The death of Abel Enrique Esquivel, Jr., more than a month ago left the 23-year-old’s mentors reeling from the loss of a young man on a trajectory to become a neighborhood leader.

Freshly graduated from a youth leadership program at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Esquivel was, by all accounts, a generous and humble Mission native with plans to become a counselor to other young people. 

That ended when he was fatally shot at 26th Street and South Van Ness Avenue on Aug. 15 by a gun that had been stolen from a police officer’s car. Three men have been arrested and charged in connection with his murder.

Equivel’s friends and teachers said that in the years before his murder, he had found his calling. Finding his way to that path took a kind of motivation that others noticed in Esquivel years ago.

“He had had some challenges when he was coming up through the grades,” said Nancy Obregon, his fourth and fifth grade teacher. “I believe when he got to me, I was the first Latino teacher that he had, and I think … we connected in that way.”

Already, she said, Esquivel exhibited a thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence.

Photo courtesy of CARECEN.

Just a child then, he presented Obregon with a Christmas gift — a warm jacket that he’d picked out for her because he remembered her saying she was cold during recess one day.

“I’ve gotten a lot of gifts from kids, but that one, that’s a little different for me,” Obregon said. “Not that I didn’t have jackets, he just saw a need for me, and he saw that his teacher was cold during yard duty. … That’s the kind of kid he was.”

Academics, however, continued to be a challenge, even as young Esquivel developed an interest in drawing and his circle of friends grew.

“He was having a horrible time in school,” recalled his seventh-grade teacher, Donna Amador. Esquivel was 14 or so and had been held back a grade. He insisted on trying to catch up to graduate with his peers.

“It took months with him after school. His mom would come in and work on assignments together. [We would] do things that involve drawing, whatever it took to make him be able to feel successful,” Amador said. “By midway through the year, he was put into eighth grade.”

Karen Ferreira, Esquivel’s friend since they attended Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School together, remembered his struggle to rejoin his year-mates.

“He fought to just graduate with our class, and he did, he made it,” she said. “It was shocking, but it was really cool for him to fight his way to be in his class with his friends.”

For Amador, one breakthrough came on a field trip with her class when a park ranger accused Esquivel of having tagged something. She came to his defense.

“He told me no one had ever stood up for him before, … believed in him, and that broke my heart,” she remembered. “He just broke down and so did I. Because how can a child go through life with no official person saying, ‘I believe you, you’re a good person?’”

Back with his peers, Esquivel moved on through high school and pushed himself toward a brighter future he would never get to reach.

Photo courtesy of CARECEN.

“It was heartbreaking, because he didn’t even have his chance to live his full life,” Ferreira said.  

His friends and teachers remember a young man dedicated to fitness, exercising regularly and taking his friends along with him.

“He would actually motivate his friends to go to the gym with him and work out and he would tell them what to do, … giving them advice on what they should eat and shouldn’t eat,” Ferreira said.

He also joined CARECEN’s drumming group and drummed in Carnaval with the acclaimed local samba group Fogo Na Roupa. Among his friends, Esquivel was known for hosting gatherings to watch boxing matches at his home — plans had already been made to watch the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight together when his life was cut short.  

In recent years, Esquivel had become increasingly involved with CARECEN, even taking an eight-day trip to Nicaragua through the organization’s Raíces program to reconnect with his cultural heritage. He had completed a paid internship and was on his way to possibly becoming a youth worker year-round with the organization.

His friend Ferreira said he hoped to help guide other neighborhood youth. While Esquivel was never involved with gangs, the associated violence of such groups had already touched many of his friends’ lives.

“He wanted to be a counselor to help young teens get out of gang life, and really just help them out,” she said. “It didn’t really matter to him, the blue or the red side or whatever side, he just wanted to help people.”

That, it turned out, he was well suited for. Aside from always being well put together, interested and present, he was empathetic and engaged.

“He was a really good listener, very thoughtful in his interventions, really quick learner, he had a lot of empathy for people,” said CARECEN’s Lariza Dugan-Cuadra.

“He was one of those bright, quiet stars.”