|Old hotel on San Leandro Blvd in E. Oakland|
Born in Los Angeles but raised in The Deep, Caheri Gutierrez was recognized early as an academically gifted kid. A visionary second grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary took her under his wing. David Silver would bring the smart little girl along to meet with his colleagues in education and take her to college campuses around the Bay Area. His big idea was that very young students, especially in under-siege places like East Oakland, should think about college, should aim for it from the time they enter elementary school. Constant awareness of its necessity and what it takes to get there would help create more driven and better-prepared learners, all the way through school. It would especially aid smart kids like Caheri. Silver had an idea to found a school based on this principle, and so assembled a team of educators and parents to design it. There was one student on the team: 10-year old Caheri Gutierrez. By the time Think College Now, a school for fourth to eighth graders, opened its doors on 27th and East 14th in East Oakland, Gutierrez was too old to attend. She was finishing up at St. Anthony’s, where she was a student leader, a bringer home of academic awards and a burgeoning volleyball star.
Gutierrez’s mother, a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, scraped together the money to send her to a parochial elementary school, then managed to get the girl from East Oakland into a public high school over across the estuary, in suburban Alameda, near the restaurant where she worked. Encinal High School promised a less perilous environment and stronger academics than Skyline High in Oakland. At Encinal, Gutierrez led the volleyball team to the Northern California finals. She was aiming for a full college ride on the strength of her athleticism and good grades.
It’s hard to say what sidetracked her. It’s hard to say what didn’t. For one thing, Gutierrez couldn’t handle the responsibility of off-campus lunch periods.
“I just had too much freedom and I started partying a lot and I started smoking.” She started cutting class, hanging around at home all day while her mother was out working.
Some of what sidetracked her — too much freedom, too much partying — could have happened to a kid in the suburbs, in one of California’s rural counties, in any big or small town. Some of it was strictly Oakland.
“When you’re young and you’re in Oakland, it’s a trend to be bad, it’s a trend to smoke weed, it’s a trend to, you know, just not care,” Gutierrez says. “I don’t know, it’s stupid. You want to be tough; you want to hang out in the streets.”
Her rampant truancy led to poor grades, she started missing volleyball practices, and in her junior year, Gutierrez got kicked out of Encinal. She was sent to Dewey, an Oakland school for students at risk of not graduating on time. She got kicked out of Dewey. Her transformation was almost complete. Then she was recruited by the Vixens.
Suddenly the girl who used to get attention for her good grades and her athleticism was getting it for her looks. It was intoxicating. In Vixen photos, Gutierrez tends to look serious, possibly unapproachable, but she was very popular at their events. She was a party girl. She was also under-age.
“I was getting attention for being pretty and having style. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really fun.’ That was my lifestyle.”
She was drifting ever further away from her family, constantly fighting with her younger sister, becoming alienated from her brother, from her mother, who knew Caheri was missing school, smoking weed, who was threatening to bar her from her prom and who frequently kicked her out of their apartment on 82nd Avenue.
One day, in another vicious fight with her sister, Gutierrez said, “I’m so done with all you guys. Family is just a fucking word. It doesn’t mean anything.”
That fight happened in late summer of 2008. She was 18.
In those days, her mother worked on the cleaning crew of an office building near the Oakland Airport. Sometimes Gutierrez would help out there. One night in the fall she was running late and asked a guy for a ride, a guy she’d known only a short time. She asked her best friend to come along for the ride. They headed out around 9:30. and soon were cruising down 98th Avenue toward the airport. They caught a red light at San Leandro Boulevard. Gutierrez was in the passenger seat, her best friend in the back. They were a little stoned, not talking, listening to music.
“And all of a sudden,” she says, “I feel shocks, just really really intense shocks.” She thought the car had been hit from behind. She could hear her friend in the back seat asking “What is going on?”
Then the driver began to shout, “I’m shot! I got shot!”
Gutierrez could see that he had been hit in the hand and she tried to ask him if he was okay.
“And he looks at me,” she says, and pauses.
We’re sitting across a table, in the dimly lit, slightly dingy conference room of a violence-prevention organization in Oakland. Gutierrez has attentive eyes, pitch dark, but there’s a glint, a pilot light. Her bright smiles tend to breakout in slow motion, her long, straight, dark hair frames a face that is oval except where that small part of her right chin is missing. She tells the story without emotion, but occasionally the telling slows down. Imagine a person feeling through a dark cupboard for the ingredients to a dish she dislikes profoundly. And the cupboard is full of spiders. But she has promised to make the dish for you and so, over and over again, she reaches in.
She remembers the look on the driver’s face as he gazed back at her that night. A strange look, she says, a look of shock at what he was seeing.
“And that’s when I touched my face, and I didn’t feel anything, and I looked toward the dashboard and all of my gums, my teeth, everything was there.”
She was hit in the right jaw.
“It just exploded when it hit me, it exploded everything, and it came out of my mouth and exploded all of my teeth. And all of a sudden I just start feeling sleepy, so sleepy, oh my god I’ve never felt this sleepy before, and I couldn’t even keep my eyes open. I was like, ‘Oh, here it is, I’m leaving, this is it.’ I was really thinking ‘This is it.’”
The driver was not badly wounded. He continued down 98th Avenue. Gutierrez’ body was convulsing, her legs kicking, her mouth was full of blood, she couldn’t talk. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult. Near the airport they spotted two police cars and got the officers’ attention.
Gutierrez could see an entrance to the freeway nearby and began to calculate her chances of survival. Would she make it to the hospital if the ambulance arrived soon? She didn’t think so. She closed her eyes and thought, This is it. She thought about her family. Her mother. She wanted her mother to know that she had not died in pain. Suddenly her mind was saying Don’t give up, just try to hold on. But she was choking, kicking, holding her face together with her hand. The paramedics appeared, asked her her name. She wrote it down for them.
Then she let go of her face and everything fell out, her cheek, her severed tongue, everything.
She could hear the paramedic on her radio, “Level 1, Level 1, Level 1 trauma ...” The adrenaline was keeping her awake. She’d never been in an ambulance, she knew she was on her way to the hospital.
“I might have some hope here.” she thought. So stay up.
She remembers the bright lights of the emergency room, the shocked looks on the faces of the trauma staff, of these ER doctors and nurses who have seen it all.
“The last thing I remember,” she tells me, “was they laid me down on the bed and I just saw bright lights, really white lights, and after that I closed my eyes. I don’t want to see anything more, I don’t want to feel anything. I closed my eyes and that was it."
- from Until You Bleed - on life, violence and healing in Oakland - .99 e-book available at Amazon or as an audiobook at iTunes, Amazon and Audible.