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Paz in El Barrio, to honor peace and Abriel

By Federico Martínez, Special to La Prensa

Peace in The Neighborhood

They were more than 300 strong; people of different ethnic backgrounds united, chanting loudly and carrying signs calling for an end to street violence and demanding better opportunities for their youth as they walked together through the streets of Toledo’s Old South End on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 12, 2014 [Día de la Raza también].

The event was called Paz in El Barrio, or Peace in The Neighborhood.

It may someday be remembered as the day a people decided to rise up and reclaim their community.

“I want to thank all of you for coming out today and celebrating and remembering all of our loved ones,” Monica Morales, one of the event organizers told the crowd, many of who have lost loved ones to violence, gangs, and prison.

“We all hurt the same, we’re all going to heal the same, and we’re all going to get through this together. Whether we’re family, whether we’re just friends in the community, whether we’re from different sides of the community, we want this to bring us together.”

The event was organized after the shooting of Abriel Vincent Ruiz, a 34-year-old who had spent 16 years in prison for manslaughter, the result of a gang fight in 1997. Mr. Ruiz, who was released from prison 10 months ago, dedicated the last months of his life talking to young people and trying to help them avoid and escape gang life.

Mr. Ruiz was killed at 1:30 a.m., September 3 at the corner of Broadway and Hawley streets after a bar altercation near Danny Thomas Park where people gathered for Sunday’s rally. He would have turned 35 that Sunday.

The event was co-sponsored by Mr. Ruiz’s family and Toledo’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which this summer started a program to help at-risk youth.  Many of the youth who participated in the FLOC HOMIES program were recommended by Mr. Ruiz.


Stopping the Violence

Many in the community credit Mr. Ruiz with helping to extinguish an escalating gang rivalry this past summer that was dangerously close to becoming an all-out war between multiple gangs.  Mr. Ruiz brought leaders from the various gangs together and helped them talk out their differences and agree to a truce.

“We want to continue those efforts and we need you to help continue that,” said Ms. Morales, a FLOC staff member for the HOMIES program. Ms. Monica Morales is also Abriel’s cousin.

“We need to spread the importance of non-violence; we need to stop the cycle of things that lead to violent actions. We need to create opportunities for these kids and nobody else will do it but us. We can’t depend on people sitting in an office to tell us how to run the city we live in. We have to do it. We have to stop this stuff; it’s ridiculous.”

Her passionate words resonated with many in attendance.

Toledo resident Bob Ramirez, who attended the event with his 3-year-old daughter Gabriel, said they participated because he wanted to voice his support for non-violence in the Latino community. He works for the United States Postal Service.

“Everyone in the community has to stick together,” said Mr. Ramirez, while his daughter sat on his shoulders chanting with the crowd, “save our streets, save our streets.” “It’s for these young people. They don’t have to go through the violence that is going on.”

Manuela Murphy, a longtime member of FLOC, brought her three grandchildren – Kevin, 8 and twins Kayla and Kaden, 4, to the event also. The children each carried large red flags with the slogan, Hasta La Victoria, or Until Victory as they walked down Broadway.

“We’re doing this because we’re trying to save our kids,” said Ms. Murphy. “We want better for them; enough is enough. I want my grandchildren to know they need to fight for their rights.”


Life and Death

Juanita Ruiz, 36, describes her brother as “a very outgoing, happy person who could light up a room.”

But his personality took a noticeable turn after their mother and father split up after 21 years of marriage, said Juanita Ruiz. “It was a devastating blow to mom and us,” she said. “It made just my brothers and I; that’s what set him over the edge. He and our dad were really tight. He just became really hard-headed and mad at the world.

“But the streets welcomed him and showed him love. So when one of the gang members got attacked, he felt like he was sticking up for family.”

During his time in prison Abriel began to read books about his Aztec culture and that discovery made him a different person,” said Juanita Ruiz. He became more self-confident and better aware of his potential.

“You could see the change just be reading his letters,” she said. “When he first went into prison it was, “I’m a gangster; the 18-year-old Abriel that got locked up didn’t want to see the world, he wanted to live in the old South End for life.”

At the Ruiz Family’s request, Dr. Manuel Caro, a longtime Chicano activist and retired college professor and administrator wrote and shared several poems, including, An Atzec Prayer for the Dead - that he dedicated to Abriel.

In an unplanned coincidence, as Dr. Caro began his presentation by singing aloud to Abriel’s spirit, church bells began to ring in the distance – startling some in the audience who began to weep.


The last day of his life started with news of joy and hope. He was excited about the news that his girlfriend was pregnant. Juanita Ruiz had just been promoted to manager at the Mexican restaurant where she works. They went out for a celebratory drink later that night.

While inside the bar, the brother and sister watched as a man attacked and began stabbing their cousin across the room. Abriel ran to his cousin’s side and was stabbed also before the attacker was subdued.

Their good mood ruined, Abriel and Juanita decided to leave the bar. As they walked to the corner of Broadway and Hawley a man shot Abriel twice.

“He was in front of me when he was shot,” said Juanita Ruiz who was standing just a couple of feet away. He turned around and looked at me like, “shoot, I’m sorry.” There was no look or sound of anger or hate toward his killer. There was just a peaceful look on my brother’s face when he died.

“He died so peacefully, I’m sure he had angels with him. It was God’s plan to take him to a different place.”


A Legacy

Abriel’s death was a wakeup call for Daniel “Tweety” Thomas, 27, of Toledo. Mr. Thomas was released from prison four months ago and said he sometimes struggles to not revert back to the bad things he once did.

“I would have been in that bar that night,” said Mr. Thomas. “But I got into a bad car accident on the way there.  Abriel’s death made me realize that could have been me.”

Since his prison release Mr. Thomas says he has been seeking a closer relationship with Jesus Christ and trying to develop a stronger faith. That can be tough when a person can’t find steady work and is trying to be a good father to his 6-year-old daughter.

That’s the desperation many young people face, he said.

“When everything’s not right at home you can become barbaric; and the streets will eat you up if you can’t find love somewhere else,” he said. “I want misery and violence to be my old life. I don’t feel or speak death anymore.

“Now I realize that I need to fight for my daughter’s future; so that she can have a better future.”


A Better Future

Abriel’s sister, Juanita Ruiz, said she applauds FLOC’s efforts to provide afterschool activities and programs that keep youth off the streets. The organization is currently seeking funding so that it can restart the program this fall, officials said.

“There are a lot of things for the black and white community, but nothing for Latinos,” said Juanita Ruiz. “I want this event to be the beginning of a movement.

“I think before today many people didn’t believe that we could do it – they forgot that we used to have resources like El Centro Unico and the Maya Center. My dad used to take us to these places so we could ice skate and do other activities. If we work together we can do it again.”


Copyright © 1989 to 2014 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/15/14 07:00:34 -0700.




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