Celebrating her life

Sobrato student Michael Silva, 14, from Gilroy, performs a song on stage that he wrote for Tara Romero Sunday during the event celebrating her life on the one year anniversary of her death at the Community and Cultural Center.

Despite the immeasurable volumes by which Tara Romero’s friends and family miss her and continue to grieve over their loss, an event in Morgan Hill commemorating the one-year anniversary of her death was more celebratory than somber.

The purpose was to celebrate Romero’s life, which was cut short at the age of 14 in a drive-by shooting in southwest Morgan Hill on Nov. 4, 2011, and to promote the ongoing goal of a new nonprofit created in the teen’s name to empower young people to lead positive lives, avoiding violence and other destructive behavior.

More than 100 people attended the celebration at the Community and Cultural Center, which included guest speakers and live entertainment emceed by Jeff Turner, a friend of the Romero family. Attendees were fed a buffet dinner prepared by volunteers.

Romero’s mother, Annette Nevarez, opened the celebration with the declaration, echoed by other speakers, that she is “not giving up” despite the fact that her daughter’s killers took away the most important thing in her life, and that’s why she was determined a year ago to start the nonprofit “Everyone’s Child, the Tara Romero Youth Empowerment Project.”

“I have to be strong for my daughter, for the kids,” Nevarez said. “I refuse to let my daughter’s name be in vain, and I’m not giving up. I surround myself with positive people, who I call the angels that Tara sent me.”

Even as they continue to mourn their loss, teenagers who knew Romero and made up most of the crowd at the event laughed, danced and swayed to the live music, which included an original rap tune written and performed in Romero’s honor by Morgan Hill teen Michael Silva.

The event was also a fundraiser for the nonprofit, which was founded by Nevarez as part of the Morgan Hill Community Foundation. The short-term goal is to create a bronze sculpture of the slain teen, to be displayed on public property. The sculpture will depict Romero’s likeness but will also serve as a “symbol of peace,” according to Lisa Washington, executive director of the Tara Romero Project.

The long-term goal is to continue to raise money for programs and scholarships that encourage the positive development of young people. In a separate room during the anniversary event, Washington and volunteers with the nonprofit recorded video testimonials by teens and others who were affected by the tragedy as part of the effort to raise awareness.

“We’ve got to embrace our youth, and we’ve got to find things to make them thrive,” Mayor Steve Tate said to the crowd. Even though Morgan Hill is mostly a safe community, the mayor added, “Unfortunately tragedy did happen a year ago – senseless, needless, totally useless tragedy. And yet, this community has turned around and, one year later, we have turned tragedy into a positive, forward-thinking movement.”

Romero was killed in a drive-by shooting at the corner of Cosmo and Del Monte avenues while waiting with a group of friends for a ride home from a birthday party, police said. Three other teens – friends of Romero’s who attended Sobrato High School with her – were also shot in the attack, which police said was a planned, yet mistakenly targeted, assault by street gang members on innocent teens.

Romero, a freshman at Sobrato at the time, was pronounced dead at the scene, and the three other victims continue to recover from physical as well as emotional injuries.

Five suspects were arrested for the shooting shortly after it happened, and they remain in custody on murder charges awaiting a trial.

Two of Romero’s best friends – Ana Cebreros, 15, and Tyler Washington, 15 – hosted a booth at Sunday’s event where they sold T-shirts, mugs, stickers and other items depicting Romero’s picture and promoting the nonprofit.

Romero was different from other friends, because she could entertain her peers and have fun just hanging out at her mother’s house, and she was a good listener who her friends could always talk to about anything, the teens said.

“I miss how easy our friendship was,” Washington said. “It’s weird not seeing her after school or hanging out with her during breaks.”  

“Not having her around, there’s no one to talk to now,” Cebreros added. “But we know we’re going to be fine because she would want us to be.”

Jessica Reed, 15, another friend of Romero’s, was pleased that the one-year event presented a “lighter” mood than previous public discussions about the tragedy.

“Everybody’s lost something – it’s like losing something that everybody saw every day,” said Reed, who knew Tara since she was 8 years old.

“Her childhood ended that day,” said Reed’s mother, Christine Jolley. “It’s been a tough year for these kids.”

Romero’s father, Joseph Romero, attended the event. He said he is still struggling with his daughter’s loss, but he is grateful for the community support.

“I think we’re on the right track” with the nonprofit, he said, adding that eventually he will pursue similar efforts to preserve his daughter’s legacy, promote community and family participation in young people’s lives, and raise awareness.

Joseph Romero noted he had talked to his daughter shortly before her death about moving to the Bay Area from Southern California, where he was living at the time. He has received support from veterans groups since her murder.

“After the holidays, I think I’ll be better. For now, I’m just taking it a day at a time,” Joseph Romero said.

When the entertainment was over, the crowd moved outside and surrounded the three survivors of the drive-by attack – Rosa Castaneda, 14, Alicia Sotelo, 15, and Chris Loredo, 16 – and released balloons into the night sky.

Some of the crowd then went down the street to the scene of Romero’s murder, just outside the Village Avante apartment complex, for a candle lighting and vigil.

Earlier in the day, residents of the complex and surrounding neighborhood said they don’t feel any less safe than they did a year ago but they’re always watchful for suspicious activity and accidents.

“It’s still fresh in our minds,” said Angel Velasquez, 30, who lives in a house on Del Monte Avenue just across the street from the apartments. “I still look over my shoulder when I get in my car to go to work.”

Velasquez has lived in the neighborhood for about 10 months, but his girlfriend has lived at the house for about 10 years, he said. His girlfriend heard the gunshots and screaming that followed the night of Nov. 4, 2011, he said.

“I worry for the kids who ride their bicycles and scooters” through the neighborhood, Velasquez said.

He thinks residents could be more vigilant together and communicate with each other in a “neighborhood watch” type of setting.

Residents at Village Avante said they feel safe, and pointed out that the property owner – EAH Housing – has installed security cameras throughout the complex and beefed up its on-site security staff presence since the drive-by shooting.

A woman who declined to provide her name said two of the rounds fired outside the complex a year ago entered her apartment and “almost killed” her. But still, she hasn’t witnessed any violence or crime since the shooting.

“We feel better with the security on weekends,” the woman said.

The private security officer on duty Sunday, who identified himself only as Officer Torres, asked a Times reporter to leave the property while interviewing residents. He explained that no non-residents are allowed on the property anymore.

EAH Housing declined to comment about its security system, but Torres said that gang-related activity is “not tolerated” anymore, and it’s a quieter housing complex than it was a year ago.

“It’s like a big family now,” Torres said.

Donations to Everyone’s Child are tax-deductible through the MHCF. Non-cash donations of goods and services, including publicity, video services, photography, signage, banners and supplies, are welcome.

For more information or to make a donation to Everyone’s Child, contact [email protected] or visit their Twitter page at twitter.com/everyoneschild.

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