    are clueless about Airsoft guns. They view them as toys and nothing
    more, Ho states, “They can’t seem to step outside themselves, from the
    outside looking in, and say, ‘Hey, this looks like a real gun.’” Ho
    continues to point out “Common sense should rule. Parents need to tell
    kids to use Airsoft guns away from the public eye where no one will
    mistake the guns for real guns or be hurt by an errant bb,” (Fox, 2004).*

  • Tiffany White
  • Michael Von Der Porten

    These airsoft guns are called “imitation firearms” and “BB devices”
    as I see it in California law.

    See for a pro-
    airsoft group’s discussion of this.

    This seems to be the great community divide — appropriate use
    and handling of real and imitation firearms.

    Since the imitation firearm in this situation seems to have been
    modified to remove its colored markings, that seems to make it
    an “illegal imitation firearm.” The news should call it that. That’s
    not an inflammatory term, just a fair descriptive one. (“Illegally-
    modified imitation firearm” would work, too, but that gets long.)

    I’d also like to know more about how the boy was carrying the
    illegal imitation firearm. If it was carried with the barrel pointed up
    (as I have been taught) or down (as the Southern California
    Airsoft people promote), the barrel could not have been moving
    toward the officer. If it was carried with both hands away from
    the trigger, that would have helped assure safety, too.

    Sure, my boys played with toy guns — the wood ones from
    Disneyland that bang with roll caps — and with the bright
    pink / red plastic tips in place. I’d be scared shitless to
    think one of the neighborhood kids was carrying around
    an imitation firearm that looked real — he could well be shot
    by a neighbor, by a gang member, by an officer.

  • Julie Setele



Rachel Dornhelm

Rachel Dornhelm has worked as a reporter, editor and producer in public radio for the last twelve years. She got her start in New York City at WNYC and went on to work with the national business program Marketplace, WBUR’s “On Point” and KQED News in San Francisco. Her work has been honored by the LA Press Club and the SF-Peninsula Press Club.

Rachel has a BA with honors in anthropology from Rice University and did graduate work at NYU.

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