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Katiuska

Pimentel

Katiuska Pimentel is the aunt of Keyla Salazar, one of the children killed at the Garlic Festival shooting on July 28, 2019. Katiuska migrated to the US from Peru at age fourteen. In 2017, she graduated with University Honors from the University of California at Santa Cruz, double majoring in Legal Studies and Political Studies. She helped raise her three nieces—Keyla and her younger sisters. Katiuska lives in San José with her extended family, including her parents; her sister Lorena, Keyla’s mom; her brother-in-law; and nieces. In July 2020, she plans to start her JD studies at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

I was in San Francisco, going to a USF Law program, waiting to get a table with friends at a restaurant for dinner. I got a call from my sister. She was screaming. She told me, “Keyla has been shot. I don’t know what hospital she’s at. We need you to help. I need you to come, because I don’t know where Keyla is.” 

I’m the person my family first calls when something happens. My family has always relied on me to be the problem solver. I called my friend Ana [name changed] to be with my sister, who doesn't speak English. In those moments you need someone that can be an advocate. I was so desperate because I’m usually that person for my family.

I had left my car in San José, so another friend drove me back. I was calling every hospital that had an emergency room telling them, “Hello, I’m looking to find my niece Keyla. She is thirteen years old. Do you have anyone with her description?” I would be on the phone with the managers, the head nurses. I felt like I was dying in that car trying to reunite with my nieces and figure out what happened.

I was calling the line that the police department published. No one was answering or it was busy. When I talked to someone, no one would give you direct information. 

I was so angry at that point. If you knew Keyla, she’s someone that would be scared of the dark. She’s so innocent. I knew she was going to be scared. I knew that she was going to want to have us there. I couldn't forgive myself that I couldn’t find her. I thought, “How come we can’t find you, Keyla?” 

About seven thirty, I reunited with my niece, Lea [name changed], at home. She said, “We don’t know what happened to Keyla. They took her. We don't know what hospital.” I was freaking out, but I thought, “Okay, I’m going to see Keyla again.” 

I drove to Bascom Hospital Emergency Department to see if Keyla was there. Before I left, I packed a bag of clothes. I thought that I was going to see her, and she was going to need to change to go home. I talked to the security guy. One of the nurses saw me so desperate, my body shaking. She took down information about Keyla and went through every room. She came out and she said, “Keyla’s not here.”

I said, “I can’t believe you. We are looking everywhere. Keyla is not anywhere. She can’t just disappear like that.” I sat down outside of the emergency room and started to cry. I couldn’t believe a 13-year-old girl would get lost and no one would know. 

I called a friend who lives in Gilroy. She said, “Let me call the city council members. I’ll see if they can get any information.” Gilroy PD called me and said, “Are you Keyla’s family? Okay, we’re looking.” They would not give me any information beyond that.

Around midnight, my friend called me crying, screaming. I was still right outside the ER. I’m never going to forget her words: “Keyla is still there.” And I said, “Where?” Then she said, “At the festival.” I said, “What the hell? Is she lost? Did she run away somewhere and the police didn't find her until afterwards? Does she need me to pick her up?” And then there’s this pause of silence. She said, “No, she passed away.” I said, “No, I don’t believe you. How can that happen when my sister’s so sure she’s at a hospital? How can that happen when we have not received any calls confirming that this has happened? Wouldn’t the police let us know sooner if that was the case? I don't believe you.” This whole time I had a picture of Keyla in a hospital bed, not dead. I was in shock and did not know how to react.

A family member called and he said that he thought Keyla had passed away at the shooting. He just didn’t know how to tell my sister and he thought that I would be the best person to tell her.

I felt like a whole building of blocks had fallen on me. At that point I just broke down. I was screaming. I was thinking, “How come we don’t get an official call? I don’t think this is true. Maybe it’s not.” Every time I think about it, I can feel a knot in my throat and this heavy weight on my shoulders. 

My sister sent friends to meet up with me. They sat next to me and tried to help me. I had this bag of clothes. I was crying. I couldn’t drive because I was shaking. I felt like I was going to get in a car accident if I tried to drive anywhere. I said, “Okay, just take me home.” Close to one o’clock, they took me back to the house. All I could think of were these two people that had told me Keyla had passed. I felt so much pressure. I couldn’t tell my sister that Keyla had passed away. What if she didn’t? What if they’re mistaken? We had not gotten a confirmation. 

