“My name is Cesar Bermudez, I was born and raised in San Francisco, Mission District.”
Two years ago, a teenager introduced himself after several tries in front of a video camera. He was an intern for the Conscious Youth Media Crew, a San Francisco digital production studio, which was recording interviews for production practice.
If you could go back in time and look into the viewfinder of this camera, you would have seen a tall 16-year-old, with his wide body nervously shifting in a chair and filling the frame; his close-cut, squared hairline framing eyes that darted around the room.
The person behind the camera asked him serious questions. Bermudez pondered carefully, breaking the tension with a nervous laugh. Asked what inspired him, he seemed unsure. Then a more clear voice emerged.
“The things that inspire me, are everybody that never give up on me,” Bermudez said, “especially my mom, my school counselors, my uncles, all my family…my cousins — everybody…who hasn’t given up on me.”
Bermudez recorded just eight minutes of tape on February 23, 2010. When he left the Conscious Youth Media Crew office that day, the files were loaded onto a computer for a routine project that was never completed. On that hard drive, one piece of advice lay dormant.
“Put business before pleasure,” Bermudez said, his back against a wall tagged with colorful art. “If you are on the street messing up, get high school done first. You are going to want a job someday, and you are going to want more than minimum wage.”
On October 24 of this year, Bermudez died on the sidewalk from a shower of bullets just as the sun set in the Mission District. His death at age 19 was the 58th homicide reported in San Francisco this year. But he was more than a number. This sidewalk would become the site for an altar prepared by his friends and family – all the people who never gave up on him. These people visited his altar regularly when it was up on the 2800 block of Harrison. White and red stains from candle wax remain from a week of grieving and remembrance, and a bloody murder.
“In the last two weeks, I saw him act differently,” said Esperanza Bermudez, Cesar’s mother, who spoke for the family. “He acted sad, but his face wasn’t sad.”
The last time she saw her son was on the morning he died. Before she left the house, she peeked into his bedroom. He was sleeping late.
“He didn’t call me that day,” she said, “and I didn’t call him either.”
She told this story as she sat on a small chair in the middle of the front room of her apartment just a few days after he died. A box containing photos of her son throughout his life at her feet. The newness of Cesar’s death sounded fresh in her voice. She has this strength born of rearing three children in a big city, something she summoned when asked to speak about the life of her dead son to a stranger whom he never met.
Esperanza Bermudez was one of the first people to know something was wrong the day Cesar died, but she didn’t know exactly what happened until she arrived on Harrison Street. About fifteen minutes after the shooting, Cesar’s aunt rang their doorbell.
“She told me, ‘Get ready. We need to leave soon. It’s Cesar,’ ” Esperanza said. “And that’s the only thing she would tell me, and my daughter already knew that he had been killed, but she didn’t say that to me. I thought maybe he had been beaten up.”
She grabbed a sweater, and her diabetes medicine, just in case she needed it, and left with her family. She kept asking, “Where is Cesar? Where is he?” They didn’t answer her.
They neared Folsom Street, and then Garfield Square came into view.
“I saw the park, and I remembered I didn’t like that he used to hang around there,” Esperanza said. “And I noticed we weren’t going to the hospital, and I said, ‘Where is Cesar?’ And they said, ’You’re going to see soon.’”
They arrived at the 2800 block of Harrison, and Esperanza asked if her son was dead. There, they finally answered. She wept, distraught and inconsolable.
Desperate to see her son, Esperanza broke open the body bag just to know that it was really Cesar inside. Until nearly 9 p.m., police maintained the crime scene with the bag that held the body of her youngest child.
Cesar Bermudez was born in the summer of 1993. A picture of him in childhood shows him at a party wearing a bright white miniature tuxedo and a big smile. He was the last-born child in the Bermudez family, shy but loving, said those who were closest to him. He was smart, introspective and deep, they added, but he never excelled in school.
He loved the Giants, sports, his friends, music and tamales. On his 19th birthday – his last — he told his mother he didn’t want any gifts, just a big dinner filled with tamales.
Esperanza’s box of photos documents Cesar’s short life. The pictures recount a life filled with family togetherness. Each milestone was celebrated with a big party, his family gathered around him.
