By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register
Des Moines’ Latino community leaders said they are hurting for all the families impacted by Monday’s fatal shooting outside of East High School.
That includes the families of Jose Lopez, who was shot dead at 15 years old in what police say was a targeted drive-by shooting. The two East High School students who are fighting for their lives in the hospital after being caught in the gunfire.
It also includes pain for the six teenagers charged with murder.
“We must recognize that the root cause of violence is inequity. And communities like ours have been impacted by inequity and trauma for generations,” said Maria Corona, a leader in Iowa’s anti-violence movement and the executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, at a news conference outside of East High School on Friday morning.
Among those impacted by the shooting, most are Latino, including Lopez and some of the suspects in his killing, community members said.
Des Moines’ Latino community is ‘surviving at the margins’
According to state data, 15.6% of Des Moines’ population is Latino or Hispanic.
Although Latinos make up the city’s largest minority population, Corona said her community is often ignored. Persisting inequalities has left her community “surviving at the margins,” she said.
“How do we address violence in our communities when our communities are under-resourced, when our Latinx youth are ignored, when our families are struggling to make the rent, to stay afloat, struggling to find affordable housing, struggling to have access to health care, struggling to have a livable wage? How do we address violence when our community is surviving within these conditions?” Corona said.
An estimated 60% of Latinos in Des Moines have graduated at least high school in Des Moines, compared to nearly 88% of the city’s overall population, according to state data. And only 7.7% of Latino adults in Des Moines have at least a bachelor’s degree, while about 27% total of all Des Moines adults have at least a bachelor’s degree.
In 2021, Latinos or Hispanics had the lowest graduation rate from Des Moines public schools among racial and ethnic groups in the district with a rate of 69.6%. The districtwide graduation rate was 75.2%.
Economically, the medium income for Latinos in the city is $47,183, compared to $53,859 citywide. And 16% of the city’s Latino population are living under the poverty level compared to 15.5% percent below the city’s total population living below the poverty level.
“There is a history of exclusion, intentional marginalization, and legal violence inflicted upon the Latino community. These systems that have been supposedly set up to support families and to act as safety nets for families and communities have failed us. They failed the families involved in this tragedy. The government leaders in the state have failed this family by ignoring the needs of the Latino community,” Corona said.
Latino community: Invest in policies that allow youth, families to thrive
Other speakers at the news conference included community organizer Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz, Joe Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, Orlando Fuentes of Al Éxito, and Jalesha Johnson of the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement.
Each stressed the need for bold action and leadership on curtailing access to guns and the need for policies that address the inequalities Latino communities face. They said public schools need mental health resources, and representation and cultural resources within the district, specifically East High School, where almost half of it student population is Latino or Hispanic.
And they all spoke of empathy for the six local teenagers who are each charged with murder and attempted murder: Octavio Lopez, 17; Nyang Chamdual, 14; Manuel Buezo, 16; Romeo Perdomo, 16; Alex Perdomo, 15; and Henry Valladares-Amaya, 17.
“You cannot put out fire with fire. You cannot solve gun violence with more guns. You cannot save lives by taking lives. Charging six teenagers as adults is taking lives and rights and freedoms,” said Johnson, reading from statement prepared by Des Moines BLM and the school district’s Racial Equity and Justice Team.
Police said Jose Lopez wasn’t a student at East High at the time of his death, and district officials said they could not confirm if he had ever been enrolled, due to privacy laws.
As for the suspects, Chamdual is a freshman and Buezo is a junior at Hoover High School. Romeo Perdomo had attended North High School and Valladares-Amaya had attended Hoover, but are no longer enrolled, according to the district. Octaevio Lopez is not enrolled in the district and Alex Perdomo’s status in the district could not be confirmed, according to Amanda Lewis, spokesperson for the district.
Endí Montalvo-Martinez, who graduated from East High School last year, told the Des Moines Register he’s seen the need for better policy within the district that emphasizes meeting the needs of the district’s growing Latino population. But it’s not just about the schools, he said.
“Gun violence is very complicated,” Montalvo-Martinez said. “Where did the school system fail (the six suspects)? But also where did the state fail them? Why did they have access to these guns? Where is the city failing their parents so that they can take care of their kids?”
These questions need to be addressed, and the voices of the Latino community — including Latino youth — need to be heard, Montalvo-Martinez said
Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.