Five years ago, Lisa Ortiz woke up at 2 a.m. to the news that Marcella Peraza, her first child, had been shot. Peraza, Ortiz learned, had been hit in the back by a stray bullet while at a birthday party in Encanto. Ortiz rushed to the hospital fearing the worst.
“You never think they’re going to die,” Ortiz said. “You hold on to any hope even if deep down you know they’re dying.”
When she arrived at UC San Diego Medical Center, Ortiz met her daughter’s close friends and cousins who had been with Peraza, 21, at the party. By the time dawn broke, Peraza was gone.
The party had been small – about 20 people – but a fight broke out on the street. It was brief. Christopher Sanchez had been knocked down and shortly after grabbed a rifle and shot at the car where the man he initially fought was hiding. Peraza was standing next to the car.
Two years later, a judge sentenced Sanchez to 85 years to life in prison for Peraza’s murder. On that day, Ortiz felt she got justice. But the verdict didn’t give her the closure she thought it would. She found herself reliving her daughter’s murder, instead of finding peace.
Sanchez didn’t serve much of his sentence. On Nov. 9, 2012, just a year and a half after he was convicted, a corrections officer shot Sanchez in the head when he and another man ignored orders to stop fighting another inmate. The prison report says a knife was involved in the fight. Sanchez was killed instantly.
“They called me and said to come and pick him up,” said Sonjia Viruegas, Sanchez’s mother.
He was buried about a week later on what would have been his 24th birthday, the same day as his mother’s and now 11-year-old daughter’s. Sanchez would write to his mother from prison frequently. The last words he sent are now engraved on his tombstone: “I loved you yesterday, I will love you tomorrow, I will love you forever.”
Viruegas visited her son’s grave almost every day. She noticed that Peraza’s tombstone was on the same lot. After that, when Viruegas went to the cemetery she began laying flowers on both graves.
For months, remorse gnawed at Viruegas. She felt a burden from the loss of her son, and from the life her son took. She couldn’t sleep. One night, Viruegas decided to contact Ortiz. She hoped she held the key to finding peace.
“Mother, I know you’re hurt. So am I. My nights are sleepless since 2009,” Viruegas wrote in an email. “I put flowers all the time. Please know I feel your pain every day and hope you can forgive.”
Ortiz responded a few days later. Viruegas had expected her to be angry. Both mothers had attended Sanchez’s trial, eyeing each other warily from across the courtroom. They had never spoken before. But Ortiz’s email was kind.
“All was forgiven since the beginning,” Ortiz wrote back. “The anger you seen in me was for the denial, and not letting us put it to rest immediately.”
The emails continued. The pair exchanged phone numbers and eventually agreed to meet face to face at Peraza’s grave.
The day of the meeting, Viruegas brought with her a poem Sanchez wrote for Peraza while at prison. He had expressed feelings of regret and guilt. In person, both mothers fed into nostalgia and talked about their shared past for hours. Eventually, a cemetery worker walked up to tell them it was closing time.
It was then that they realized there were so many more things that needed to be said. They needed more than just one day to talk.
They started sending each other text messages and became friends on Facebook. They shared stories about their children and how they used to be. They talked about how they cope with their passing and how it has affected their families.
These days, they talk about three times a week, and try to see each other once a month. When they’re together there’s no trace of the anger and guilt they used to feel. For Ortiz, there’s no one that can empathize with her pain like Viruegas. Their friendship has given Ortiz the closure she was missing after Sanchez’s conviction.
“It’s not a matter of who did what, both families are suffering,” Ortiz said. “Find it in your heart to find a place for both families, only then you will find peace.”
One topic tends to dominate Viruegas and Ortiz’s conversations: This shouldn’t have to happen to anyone else.
“No mother should ever have to bury their child,” Ortiz said. “It’s not natural.”
Today, they’re members of an advocacy group called Mothers With a Message. They’re two in a group of six mothers who have all lost a child to a violent death. They share their experience of loss with troubled youth across San Diego County. The mothers use their grief as an example of the consequence of any crimes they might commit.
“We see this as an exclusive club. We don’t want any new members,” Ortiz said. “No mother would wish another the pain we feel.”
When they talk to children, they always ask one question, often through tears: “Would you want your mother to go through what we’re going through?” Often, the audiences stay silent. The mothers believe that deep inside, the children understand.
For Viruegas, anniversaries bring back the most pain. She worries that what happened to her will happen again to someone else. She holds on to the idea that her son’s story can possibly prevent someone else from committing a crime. That alone would be a good reason for why he had to die, she said.
“The problem is still here,” Viruegas said. “There are patterns that I see and when I warn mothers about their kids, they always say, ‘It will never happen to me,’ or ‘I know my son.’”
Viruegas thought she did, too.
Viruegas tattooed Sanchez’s name on top of an hourglass on her arm. At the bottom of the hourglass, Viruegas tattooed Peraza’s name. The piece of ink reminds her of her pain and her friend’s forgiveness. Her life goes on.