Cesar’s mother and father are married. They work hard to support their children in the service industry. He left behind some nieces and nephews who look just like him when he was little.The little boy and girl played and ran around their grandmother, unaware she was talking about their uncle.
Esperanza holds each photograph and describes what was happening, and who Cesar was with. She picks up the last one. The timeline in that box of photos ended around the year Cesar recorded the video. Gradually, he didn’t want to be in photos, and had asked his mother not to take any more.
At his memorial at a funeral home on Valencia, he lay in an open casket the same color as the tiny tuxedo he once wore at special events. A big projection screen to the right displayed images from his life from Esperanza’s box for everyone to see.
People wore ribbons with his name in molded white and gold plastic lettering. Esperanza leaned over the casket, weeping and holding onto her son, asking why in Spanish.
“¿Por qué, Cesar, por qué?” she asked. His father stood by in silent grief.
Mixed into her personal collection of photos is a Muni ticket from the day of his birth given to her by a family member for good luck. What sticks out in this pile of mementos is a recently clipped newspaper article about his death from the San Francisco Chronicle.
The day after Cesar’s death, more than two dozen people gathered at the Mission Beacon Center to plan a community response to the recent increase in violence in the Mission. Cesar’s death was the third in the neighborhood in about a week.
Seven days later, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr met with the press at Supervisor David Campos’s City Hall office. They, too, were there to address the recent increase in violence on the street in the Mission.
Across town, Cesar’s family was preparing to gather at the funeral home on Valencia.
“The victim was with other people, and they were outside when the suspects walked up on them, and basically opened fire,” said Police Chief Suhr of Cesar’s death to a room filled with journalists. “We believe he was the intended target, that it was very, very personal. The information that our gang task force has is that this was a personal dispute within the gang that Mr. Bermudez was a member of.”
From the perspective of the reporters in the room holding microphones for their daily story, Cesar Bermudez was a gangbanger who was killed by gang violence. The bullets were meant for him, and on the news later that night, that was the end of the story.
“Do you think the change in the culture of the Mission District, the gentrification, has anything to do with the recent rise in violence? Is it a response to what is going on around them?” asked one reporter to Police Chief Suhr.
The answer was no. The question, however, made it easy to understand how the gang violence narrative is told over and over again to the public — often through the lens of class stereotypes.
The case is still open, and Mission Station Captain Bob Moser and Chief Suhr declined to comment further on why Cesar Bermudez was killed.
The night of his death Bermudez was with a friend, who also declined to comment for this story. “He was my friend,” he said. “And I just don’t feel right talking about it right now.” He was one of three people to see Cesar in the last moments of life.
The other two are suspects in the murder case, and their names have yet to be released.
And friends who knew Cesar, and those who know what it’s like to grow up in the Mission, are too afraid, ashamed or shocked to admit for this story that he was in a gang. Though, they did warn to avoid using the phrase “he got caught up in the wrong crowd.”
For kids like Cesar, the “wrong crowd” is often made up of the kids from 1st grade, or the best friend from down the street. These kids are the crowd for youth who grow up like Cesar. It’s difficult to leave your environment at the age of 16.
But Cesar Bermudez could be given credit for trying to avoid it for most of his life. Before the camera two years ago, he spoke candidly of his struggles in school.
“I never really been able to keep up in school,” said Bermudez in his video. “Once I started middle school, I started messing up, failing. Seventh grade, I got kicked out of school. I changed to a different middle school, and started off pretty good, until I, like, started meeting more people…until I started, like, missing school and not caring anymore.”
In the video, Cesar also tells the camera one thing people may not know about him: that he is really interested in learning about video and audio production. He took an elective course at John O’Connell High School taught by Chris Runde from the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). Later, Runde urged him to work directly with the coalition, and Cesar agreed.
“He was really a very quiet young man, but we developed a good relationship,” said Chris Runde, an audio production teacher at BAVC. “This is just my personal opinion without really knowing what his home situation was like, but he just seemed kind of sad, and someone who didn’t like school very much. But with me, when he would ask questions, they would be good questions.”
It was through these audio production classes that Bermudez found inspiration and a glimpse of what he could do with his future.