My sister came back to the house, looked at me and said, “Can you tell me what happened?” I told her Keyla had passed away. She said, “No, this can’t happen.” Then she fell down to the sofa, screaming. I think for a moment she fainted. I was walking in circles around the house. I was trying to be strong but I felt like I lost a sister or daughter, someone that I’d raised. I took my sister to the hospital. 

While I’m driving to the hospital my dad and my mom, who were on a cruise in Europe, were calling me every two seconds saying, “What happened? We heard Keyla is injured. Tell us what happened.” I didn't know if I should tell them. They were in Greece, in the middle of the ocean. They couldn't do anything, but I was holding this weight.

We got to the hospital, then I went outside and had a conversation with my parents. I tried to say it in the sweetest way possible, but they still screamed. They said, “We need to book the plane tomorrow.” My sister was under strong meds at the ER. Every time she would wake up she would start crying. I didn’t eat or sleep or anything. The entire day I didn’t eat anything, and I wasn’t even hungry. The doctor saw me in the morning. He said, “Oh my God, you didn’t sleep or anything.” He brought me a coffee. I probably went three days without any food or an actual meal. 

 

*                      *                      *

In this time there was no one else. I was alone. My parents were not here. My sister and my brother-in-law were not available. I was holding all of my family together and being the one figuring out everything. I never had to deal with something like this. I didn’t know how to plan a funeral, how to plan the cemetery. I didn’t know how to claim a body. I didn’t know anything. On Tuesday, I was Googling how to claim a body. Who do you reach out to? I was trying to YouTube it. 

I didn’t know where her body was. It was just a shocking moment, I don’t think my brother-in-law asked, “Where’s Keyla?” A mentor from UC Santa Cruz who is a police officer took the whole day off to help me out.

I was able to reach out to the coroner’s office. They said, “We’re only releasing the body to the parents.” And I said, “My sister’s unconscious on an ER bed and my brother-in-law can’t talk. I don’t want Keyla to be there for a lot of time.” 

The chief investigator got my number and said, “I need someone to come identify Keyla because she’s the last victim that hasn't been identified. Can her parents come?” I said, “No, my sister’s lying in a hospital bed and they just gave her more meds. My brother-in-law, I don’t think he can do that either.” She said, “How much do you know Keyla?” And I said, “Well, I lived with her since she was two years old.” She said, “Okay, I need you to meet me at this location in 45 minutes.” 

I had never been to identify a body, never been to a coroner’s office. When I recognized Keyla’s body, I broke down. I think that was the moment where I really. . . fell down. I just started to cry. I was screaming. I couldn't believe it. Nobody’s prepared to have to confront a situation like that. Your brain, your heart, your being, it’s not prepared.

This year, she was going to graduate middle school. I taught her how to draw and paint. I’m an artist. I like to draw. I always love to paint. I taught my nieces how to draw and paint. Keyla got into drawing, and we would do art projects together. She had an amazing talent. She taught herself graphic design, how to edit videos. She wanted to be an animator.

Keyla was beautiful, funny, charismatic, curious, intelligent, extremely empathetic towards animals and other people. I never met anybody as pure as Keyla. Her essence was so pure. I don’t think she ever wanted to harm anyone or had bad intentions towards anybody.

Keyla and her sister Lea were really close in age, so they would always do everything together. They were best friends. They slept in the same room. They never saw me as an aunt because I was too young. They called me sister. We hung out a lot as sisters. We’d go get ice cream, do things. 

The day of the shooting, they were eating ice cream. They did a Facebook Live and I saw Keyla eating ice cream. She looked so happy because she loved ice cream. Every time the ice-cream man called in the ice-cream truck, she’d go outside with her birthday money and buy ice cream for everybody.

When I was studying for the LSAT, I sat at the desk for ten hours, reading really thick books. She’d tell me, “Oh my God, you’re going to die because you’re studying so much!” or she’d bring me ice cream to feel better, so I didn’t die with the LSAT. 

She had a sense of justice. I’m a community organizer and I do a lot of work, mostly on immigrant rights. When there were marches for immigrants, I’d take my nieces. She’d say, “Why do we have to take away people from their parents? Why do we have to separate families?” She’d always question stuff like that. 

