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Young Men of Color Matter Before They’re Victims

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

My cousin Stephen Guillermo graduated from San Francisco State University last year. But his diploma had to be awarded posthumously.

He was shot in killed a month before the ceremony.

When I wrote about it here, I was grateful to the university for honoring what became my cousin’s greatest achievement in his young life. But I also hoped it wouldn’t be the only sense of justice our family would have as a result of my cousin’s death.

A year later, another graduation season is upon us, and justice is more elusive than ever.

The medical examiner’s findings are still not complete.

The family hasn’t even seen the police report.

It isn’t the matter of some backlog. It’s more another example of how some lives just don’t matter.

It’s all contrary to the message President Obama gave the nation when he recently spoke in New York about the support program for young boys called “My Brother’s Keeper.”

It was a positive event for the administration to address coincidentally the situation in Baltimore.

But I didn’t hear any specific mention of Asian Americans, young legal immigrants like my cousin Stephen.

The president talked about how words like “equality” and ideas like “liberty and justice for all” had to be made concrete in the lives of all our nation’s children.

“And we won’t get there,” the president said, “as long as kids in Baltimore, or Ferguson, or New York, or Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or the Pine Ridge Reservation believe that somehow their lives are somehow worth less … we won’t get there when there’s communities where a young man is less likely to end up in college than jail … or dead.”

That hit a nerve.

It was the rhetoric of inclusion, sure, and somewhere between the mention of Baltimore and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I know the president probably meant to include the densely mixed commercial and residential places that Asian American immigrants know, such as New York’s Chinatown.

Or San Francisco’s immigrant hot spots beyond Chinatown, the Tenderloin and South of Market districts, where drugs and prostitution are a normal part of the urban landscape.

They are the places where new Asian immigrants live and struggle to get out of, if and when they can.

Stephen lived in San Francisco’s South of Market for almost 20 years since his arrival as a young kid from the Philippines. His parents waited for their visas for 20 years before that. Essentially, Stephen and his siblings were born while “waiting in line.”

In San Francisco, the single room apartment on Mission St. was good enough for the two parents, Stephen, and his two little siblings for a while. But as the kids grew, the parents’ income and opportunities didn’t. And when Stephen’s father died of cancer, Stephen delayed college and worked two jobs to support his family and pay off his father’s debts.

At his father’s deathbed, I talked to Stephen and told him I would be there for him. But he said he had things taken care of. And he did.

Last year, after eight years at San Francisco State, at age 26, Stephen finally had the credits to graduate.

After a night celebrating, he went to his apartment building, but got off on the wrong floor.

It was a fatal mistake.

Stephen was shot and killed by a 67-year-old African immigrant, a retired security guard.

The man was arrested, but then released.

The DA refused to press charges.

And now it’s clear.

We wait not for justice. Just for paperwork.

In the year since Stephen’s death, my ears now prick up over every act of gun violence that hits the news.

We have seen Ferguson, New York, now Baltimore. We have seen numerous examples of gun violence, from Santa Barbara college student Elliot Rodger’s rampage to the Seattle Pacific University shooting.

Every episode brings back a memory of the senseless death of my cousin.

And then there was the president talking about Baltimore on Monday.

He said he saw himself in the young men in the Brother’s Keeper program and said the difference was that he grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving. “At some critical points, I had some people who cared enough about me to give me a second chance or a third chance,” said the president. “Or to give me a little guidance when I needed it. Or to open up a door that might otherwise have been closed. I was lucky.”

I wish Stephen had been that lucky. That the door he faced had remained closed. And that his gunman had waited to give him a second chance.

A year later, Stephen would have been a year out of school and who knows where.

He might have drawn some comfort from hearing the president say, “I want you to know, you matter. You matter to us. You matter to each other. There’s nothing, not a single thing that’s more important to the future of America than whether or not that you and the young people of America can achieve their dreams.”

Stephen Guillermo, legal Filipino immigrant, child of San Francisco’s South of Market, needed to hear that while he still mattered.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Contact him at

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