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The Colleague Behind the Homicide Statistic

New America Media, Appreciation, Raj Jayadev Posted: Jan 28, 2010

Here is what came out in the paper the day after my colleague, friend, and inspiration Albert Cobarrubias was unexpectedly killed in a random act of gun violence. Word for word it read:

San Jose police are looking for a suspect in the fatal shooting Saturday night of a 30-year-old man, the city's first homicide of the year. At 10:57 p.m., officers responded to a report of shots fired at a home in the 2700 block of Chopin Avenue near Puccini Avenue, in a neighborhood south of Eastridge Mall. Near the garage they found a man with a gunshot wound, San Jose police spokesman Ronnie Lopez said. The man was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Lopez said. Police have not released the victim's name. Police are interviewing people who were gathered at the home and are seeking more witnesses, Lopez said. They have made no arrests.

Albert was playing pool with friends at a family home, when a strange car stopped in front of the house. Someone got out, walked up the driveway and started shooting. The neighborhood has had a history of senseless, unprovoked, violence.

The newspaper story had a note of who to call at the police department if anyone had information, and in the online version, there was a button to click for an interactive map on crimes in San Jose.
It was a total of 155 words.

I dont blame the paper for leaving out the remarkable life of Albert in their report; they just didnt know. What was newsworthy, as indicated by the title, was Alberts numerical value the first homicide of the year in San Jose. It is an annual reporting tradition for city papers, like finding out the name of the first baby of the new year.

After being notified that Albert was a graduate of San Jose State University, headed to law school, a former Marine, and a community leader, the media did start to take more notice of his passing, and have been helpful in letting readers know of the person behind the anonymous statistic. But never has it hit me how much is missed in such a common, even routine, marker as "First Homicide of the Year." All across the country this month there were identical headlines as the one we had in San Jose about Albert. Just Google the phrase, and the morbid pattern pops up, showing an understated fraternity of loss that can only grow consistently, every year.

Invariably, in their follow-up interviews they would ask me, What was lost with Alberts death? I dont know how to answer that. I am used to writing letters of recommendations for Albert for scholarships, grants, college applications. I am used to describing Albert in anticipation of the great man he would become, rather than reflecting on the great man he was. It should never be that the same words from a scholarship application, the hopeful language of what can possibly be, can also be used in an obituary of what could have been.

All I would tell them is that for the people who were not graced to have known him, they were denied the gift of bearing witness to a living embodiment of integrity, compassion and perseverance. And he was 31, not 30.

We met Albert at our community center, Silicon Valley De-Bug, three years ago, where he volunteered to help families navigate through the criminal justice system. I consider him a founding father of our community legal work. He showed up every Sunday afternoon, during our legal clinic, to assist families going through the most difficult moments of their lives - when their child got arrested, or a husband was just handed a life sentence - and needed assistance. Albert was made for the job. There are youngsters walking around San Jose, rather than trapped in the system, because of Albert, and inmates in prison doing life that have rekindled hope of an appeal because of Albert.

Although he had overcome tremendous odds to become the man he was, Albert was always humble, unassuming. At our meetings, after setting up chairs for everyone else, he would take a seat in the back. Thats why he was effective. The people coming into our center for help, low-income people of color, trusted Albert because they knew he lived through the same hardships, and that his efforts were genuine.

He was raising three daughters, worked full-time at a paint store, was studying for the law school exam, all on top of his community work. With a shaved-head, tatted-up, wearing baggy jeans, and from a Latino neighborhood on the Eastside, Albert was as likely to get profiled by the police as the people he was helping. And he did. I bet the cops who stopped him would never guess they were harassing a guy who wrote a paper called "Racial Profiling: the Interconnecting Events of Race, Masculinity and Class" for his Social Inequality and the Law class at San Jose State that is still being used as a model for student research.

His personal experiences of discrimination crafted his ambitions to change the system, and his personal will and natural intellect allowed him to do so. He was the first male in his family to graduate from a four-year college. That was Albert to me, someone who was so certain as to who he was -- where he was from, and where he was destined -- that he didnt need pretenses.

Albert, just being Albert, changed the way people perceived each other. For the lawyers Albert would press on behalf of a family (and he was relentless when in his advocacy mode), Albert changed the way they looked at community members. He could solve legal problems quicker than they could, was more organized than fully staffed law firms, and paid no mind to the hierarchy of the legal system. Without a title, much less a law degree, Albert would contact the District Attorney or Public Defender directly when someone was falsely arrested, would demand responses from appellate lawyers until they folded. He wasnt what they expected.

For the families, he was equally transforming. That such a powerful fighter for justice was the same guy they saw at the family barbeques, or at the Sharks game, made them realize their own power to fight. As extraordinary as he was, he showed them that you dont have to leave your community to become something beyond it.

Below is an excerpt from an essay Albert wrote for his Santa Clara Law School application last year.

I was raised by my grandparents because my mother was only 15 years old when she had me. I soon became the focus of my entire family and everyone from aunts to uncles to cousins wanted to help out with raising me. As I grew up my grandmother became one of my biggest inspirations. She was a nurse for 25 years and taught me a lot about perseverance and commitmentIt meant the world to her when I graduated from San Jose State because I am the only male and only the second person in my whole family to graduate from a 4 year college. At my San Jose State graduation her present to me was a promise that she would still be alive to be at my graduation from law school. She is now 80 years old and is in failing health. In my mind, that promise was the best present ever given to me.

His story is an improbable one, and one that will live on through anyone who has the courage and strength to do what Albert did so naturally believe in yourself and your community. 

Contributions in memory of Albert Cobarrubias can be made to his uncle: Mitch Cobarrubias (Care of Albert) and should be mailed to Silicon Valley De-Bug at:
701 Lenzen Avenue
San Jose, CA 95126
For more information regarding fundraising activities please contact: 408.971.4965 // svdebug@newamericamedia.org

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