She also had so many pets: a chihuahua named Lucky, a cat named Rosie, a little guinea pig. She would take the guinea pig out of the cage and make it run in the backyard. Every day I would see her play with the guinea pig. And she wanted to get a golden retriever puppy. She’d send me screenshots of shelters with golden retrievers. She was so insistent. She said, “Okay, if I get an A can you get me a golden retriever?” That was her last wish. She fought for it so much. After Keyla passed away, we got a golden retriever. We named him Frosty because that was Keyla’s artistic name, how she signed her art.

 

*                      *                      *

Every day, the first couple of months, I was hoping, maybe she’s going to walk into the house or maybe she’s randomly going to come back. It took me weeks to be able to get that bag I packed for Keyla out of my car.

August is really broken memories. Even September. It was almost as if I was a zombie. I wasn’t really there. For the first two months, every day we were reliving what happened. Every conversation at the house was, “What happened?” For months, we couldn’t sit down to dinner. The first couple of months, every food tasted the same. I thought, “Why am I still here when Keyla passed?”

I was going to start law school the Monday after the burial. I’m a really driven person. I migrated to this country at the age of fourteen without my parents. I went through high school. I worked to pay for rent. I was really independent, strong. Law school was something that I’d wanted to do all of my life. I had to defer for a year. I needed to take time to come back home and grieve. 

Deferring was a difficult decision for me. You don’t want to give in. I thought, I’m going to let him [the shooter] win. If I defer, I’m giving in to him. I’m allowing him power over my life, to destroy my dreams for that moment. I also got scholarships. I didn’t know if they would defer my scholarships.

But I was not sleeping. I was not eating well. I was having panic attacks from anxiety and depression. I was suffering PTSD. The dean of my law school allowed me to defer and keep my scholarships and my enrollment, but I still felt guilt, like I’m giving in to this. My family was supportive. I don’t think they were ready to let me move to another city and go to law school. They needed help getting therapy. They needed help accessing resources. They wanted me to be home. I’m glad I did. My whole life, my whole family’s life stopped. Our world was shaken. We couldn’t just retake our life. It was too much pain.

Deep grief really sank in. A lot of pain and anger. I couldn’t talk to people. I couldn’t hang out with people. I couldn’t be myself. I was going around thinking, “Why did it happen?”

I started to go to therapy, to a psychiatrist, to seek treatment because I had so many overwhelming emotions. It was as if I couldn’t live through all the emotions at once. They had to take turns to experience.

There’s so many confusing thoughts. Every day I would wake up and be like, “I don’t understand what I’m feeling.” I would forget things. For the first months, I couldn’t make plans with people because I would randomly cancel or say, “I don’t have the energy. Something just reminded me of Keyla. I can’t see you.” 

Sometimes I contemplate my life, and I think it is unfair. I migrated to this country. I’m a Dreamer. I did everything. I was going to law school, and then this happened to me. There’s this feeling that anybody can come and take someone you truly love away. You have no agency to say anything about it or change what happened. You have to live with the consequences.

My therapist said I was questioning fundamental values of my life. As an organizer, you need to believe that there is good you are fighting for. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t see any good. I was vulnerable and scared. All of my life I thought there was equality, there’s good in people. 

Questioning things so deeply takes a lot of courage. You’re afraid to be around people because you don’t know how they’re going to react. You have so low energy. You’re constantly thinking. I would be talking to one person and after that, I’m tired. One time I forced myself to go for coffee with someone, and I couldn’t drive home. Even that conversation, that one interaction, made me so exhausted.

People have great intentions, but that doesn’t mean they make you feel good when you are grieving. They just don’t understand what you’re going through. People wanted explanations. People wanted to know or were curious. When it’s public, people can be cruel in the way they talk about things. My family’s Catholic. Some people would come hug me and say, “You have to resign to the fact that Keyla’s never going to be here anymore.” I wasn’t ready to resign. I had to contain my anger because I wanted to push them. I even had a problem with the words, “I’m sorry,” because I was like, “I don’t want you to be sorry for me. We’re not just these people you should feel sorry for. We’re actually fighters.”

When you’re grieving, people cannot see it from the outside. You’re not wearing a hat saying, “I’m Grieving.” I don’t want to go outside, but I have to work. I have to do things because who’s going to pay my bills? Life doesn’t stop. I would be late to things sometimes, and people would get mad. I wouldn’t say, “I was late because I couldn’t sleep all night because I was crying.” People assumed I was lazy. I’m an outgoing person. Now it’s harder for me to just talk to people. It depends on my energy.

