December 3, 2012
By Jessica Naudziunas
“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. In front of his body was the apartment building that 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. Now, all that is left is a portion of sidewalk stained white and red from candle wax; what remains 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 spoke while seated 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 sat at her feet. The newness of her son’s death was fresh in her voice. She has a strength born of rearing three children in a big city, a strength 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 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 her. 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 showed a life filled with family togetherness. Each milestone was celebrated with a big party, his family gathered around him.
His 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.
They played and ran around their grandmother, unaware she was talking about their uncle. The timeline in that box of photos ended around the time Cesar recorded the video. 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 the photos from Esperanza’s box for everyone to see.
People wore white 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 que, Cesar, por que?” 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.