It has been three years since 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was found beaten to death in his mother’s home, a tragedy that brought outrage and an unfavorable light on the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.
On Wednesday, May 25, those who have followed the case marked the anniversary of his death with what has become a routine: traveling to L.A.’s Clara Shortridge courthouse for another court proceeding, and yet another delay to begin the trial for the two suspects — Gabriel’s mother Pearl Fernandez and her live-in boyfriend Isauro Aguirre.
The day would turn out to be emotional and somewhat bittersweet for Gabriel’s cousin Emily Carranza and other family members. It, coincidently, was also the same day that, after months of conversation, the first annual scholarship in Gabriel’s name would be offered to San Fernando Valley area high school students.
At the awards ceremony held at Las Palmas Park in the City of San Fernando, Carranza spoke and handed out the scholarships. She shared that while Gabriel was only eight he also had dreams, and school for him was a place where he could escape the torture at home.
Carranza said she learned following his death, that Gabriel received certificates of achievement at school, although no family member ever showed up to applaud him.
“Gabriel had big dreams of being someone in life even if it was to be a Ninga Turtle,” Carranza said. “Due to his life taken so young, it is in each of one of you that his dream can live on.
“So as each of you accept this award, do not think of how this angel was robbed on his life but how he can save another child from living the same experience, and opening up the eyes of many to stop the horrors of child abuse.”
Facilitated by the City of San Fernando’s Education Commission, with donations from the California Latino Water Coalition Foundation, eight local high students were presented with Gabriel Fernandez scholarships: Cristina Medina (Bishop Alemany), Dongni “Audrey” Zhao (San Fernando High School), Valerie Amezquita, (Vaughn Next Century Learning Center), Jocelyn Casillas (San Fernando High School STEM Magnet), Samantha Rosales, Helen Avila (Sylmar High School), Monica Gonzalez, (Vaughn International Studies Academy), and Marcell Acosta, (Van Nuys High School).
Avila has been a volunteer translator in the Neurology Department at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar. “It can be difficult, and sometimes I even feel responsible when I have to be the one to translate to let a parent know that their child has a tumor or epilepsy,” she said.
Avila, who has been accepted to Cal Poly Pomona and will major in animal sciences, said she felt a “connection” to Gabriel when she learned about his love for animals.“Animals are innocent and don’t have a voice when they are abused and neglected.”
She said this scholarship will help contribute her to pursue an education in a field that she loves.
Zhao will attend UC Berkeley in the fall. Originally from Shanghai, China, Zhao is concerned about the impacts of pollution on one’s health and the environment. She will be studying chemical engineering and applied math.
Zhao said cancer has taken it’s toll on close family members that are likely to have contracted the disease by working in manufacturing companies not regulated in China. At San Fernando High she become aware of the high propensity for diabetes and obesity among Latinos, and the impact a poor environment.
“When people dump trash in empty lots they are causing pollution and that hurts all of us,” Zhao said.
She said she was told of the scholarship and about Gabriel Fernandez by her teacher. When she got home, she read more about him.
“I felt very sorry for him. My dream may not be the exactly the same as what his may have been, but I will work to do the best that I can do [in honor] for him.”
Acosta will attend CSUN to begin courses in electrical and environmental studies, and then transfer to USC. He said that he was told of the Gabriel Fernandez scholarship by a college counselor, and knows what it’s like to go through a difficult time and have challenges at home.
He said that he also “wanted to change.”
While Acosta was also accepted to UC Riverside, he chose to CSUN because it was more affordable. He said the scholarship will help him with college expenses and noted that he may have to take out student loans.
He said his mother wasn’t able to attend the event because she works every day, but that “she was very happy” he received it.
Casillas will attend UCLA, where she will study biology as a pre-med student. At the San Fernando High School Magnet, she has taken several AP courses she hopes can be applied toward her degree.
She understands firsthand the challenges that people can have and, after experiencing anxiety herself and the difficulty in getting initial help because of the lack of insurance, she started a mental health support group at her school.
Casillas will be the first member of her family to attend college. With a love for children, her goal is to become a pediatrician.
Carranza told the recipients that through them, “Gabriel’s dreams can live on,” and urged them to study hard and stay focused.
“It is your time to shine,” she said. “I want to ask of you one thing, that you carry Gabriel in your hearts.”
Carranza encouraged the audience to “love one another, and hug a child when you can.”