Just days after tragic shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, hundreds of people came together for the fifth annual City of San Fernando Night Out, part of the national effort to bolster police and community relations.
There was much to enjoy. Kids went into the bouncy house, actors Jacob Vargas of “Mr. Iglesias” and local favorite, the home-grown Danny Trejo - “Machete” posed for photos with starry eyed youngsters and adults.
There was plenty of music, including a performance from the recent state champions, Mariachi Tesoro of San Fernando, free food and raspados, which was a big hit throughout the warm evening.
For Monique Hereda attending the event gave her a moment to feel safe outdoors.
“I was on edge” after the shootings, admitted the 35-year-old mother. “It scared me to go anywhere.”
“I went to church on Sunday and I was looking all around, watching my little corners,” she added.
But she said she felt safe being at the community event with a heavy police presence.
Cathy Gonzalez, another resident, agreed. She was shaken by the shootings that claimed the lives of 31 people. One of those attacks was perpetrated by a white supremacist who specifically wanted to target Latinos. San Fernando is a majority Latino community and that reality is not lost on her.
“I think I’m going to start shopping online,” Gonzalez said, noting that she had even been apprehensive at her work in a medical clinic.
“I was definitely more aware of my surroundings,” she added.
Both Gonzalez and Hereda agreed that President Trump’s divisive rhetoric is partly to blame for the shootings.
“A lot of it started with him being President,” said Gonzalez.
“But people do have their own opinion too,” said Hereda.
That’s the same view of Jose and Janette Castillo, who were taking part in the event for the first time.
“It’s how people are raised,” said Janette. “If you see people as all the same, as one color, [that view] starts at home.”
The couple said they felt sad following the shootings but had no worries about coming out to the event because they knew there would be plenty of police.
It's the same way Hereda felt, because she said that she trusts the San Fernando Police Department to keep her safe in the city she grew up in, but “you always have that what if?”
"I noticed there were fewer children attending this year's event," said Councilwoman Sylvia Ballin. "Usually there's a line of children waiting to get into the bouncer, but this year there wasn't a line at all." Ballin speculated that many people kept their children at home given the attack on El Paso. She said as she was on stage and looking out into the crowd she felt some concern. "It wasn't as well attended as last year. Those that attended enjoyed themselves, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety and the awareness that San Fernando as a predominately Hispanic city could be targeted.
San Fernando Police Department (SFPD) Chief Tony Vairo was fully aware of this apprehension and took extra steps to safeguard residents during this week’s event.
“We took extra (safety) measures, even if you don’t notice it. I wanted to reassure people that they were going to be safe,” he said.
Vairo added that the event couldn’t come at a better time to unite the community with something positive following the horrific shootings. He recommended people not be afraid of reporting anything that seems suspicious, even if it seems minor.
“You have to be aware, vigilant and if you see something, report it. We rather hear everything,” Vairo said.
“We want to prevent something. We need the community to help us because we can’t be everywhere. You have to let us know, no matter how slight it may seem,” he added.
The event also comes a week after SFPD officers were involved in a fight with local partygoers after responding to a loud music call. The police said they were attacked, but the family hosting the party maintain it was the San Fernando police officers that entered their property acting aggressively and swinging batons and pepper spraying from the start. Video and photos showed party goers bleeding and at least one police officer holding a cold pack to his head. Four people involved in the altercation with the police are facing felony charges.
The family told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that they were considering talking to a lawyer about filing a police abuse lawsuit.
But San Fernando Mayor Joel Fajardo praised the officers, saying “they handled the situation with resolve, tenacity and bravery.”
When asked about the assertions of the family, Fajardo said the video of the incident shows many of the facts and if there’s a lawsuit, they’ll "deal with it according to procedure".
He also said the Night Out event is a moment to reflect on the need for public safety and a reminder that everybody needs to be vigilant all the time.
Ban the guns
San Fernando resident Margarita Padilla, said she understands the need for vigilance, but also considers that the recent tragedies can’t rule our lives.
“We can’t stay home. Why should we let something like this keep us at home?” she said.
Last year she missed the Night Out event, but this year she felt the need to attend.
She was one of several people who took a survival guide being handed out at the San Fernando Neighborhood Watch booth.
Padilla also thinks San Fernando is a safe city and the real solution to the issue of mass shootings – aside from President Trump staying away from Twitter – is to ban guns.
“No sale of guns. Do away with guns,” she said.
But that’s a tough decision for Johnny Gonzalez, who served in the military and knows how to handle guns. For him, the solution should be stronger background checks. “The guns don’t have a mind of their own,” he says, noting that the people firing them are the real culprits.