Estela de los Rios, Organizer of Oct. 1st Hate Crimes Summit in El Cajon
By John Falchi
ECM Editor Miriam Raftery also contributed to this story
September 25, 2009 (El Cajon)--Estela de Los Rios is leading an effort that will bring a Hate Crimes Summit sponsored by United for A Hate Free San Diego forum to El Cajon’s Ronald Reagan Community Center On Thursday October 1, 2009. In this exclusive interview with East County Magazine, she shared details about shocking hate crimes in our community, including many in local schools. She also shared personal insights into the hardships and challenges that have steeled her resolve to achieve reforms.
“It is in East County where many of the hate incidents and hate crimes have occurred,” she said, noting that hate-motivated violence here dates back more than a decade—and continues to this day," de Los Rios said.
In one, an African-American male at a party held by a fellow Marine in Santee “was assaulted and beaten near the school, and paralyzed from the shoulders down; that was national news featured on 60 Minutes,” recalled a West Hills High School employee who asked not to be named. One assailant was convicted and sentenced to nine years, but others received sentences of less than a year and were not prosecuted for attempted murder. See the story. De los Rios called the light sentences "a slap on the hands."
According to 60 Minutes, some witnesses changed their stories. Deputy District Attorney Jimenez told 60 Minutes "Undoubtedly, some witnesses were probably intimidated," adding, "I wish we would have had more evidence but we didnt...We made the best of what we had."
Estela de los Rios is the Executive Director of the Center for Social Advocacy, an organization which champions the poor, the oppressed and the defenseless. Originally from Mexico, she didn’t know a word of English when she came here, and now she holds a B.S. in Sociology from SDSU. In 1982, she moved to San Diego and became more involved in helping others.
“People are treated differently here due to language barriers and cultural issues. I have three kids--17, 21, 23. I was widowed three years ago,” she reflected. “ I think it just made me stronger. I’ve always faced oppressions, being a woman, being of color, and coming out of poverty. I’ve made that oppression a strength.”
A major concern for de los Rios is the matter of inadequate statistics kept about hate crimes. Many incidents are not being recorded correctly, she believes. Some cases of domestic violence appear to be hate crimes , where the victim is in a protected class, but they are placed in a separate category of statistics.
“Other hate-related crimes are reported as gang-related,” she said, “when a lot of these incidents should be reported as hate crimes." Violence between white supremacist and Latino or African-American gangs, for example, are often not reported as hate crimes even where race is a key factor.
On the date of our interview there was a trial of the man who attacked Rhythm Turner, the gay musician assaulted for being gay in San Diego. “That, too, was not charged as a hate crime,” de los Rios noted.
We asked her why we need to have a United for Hate Free San Diego? She responded, “For two reasons. One, to educate and provide awareness of hate motivated behavior in the San Diego region, and two, to give more strategic legislative action on how to address these incidents and crimes.”
Quite a few hate crimes have been connected with East County schools. One such incident occurred in October 2007 at West Hills High School, de los Rios said. It took place on campus against an African-American student in this District. The student was severely beaten and needed reconstructive surgery.
Why was he beaten?
“They told him because he was a n*****r and they didn’t like him. It was a white Supremacy group. It was even reported to the Sheriff’s Office. The worst part is that the school didn’t do anything,” she said. “So it went to an attorney and there was a settlement. This is the reason I’m so angry. Nothing was done.”
She mentioned another case. “A Mexican-American student at the same school was shot in the eye off-site. According to the Santee Sheriff’s report (GET) : 911 was called. Kids confided that “He was taunted, ‘Just admit you wish you were white.’ H e wouldn’t admit it. He was shot at close range in the eye. The party was of all students from this district high school. The shooter was a white supremacist, 16 or 17." Estela remarked, “We’re trying to get a student to come forward. They are fearful he could be severely harmed." The boy lost vision in his eye, she said.
Estela became tearful. “It was cruel. Nothing was done with law enforcement. Silence is acceptance.”
While all of this has been going on the civic officials in this area have been in denial about hate crimes, e.g., Santee Mayor Voepel asked de los Rios, in a handwritten letter, to “reprogram her perception of Santee to a caring equal opportunity , safe city that welcomes all.” He objected to Santee being “stereotyped for years as a white supremacist community that preys on minorities in the print and broadcast media.” He sent the letter on February 20, 2009, soon after de los Rios helped to reveal the latest FBI statistics in a report to a SANDAG meeting. That report showed that, of the total 285 hate crime events in San Diego County from 2005-2007, 22 occurred in Santee.
That’s higher than any other city in East County, and third in the County overall after San Diego (which has a much larger population) and Oceanside, which includes the military base at Camp Pendleton.
For de los Rios, hate-motivated violence in schools conjures up painful memories.
Daughter of an immigrant who worked as a housekeeper, de los Rios grew up in the Imperial Valley picking grapes. A history teacher taught her about Rosa Parks, the African-American woman whose refusal to give her up seat to a white person on a bus helped spark the civil rights movement. “That resonated with me,” she said. “I knew some people were treated differently. In fourth and fifth grade, white students would throw rocks and tell me to go back home,” she recalled, tears forming in her eyes at the memory. “It was very hurtful to me…it became something in me, my drive to do something. It’s not right for one person to be valued more because of the color of their skin.”
