Many of the Shotwell Street residents who heard the gunshots that claimed Rigoberto Romero’s life on Friday night had seen the 27-year-old grow up over the years. Some of them were family members.
“We heard about six shots,” said Alicia Romero, the victim’s cousin. Three minutes prior, she had seen Romero speaking with his mother in their family home on Shotwell Street. “He had just left the house when I heard the shots, and I knew something bad happened to him.”
At approximately 11:44 p.m. on July 1, Romero walked half a block up from the house where he was raised toward a liquor store at the intersection of 24th and Shotwell streets. Family and neighbors said Romero would often step outside to smoke cigarettes or to hang out with friends.
“This block was our football field, our basketball field, our playground,” said former Shotwell resident Tony Lucero, who grew up with a “good six or seven families on the street,” including the Romeros. “He hung out here because this is where he grew up.”
As adults, Romero and his friends could often be seen drinking beer and smoking while sitting on stoops or standing near the corner liquor store. Those who passed Romero said he knew them by name and greeted them with genuine interest.
“Rigo was Shotwell’s ambassador,” said Vida Sanford, a 20-year resident of the street who said that when Romero and his friends would sit on the doorsteps of her Shotwell residence, he’d be the one to keep them in check. “He made sure things stayed respectful and cool on our block. He was always happy to see me.”
Sanford and others who live on the block said that Romero was integral in bringing the neighbors together – both new arrivals and longtime residents.
“Even when he was hanging out with his friends and I’d pass him, he’d always say ‘Hi’ and had kind words for me,” said Justin Fraser, Romero’s neighbor of 13 years.
Romero’s death follows a string of shootings in the neighborhood in recent months. Less than a week earlier, a close friend of Romero’s was shot at the intersection where Romero died, according to his family. That man survived, but remains in critical condition.
As of Tuesday, police have not reported any arrests in connection to Romero’s death. A neighbor who ran onto the street seconds after Romero was shot said that he found him alone and speculated that Romero may have been the victim of a drive-by shooting.
“He was laying on the street face down and he had a bullet wound in his head,” said the neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Romero’s cousin, Alicia, who tried to resuscitate him. “This is our home. Somebody fired bullets steps away from our house, and he caught it.”
On Tuesday, Shotwell residents who gathered around a memorial site arranged for Romero at a tree near the 24th and Shotwell intersection spoke of an uptick of violence in the area.
Though some residents have been calling for increased police presence, Fraser said that isn’t the right approach.
“I’ve seen gunfights in the streets here,” said Fraser. “I don’t think that more police presence will be the answer. This is about giving Latino youths opportunities – something needs to change.”
Standing over her younger brother’s memorial, Irene Arevalo’s hands framed her face as she watched a thin Latino man wearing a gray sweater and black cap pulled over his eyes dart across the street.
“I thought that was him for a second,” she whispered, her voice thick with tears. “He was very skinny, and he would sometimes dress like that, depending on his mood. ”
But most of the time, Arevalo said that Romero “stood out from the rest of these guys” who regularly hung out on the block. “He was always stylin’,” she said. “He was very unique in the way he dressed and acted.”
Romero, the son of a Nicaraguan mother and a Cuban father, kept his hair cut in “a tight fade” and wore dress shirts, slacks, and sunglasses. He didn’t give much thought to how he was perceived by others, his sister said.
“His friends would call him ‘Rico Suave,’ and he didn’t mind,” said Arevalo, adding that her brother loved salsa music and would often dance in the privacy of his home. “He always liked the finer things in life.”
Like many people his age, Arevalo said that Romero was “trying to figure out his life.” In one of their last phone conversations, Arevalo said that her brother reported being “close to completing his GED” and that he had applied for a job with the Cheesecake Factory.
Arevalo said she relocated to Florida with her husband, and often pleaded with her brother to follow. She had returned to the Mission to be with her family after her brother’s death.
“I was worried about him, the environment we grew up in was rough,” said Arevalo. Romero was “back and forth” about moving, but at one point told his sister that he “wanted to see more than this,” referring to his life in the Mission District.
“Something kept pulling him back,” said Arevalo. “I believe it was the thought of leaving our mother behind.”
Romero’s mother, Elisa, said her son would regularly take her out to “nice restaurants” downtown – the two shared an exceptionally close bond, according to friends.
“Nine out of ten times you’d see Rigo out here, he was by his mother’s side,” said Lucero, the childhood friend.
Arevalo said that her brother would wake up in the middle of the night to massage his mother’s arthritic legs.
“He was a better son than I was a daughter,” she said.