“One personal goal is finishing high school,” Bermudez said. “And probably going to college. Probably right now, I want to study audio production…yeah, that’s it.”
Runde remembers a turning point in their mentor-student relationship early on at O’Connell. He was called in to a parent-teacher meeting with Bermudez and his mother, Esperanza.
“Essentially all the other teachers took a turn to give their impressions,” Runde said. “I felt really bad for him because no one was offering anything positive. And what I heard, it was just a different impression than I had with all my interactions with him. I was happy to be able to be the one person in the room who had some positive things to say, and I think he appreciated that.”
After a few semesters, Bermudez would eventually stop showing up at BAVC, but Runde would often see him hanging around on the street with his friends, just a few blocks from the office.
“And he’d be sort of embarrassed because he knew that he hadn’t followed up, but I still encouraged him to come back,” he said. “It’s very odd walking around there now, knowing that I’m never going to see him again. Very strange, very sad.”
During the two years Runde spent getting to know Bermudez, he guided him through the process of making beats. Cesar’s favorite kinds were ones with local sounds and flavors, dark heavy, booming bass, 808s, and hyphy melodies, a Bay Area style of hip hop. This was a skill in which Bermudez could really excel.
“He was really trying to capture the sounds of his own heroes,” Runde said as he listened on big speakers to some of Cesar’s early work. “It would’ve been interesting if he had chosen to pursue it further to see what he could’ve done.”
Take it From Someone Who Knows
In the days after Cesar’s death, his family apartment became a memorial to him. Hung over his bedroom door was a full color 2-foot crucifix. His mother Esperanza opened his closet where Cesar’s clothing hangs, mostly sports jerseys and jeans, and some Giants flat caps. She said as she closed the door, “and that’s where they will stay, forever.” In the front room, a cluster of candles was lit to him, more flat caps hung above his small altar, and CD’s were stacked the table.
They look well used through listening, and some are missing the liner notes. One stands out on top of the stack, a Big Rich album in a scratched jewel case. Esperanza pointed to it and says he loved that one. Cesar was a big fan.
Richard Bougere Jr., or Big Rich, is a Bay Area hip-hop artist known for San Francisco tributes like “San Francisco Anthem.” He grew up north of Cesar in the Fillmore District, and as a youth he knew the sort of street scene that ended Cesar’s life. But he also had music, just like Cesar.
At 15, Big Rich recalled, a member of his musical group pulled out of a big talent show to pursue a risky business deal on the street. That was the moment their paths diverged: Rich chose music and stayed the course. It’s a path he wishes his fan Cesar had chosen.
Big Rich sits in a soundproof studio in front of a group of teens. He has a family and these kids, whom he mentors through Project LEVEL, a full offering music industry youth program aimed at giving kids an outlet to express their artistic talents. It’s a setting in which he said he thinks Cesar might have thrived.
One of the young musical artists is a singer named Veronica. She’s just finished laying down vocal tracks for a new song she’s producing.
The interview with Big Rich has turned into a group discussion about growing up in San Francisco with the label “at-risk.”
“Sometimes you can’t choose who you hang out with. It’s what you’re born into, or it is what you know,” Veronica said. “It’s easy for an outsider to be like ‘Oh, you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd.’ Mostly in the Hispanic culture, these ‘gang-bangers,’ that’s our family, that’s our cousin, that’s our uncle. I mean, it’s hard.”
Some of the kids in the room said they knew of Cesar, or heard of his death. News travels fast in the Mission, and all over San Francisco, and now has come full circle to one of his musical heroes.
“That’s why I wish we could’ve had him, that we could’ve got him before it happened,” Big Rich said. “Growing up in Fillmore and the Mission, we have limited options. They don’t have a chance. How at 17, or 18, can they say, ‘I can’t be down with that’? They don’t even know; their brains are still developing. But it’s like I always say, no matter what, at the end of the day, it is up to you if you want to break that cycle.”
Big Rich looked at each of his students sitting on the floor in front of him, silent and listening to a conversation that was really about their lives, and about a choice that was out there waiting for them.
“That’s what I always try to instill in them,” he said. “When things get tough or when things get rough, the only thing that is going to get me out is me.”
Mission Local reporters Rigoberto Hernandez and Andrea Valencia contributed to this story.