After receiving her Sociology degree from San Diego State University, she returned to her high school in Brawley to implement a migrant outreach program. “I was empowering people. I enjoyed that role,” she said. In later years she worked in a healthcare clinic, a mental health facility, as a juvenile hall group supervisor, and as a housing specialist in Santa Clara before moving to San Diego.
She is also passionate about helping immigrants, having traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, and seen children with bellies bloated from starvation and met women worried that their men, who have gone to the U.S. in search of work, may never return home due to the dangers that they face.
“I see the injustice, the sacrifices and hard work in these families just to be respected in this country,” said de los Rios, who is determined that no child should suffer racial or hate-motivated violence in East County.
Her work, currently, includes advocacy on behalf of those affected by human trafficking and immigration. She serves on the boards of Borderlinks and Empower San Diego, and is an international leader for Justice Overcoming Boundaries.
She points to some success stories, such as a program that she has presented for the Anti-Defamation League to teach tolerance to students. She has sent letters to Grossmont Union High School District Superintendent Bob Collins asking to present the program in local high schools, but said she has not received a response.
East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery saw Collins at another event this week and asked about de Los Rios letters. He replied, “I have met with Ms. De Los Rios several times.” He said an ADL program is now being implemented in district schools and pointed to a Unity Day at West Hills High School as evidence of progress. But his office did not respond to an ECM request for an interview on hate-related incidents in district schools.
Others share de los Rios concern, but say they are afraid to speak publicly for fear of retaliation via physical violence or job loss.
“One kid was attacked by two white supremacists,” said a certified staff member in the district who asked that his name not be published. “He defended himself. He was arrested, went to juvenile hall, and was expelled from the district. His attacker got a couple of days off. I was assaulted by white supremacists trying to defend him.”
Some families are living in fear, said the source, who said the student who lost his eyesight was shot at close range with a BB gun by a white supremacist at an off-campus party. The victim was an incoming West Hills freshman enrolled in an ROTC program at the school, the Union-Tribune reported. The same article said the shooting occurred at a sleepover and that the Sheriff's initial investigation indicated the shooting was accidental. “The family is afraid and shell-shocked,” the employee said, adding that the shooter was sent to juvenile hall and parents may consider legal action.
In a district where two mass school shootings occurred at Santana and Granite Hills in 2001, astoundingly, a source said parents were never notified when in 2007, “due to the fear of threats from white supremacists to perpetrate hate crimes, there were 11 Santee Sheriffs on campus at West Hills High School for two days.” The source added, “Kids were freaked out…If it was this serious, we should have been on lockdown.”
The source described another troubling incident. “Last September, 2008, a classified employee who is African-American had students threaten to lynch him. He won’t talk. He is afraid for his job and afraid of lynching. If he spoke up, he’ll be laid off.”
The source also revealed that in another recent case, “ an African-American freshman student was “viciously attacked by a known white Supremacist student, requiring surgery to repair his mouth and teeth. The anglo student was not arrested nor put up for expulsion as required by city/state education law,” the employee. “A second African-American student was also assaulted on the same day by the same Anglo student. There was a surveillance video and the video was destroyed.”
A letter written by another employee states, “On this the tenth year since the attack on Carlos (Colbert), another black male was savagely assaulted on campus. I saw the tape of the attack. It was one of the worst incidents that I have seen in my life.” The letter-writer added, “We now have ethnic gangs operating on campus, because they feel compelled to do what we have not. We have not protected them.”
A letter sent by Shelly Sanford, a parent, to then-GUHSD board president Jim Kelley on October 28, 2008 confirmed the allegation. Sanford accused campus officials of a “cover up” by high-level officials at the school and said that the prior year, an “Afro American freshman boy was beaten up on campus. He had to be take to the hospital by ambulance. The boy that beam him up was a white ganger member.”
ECM has asked the GUHSD for records of these incidents and will investigate further after reviewing public records. ECM also welcomes an opportunity to meet with the Superintendent.
De los Rios called people who are speaking out to media “heroes”, adding, “They’re trying to help these kids and no one is helping them.”
The Hate Crimes Summit on October 1st will feature representatives from law enforcement and the District Attorney, as well as community leaders and a representative from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes nationally.
One solution being proposed is to form a watchdog citizens oversight committee to address hate crimes here. “I believe we need a community oversight committee,” the employee told ECM. “It has to become common knowledge that a family or a kid could call a number to get help.”
Being an activist for 30 years, de los Rios firmly believes in courtesy and human rights for all people, regardless of their racial background, language, national origin, religious practice, sexual orientation, gender, age or disability. All people have the right to respect and dignity.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be the executive director of a 501 c (3) nonprofit organization that addresses all of my concerns—hate crimes, human trafficking and housing discrimination. I think the Lord was good to me. This job is perfect because it addresses all the issues I faced in my life. My motto is ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’”
For details on the October 1st Hate Crimes summit, click here.
Note: An earlier version of this article contained inaccurate details on the Colbert case. We regret this error.