We need to talk about hate. We should really have a conversation about how to prevent hate crimes, how to talk about racism, how to talk about these issues. I don’t think this country has analyzed shootings enough. They’re a symptom of a bigger problem. What are we teaching our children? How are we teaching them about hate? Why is there so many people having so much hate or motivated to kill others that they don’t even know and using a gun or a weapon of mass destruction? 

Our biggest problem is recognizing there is an issue. They keep happening and we don’t even think anything is wrong. It’s almost as if we’re just waiting for the next one to happen. It’s like we’re numb to this type of mass shooting. How come this keeps happening and we don't have conversations in schools? We should really have a conversation about what is driving them. Is this mental health? What is it? And also talking about gun control. Maybe talking to kids, really teaching children that this shouldn't happen. Or talking about acceptance and equality. I really feel that words influence people to act. And I think that when you spread hate, those words can influence others to act, especially young people. He was only nineteen. 

We need to think about why these shootings are happening and really address that, otherwise they’re going to keep happening. 

For us there’s no closure. I don’t think there ever will be. There hasn’t been a meeting with the DA or anybody. We don’t have an actual investigation. The pieces that we’re gathering are from the media. My family has been asking for the final investigation. It is important for us. The least they could do is tell us what happened. 

They said they usually don’t release it to families. I even asked the Victim Services Unit to talk to the DA. Because the FBI was involved and it was considered internal terrorism, they don’t want to give it to us. For them it’s private information. But can you imagine a mother, a caregiver, of someone that passed away, not being able to understand what happened? There might have been seconds or minutes that Keyla was left alone that we don't know about. Who took care of her? What were the efforts to help rescue her? 

There is a sense of abandonment with the fact that we do not know what happened. I don’t know a lot of details that I would like to know, especially when it comes to my niece and who helped her. And we were not notified. . . there were things that are hard to understand. What happened? Where did he enter? How close was he? Who helped her? How come her body had to stay lying there for hours? Or how come we were not notified right away? Or why did we have to look for her for hours? The shooting happened at 6:00 p.m., and we did not get a call until 2:00 a.m. 

We can’t get justice because of how it occurred. He decided to take his life, so there’s no restorative justice for us. The criminal justice system really focuses on prosecuting. There’s a sense of humanity that is lost. There's so many complicated dynamics, but there’s no closure because it’s so random, so crazy, so unbelievable, and so tragic.

 

*          *          *

It has taken me months to recover from that first month, from everything I gave. It still feels like it was yesterday. Some days, I wake up in the morning and I’m like, “Wow, am I really Katiuska Pimentel? Am I really that person?”

With my birthday coming up, I’m turning twenty-five. I think about the fact that I’m still alive, and Keyla passed. I’m turning one more year of age, which is a blessing, but I also feel like she shouldn’t have been taken away. She had a whole life ahead of her.

Grief makes you learn about yourself, what you’re sensitive to, your bad tendencies, your good tendencies, and also about the people around you. The people that are really there to help you, that are there for the ride with you.

I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know of myself. All of my life I have been really independent, migrating to a country by myself, being a Dreamer, being really driven. Going to college, getting into law school. I’m an ambitious person, but I also didn’t know that I could be so vulnerable or that I could get hurt like that. I didn’t know that I could hold so many emotions.

My goals have always been to be an advocate, to be able to represent people, to represent families, to really fight for justice for those who are vulnerable. That was the reason why I wanted to go to law school. My goals are still set, but I’m also sensitive about my feelings now. It’s really easy for me to help everyone and be giving. I need to be able to take care of myself first. That’s something I’m learning. I also feel I have become more protective of my family.

There’s this aftermath that no one is prepared for, which is really grieving. The world will continue to change what the breaking story is, but for the people that truly love the victims that passed away, we’re lost in a broken disk. We’re living every day with the consequences of it. I was really thankful for the love and support we received. The community gave us hope and resiliency. We’re trying our best to honor Keyla, but it’s overwhelming. It’s a never-ending cycle of grief. 

Every day we wake up. We try to salir adelante. We’re trying to keep going. Everyday it’s a new day, it’s a new feeling, a new struggle. I don’t know how I’m going to feel tomorrow.

© 2020 Reed Magazine, San José State University.

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