She has the face of an angel, little Maria Del Carmen Menchaca. Sunday, as the 7-year-old played on the sidewalk in front of her Glendale home, the child was shot to death. She was an innocent victim of gang violence.
It breaks my heart to see her sweet face and to know she won't be coming home to her family or returning to Riley Elementary School come fall. All because some gangbangers decided to up the ante from threats made earlier in the day. Little Maria was caught in the middle. Three teenagers and a 20-year-old are in custody in connection with the incident. Early police reports suggest a juvenile fired the fatal shot.
Now what? More senseless violence to retaliate?
The reasons kids join gangs vary. Some join because of a need for protection. Others enjoy a feeling of power and respect. Some find comfort in belonging to a group. Others enjoy the "fringe benefits" of money, drugs, alcohol and sex.
Gang violence remains steady in the Salt Lake Valley. I must confess, however, that I haven't thought a lot about the issue since the days of former Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini's midnight basketball league. It's not as if there's ever been an end to gang violence. Rather, we, as a community, have recalibrated our sense of what we consider as "normal."
It's taken the death of an innocent 7-year-old to shake us out of our complacency. What are we going to do?
It's not as though law enforcement and the criminal justice system hasn't rallied around this problem for a long time. The Utah Gang Project conducted its 18th conference this past April. The theme of the conference was partnering with the community to prevent gang violence.
It is not my impression that fewer resources are devoted to fighting gang violence in the Salt Lake Valley. But I do think law enforcement, like every other public agency, suffers from the squeaky wheel phenomenon. Gang violence used to be front-page news. With the exception of this tragedy, it's become more commonplace. News organizations still report about it, but it's not as shocking even as unexpected as it used to be.
Or perhaps some of us have marginalized gang violence to the point that we don't believe it impacts people "like us." It's Hispanics preying on Hispanics or blacks preying on blacks. Or it's white people of certain ideologies preying on people whose ideologies are the polar opposite.
It probably gives us comfort to compartmentalize this problem. This is something that happens to other people, right?
The thing is, it happened to a child in our midst. Yes, Maria was Latino and she lived in Glendale. But I have this crazy notion that all children are a community's responsibility. She deserved to be able to play on the sidewalk outside her home without the risk of being caught in the crossfire. All children do.
Somehow we must embrace children at risk of being recruited into gangs which can happen as early as elementary school. What is happening in their lives that they are vulnerable to this recruitment?
It is overly simplistic to say that kids join gangs because they lack strong parental figures or adult mentors. But there is a difference between being a child's friend and being his or her parent. One is all about having fun. The other involves establishing boundaries, enforcing limits and loving your child through good and bad times. Gangs have structure, no doubt, but they don't replace the love of a family.
In the coming days, the community will grieve the loss of Maria Del Carmen Menchaca. It is impossible for most of us to fully understand the depth of her family's loss. We know how much we love our own children and how much we want them to grow up in a safe place.That demands we take it upon ourselves to pay more attention to gang violence and to support law enforcement, the criminal justice system, community leaders and educators that are working together to prevent and suppress this scourge. Little Maria deserves that much.
Marjorie Cortez, who believes Utahns must not accept gang violence as "normal," is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected].