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On a normal Sunday, Mario Gonzalez would have gotten up early and helped his 23-year-old younger brother Efrain, who has autism, take a shower and get ready for the day. Then Mario would have made omelets with cheese for Efrain and his mother Edith Arenales, and a smoothie for his son Mario Jr., whose fifth birthday the family will celebrate next month.
Instead, on a recent Sunday, Arenales is trying to get everything done by herself. She’s attending to Efrain’s needs while Mario Jr. rides a scooter in the front yard of the family’s home on 100th Avenue in East Oakland. Her eldest son’s absence is painfully palpable.
On April 19, several city of Alameda police officers wrestled 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez to the ground and pinned him until he fell unconscious and stopped breathing. The police had been called by a neighbor who was uncomfortable with Mario’s presence in Scout Park, a small strip of land in an affluent part of the city near South Shore Shopping Center. His killing sparked outrage at the police and some Alameda residents who have tended to call the police on people of color. Mario’s killing was only the most recent incident in which Alameda police were called against a person of color when there wasn’t a clear need for law enforcement.
But while many people have seen the reports of his death—covered in the New York Times, NPR, and other national news outlets—and the video of his final moments in life, few know much about who Mario was.
The Oaklandside visited Mario’s home and spoke with his mother, and also spoke with a close mentor, friends, and other members of his community. They described a sensitive and protective young man who was dedicated to his mother and three younger brothers, Victor, Efrain, Jerry, and to his son.
After his parents separated when Mario was 12, he took on extra responsibilities including helping his mother and caring for his brothers. The last few years were especially difficult for him. The pandemic, job losses, inability to attend school, the death of his father, and the tragic death of his younger brother Victor in 2017 took a toll on his mental health.
Those who knew him well said Mario had dreams of going back to school and earning enough to move with his family away from the dangerous areas he had grown up in. His mother said he had his hopes set on moving the family to Alameda. It was a place he thought would provide safety.
Tragically, and ironically, it was Alameda residents who called the police on him, and it was in the small, affluent island city where he died at the hands of law enforcement.
A happy childhood in East Oakland
Mario was only three months old when he and his mother immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to California in 1994.
“I suffered great pain with Mario when we crossed the border,” Arenales said in Spanish. They came without documentation, as millions of immigrants have done to pursue a better future.
Arenales reunited with her husband, Victor Mario Gonzalez, who had immigrated to the United States before the rest of the family and worked as a truck driver. They lived in Santa Cruz, San Jose, and Fremont, before finally moving to Oakland where they leased an apartment on 27th Avenue. In 1998, they bought a house on 105th Avenue.
“Our financial situation was improving,” Arenales said. “At the time, I was pregnant with Jerry [Gerardo]. My husband loved us.”
Arenales felt hopeful for the future. “My kids were little, and Mario, who was a bit older, always had the best grades. He was the best student, the best at math. He was always winning awards. His teachers loved him,” she said.
Mario was good at memorizing phone numbers and doing complicated math problems in his head. He graduated elementary school from Aspire Monarch Academy. Arenales said her other children were doing well in school too, but it was around this time that 2-year-old Efrain was diagnosed with autism. “It was a painful moment for our family. My husband never accepted his diagnosis,” she said.
When Mario graduated from elementary school in 2005, the family moved to Modesto briefly until Arenales and her husband separated. Arenales moved back to Oakland with her children in 2006 into an apartment on Catron Drive in Sobrante Park.
“While we had financial difficulties, my kids were really happy,” Arenales said. “There were lots of kids in the apartment complex. I used to bake their birthday cakes and the kids from the neighborhood would always come by.” The family lived there for six years until an incident at the park nearby their home prompted them to move to their current home on 100th Avenue.
Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood, Mario cared for and protected his siblings
In 2006, when Mario was 12-years-old, his father moved back to Mexico. The two never had a close relationship after that, and in 2016 his father died. Arenales took a job as an attendant at a gas station from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. and Mario stepped up to also look after his younger brothers.
“My neighbor next door helped me watch after [my children], but Mario was my right-hand man,” she said of her eldest. “He was always caring and took on that huge responsibility.”
“This was a young person who was responsible for a lot of adult things even as a child,” said Art Mola, one of Mario’s high school teachers who became a close family friend. “Some folks think young men of color become the man of the house as some badge of honor, but sometimes it’s because there is no other man in the house. Mario took very good care of his brothers.”
Sometimes Mario’s caretaking involved making sure his brothers were safe. He and Victor, who was about a year and a half younger, would often walk or take a city bus home together from school. Arenales bought Mario a cell phone so he could call to let her know that they were home safe, or in case of an emergency. Their neighborhood was dangerous and walking anywhere exposed them to potential threats.
On one occasion, Arenales received a call from an unknown number. It was Mario, calling from a stranger’s phone. The pair had been waiting for the bus and, since it was taking too long, they decided to walk. On the way, a group of older men that Arenales suspects were gang members robbed them and assaulted Victor. Mario was apologetic when he told his mom that his cell phone was stolen. He knew she had worked hard to pay for it.
“My children went through a lot,” she said.
When Mario was 15, Arenales came home one day to find Mario gone. Victor was reluctant to tell her what transpired. Finally, he explained that the same group robbed them and assaulted Victor again while they were walking home from their after-school program.
“Victor told me how upset Mario was that the men had taken $80 and his cell phone, again,” Arenales said. “Someone gave Mario a gun, and he went to confront the group to get his money back.”
The family did not file a police report for either of the robberies. Arenales was afraid of possible retaliation from the group. She did not want to put her sons in any further harm.
The Oaklandside heard several versions of this story. Mario allegedly fired the gun, but didn’t hit anyone. He was arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated in juvenile hall. We were unable to access records and confirm details because it was a youth conviction.
Mola, who also grew up in a dangerous area, was sympathetic to Mario’s choice.
“The code of the streets is you have to defend yourself,” said Mola. “I know this because that’s how I grew up. I know Mario had to play by the rules of the street because the consequences would have been far worse if he did anything like run to the authorities, or tell the school they were being followed and picked on.”
Repeating an often-heard rule of the street, “snitches get stitches,” Mola speculated that if Mario had reported the assaults, the men would have attacked him and his family again. If he had just let the incident go and not responded, he and Victor likely would have appeared as an easy target, and been attacked repeatedly.
Arenales said she was unable to visit her son in juvenile hall because she did not have a valid California ID and because of her immigration status at the time. (She has since adjusted her legal status and is no longer an undocumented American.) When Mario’s teachers, family friends, and school officials found out that he had been detained and that Arenales was having a difficult time advocating for him, they rallied behind the family by writing letters of support and showing up to his court hearing.
“There was never any hesitation,” said Mola. “It was like, ‘Oh my god. Let’s do something. We’ve gotta help him. He does not deserve this.’”
The support helped. Mola remembers the judge taking note during the hearing of the way people vouched for Mario’s character. Mario was released with an ankle monitor and completed community service.
Mario excelled at a social justice-based mentorship program in high school
When Mario attended Coliseum College Prep Academy, he participated in Elev8, a national education initiative that sought to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in at-risk communities. Through social justice classes, activities, and field trips, Elev8 students honed their leadership skills and learned about the criminal justice system, poverty, government disinvestment in their communities, and the root causes of the gang violence they regularly saw and experienced.
In addition to being Mario’s teacher, Mola ran the Elev8 program at CCPA, where he taught students about the history of street gangs. They learned that gangs were largely started in prisons, were a symptom of economic and racial oppression, and that real change can only come about through community transformation and organizing. Through field trips, Elev8 students learned from men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison about how youth of color are criminalized, and how they could organize to strengthen their communities.
“You were making a pledge to improve your own situation,” said Mola. “In doing so, you were also making a commitment to improving your community.”
Mola created a program during Mario’s sophomore year in which high schoolers were paid a small stipend to mentor middle schoolers. Mario was involved in that program from its inception and mentored three middle school students each year until he graduated.
Pamela Fong, Elev8’s Oakland director, remembers how Mario excelled in the program.
“In the context Mario grew up in, macho is so important, but he was so gentle and patient, especially with the younger kids,” she said. “He was really great. He knew how to connect and be real with them.”
Fong said that students she worked with whose fathers were not present in their lives were often made to feel ashamed, but Mario came to understand that being a leader and caretaker without a dad was a skillset, not a deficit. He wanted to share his experience with other kids in similar positions.
“Every time I would go to his house, Mario was the one cooking and helping his mom,” said Luis Reyes, a fellow Elev8 student and friend of Mario and Victor. “There was an after-school program that would send us to take classes at College of Alameda and Merritt College as well. Mario always made sure that we stayed on top of our classes.”
When Elev8’s popularity grew and class attendance reached about 50 students, sometimes Fong and Mola would pull aside smaller groups of students to do more focused work and leave other students to do independent work. Fong recalls Mario and Reyes taking on leadership roles during this time, firmly but calmly redirecting students if their commitment to their tasks began to waver.
“They could totally command the class,” she said. “They never yelled. They stood up and everyone was good. They just had it. It was a trip to see.”
But for all its benefits, the program wasn’t a sanctuary. The disrespect and danger of the world Mario inhabited was never far away. Mola recalls a school field trip with approximately 50 Latinx students who were walking through a neighborhood near CCPA to interview leaders who ran local social service programs. As Mario and the other students went from site to site, a police helicopter followed them.
When Mola accompanied Mario and other students to attend a college prep class at Merritt College that the Elev8 program had helped to arrange, gang members threatened to attack them as they switched busses. Mola managed to deescalate the situation and no one was physically hurt, but the situation showed how traversing different neighborhoods posed dangers for his students.
During his high school years, Mario also studied bicycle maintenance and repair through an internship program CCPA had arranged with The Bikery, a collectively run bike shop in Fruitvale. Although his internship ended about eight years ago, staff at the shop still remembered him and recently put up an altar with a photo and flowers.
Taking inspiration from his older brother, Victor also participated in Elev8. Mola thinks Mario set a standard for his brothers through his devotion to the program.
“He loved Victor,” said Mola. “And I know this because I saw how Mario always stood near Victor as a way of saying, ‘Hey little bro. I’m not too far. I’m close by.’ Victor walked around with a sense of security that he had a big brother that cared for him a lot.”
When Mola could only choose three of his 65 students to take part in a field trip to a gang symposium in Florida, an event that allowed students to talk with law enforcement officers about their experiences as youth of color living in areas facing gang violence, Mola chose Mario. Fong remembers discussions she had with him about Elev8 that showed he believed in the initiative and what it could do for him and his peers.
“I felt really honored that he would talk with me or be with me for a few minutes,” she said. “He was someone who, when you were in the room with him or next to him, there was something emotional where there was a true connection.”
After Mario graduated, he would text or call Fong occasionally in a manner she recalls as playful and sweet. The last time he texted her, he sent her a picture of himself with Mario Jr. in his arms. Fong said it meant a lot that he remembered her and showed her that he continued to care for her and respected the work she did with him through Elev8.
His connection with Mola was even deeper. About five years after he graduated, Mario reached out to him after the most heart wrenching event of his life occurred.
Suffering from trauma, Mario dreamed of a better future
On a Saturday in January 2017, Mario’s brother, 20-year-old, Victor took off early in the morning to go to San Francisco with some friends. It was supposed to be a fun trip, but he never came home that night. Arenales and Mario’s calls to his cell phone went straight to voicemail. They frantically searched for him in hospitals, jail, and asked around with other friends. Worried, they reported him missing three days after his disappearance.
Two weeks later, on January 29, San Francisco sheriff’s deputies came to their home and told them Victor’s body had been found.
“I never knew what really happened to him,” Arenales said. “When Mario heard, he began breaking stuff. His hands were bleeding as he cried out for his brother. Mario never recovered from losing his brother. He was always sad but never acted out violently. He stood by my side.”
Arenales said that her family never got closure after Victor’s death. It was ruled as a drowning. To this day, his vehicle has not been found.
Mario called Mola not long after Victor’s death. He knew that Mola’s brother had died tragically as well and he wanted to talk.
“We grieved over the loss of Victor’s life and we did it in a very reserved manner,” said Mola. “Neither of us were very outwardly expressive, emotional individuals. But we know what pain feels like.”
Mola helped Mario spread the word about a fundraiser Jerry had started to provide Victor with a dignified burial. Mario texted Mola pictures of Victor. The first one he sent was a family photo of Victor right after his graduation.
“Victor was kind of like Mario’s understudy,” said Mola. “He was very quiet and observant.”
According to Mola, who taught both brothers, by the time they were in high school, Victor’s grades began to exceed Mario’s. But the brothers weren’t competitive.
“It was almost a point of pride for Mario that Victor was better academically,” said Mola. “When he died right after he graduated, it was devastating.”
Arenales believes that Mario never took the time he needed to grieve. “He wanted to be strong for his brothers and for me,” Arenales recalls. “I know that Mario was depressed. He would cry, but he stood by his family through it all.”
Mario’s friend Reyes said that something happened after Victor died. “He was a different person,” Reyes said. “He wouldn’t talk as much or mention anything about Victor. He was probably going through depression but would always say that he was hanging in there.”
Although their friendship drifted apart after they graduated high school, Reyes kept in touch with Mario via social media. The last time Reyes saw Mario was this January at Southshore Shopping Center in Alameda.
“I saw him sitting on a bench. He told me that he was looking for a job, that he was doing fine and staying out of trouble,” Reyes said.
Before the pandemic, Mario worked at a pizzeria in Alameda, a job he lost when the shelter in place went into effect in March of 2020. After being laid off, he took on the role of full-time caregiver for Efrain.
His family and friends believe that the effects of the pandemic, financial uncertainty, and wanting to keep his family safe, were weighing on him. During this time his depression may have been worsening. He was taking antidepressants. “Mario was worried about how he was going to provide for my grandson,” Arenales said.
Mario and the mother of his son, Andrea, had broken up after Mario Jr.’s birth and they shared custody of the child. Arenales said they got along amicably. Andrea chose not to be interviewed for this article but spoke out to support Mario at a press conference on April 27.
“[The officers] left a four-year-old without a father,” she said. “He loves his Dad. He keeps asking to video-call him. I told him [his dad] was dead and he’s in the sky. Now he thinks he’s an astronaut in a spaceship. How do I explain he’s not coming back?”
The week before he was killed, Mario was making plans to get vaccinated along with his mom and Efrain. Mario wanted to go back to school. His plan was to become financially stable enough to move his family out of deep East Oakland to the city of Alameda.
The last day that Arenales saw Mario was on Friday, April 16. Mario helped Efrain take a shower before Arenales came home from work. He told her that he was going to spend the weekend in Alameda with his friends, and would come back to celebrate her birthday the following Tuesday. His brother Jerry would join the family as well.
“Tell Jerry that I love him, and I’ll see you all soon,” Arenales remembers Mario saying before he left.
“Mario would always talk about how much safer Alameda would be for us,” said Arenales, “how he wanted to take Efrain on walks along the shore.”
The police officer who arrived first at Scout Park on April 19 asked Mario, who seemed disoriented, a series of questions. Although he wasn’t threatening anyone or trespassing when other officers arrived, the police attempted to restrain him. They wrestled Mario to the ground and kneeled and pressed on his back with their hands and arms for about five minutes as he struggled. After Mario fell unconscious, the officers attempted CPR. He never woke up.
Recently, Arenales had a dream about Mario. In it, he’s on the couch, half-asleep. “He turned and said: ‘What’s up, mom? You really think those cops killed me? Nah, I’m just pretending to be asleep. Tell everyone that I’m asleep.’”
Arenales set up an altar to Mario and Victor in her living room, placing their photos between vases filled with roses and carnations. Picture albums stacked on her kitchen table remind her of birthday parties, graduations, and other happy moments with her children.
“If only [the cops] would’ve asked him for his mom’s number. He knew my number by heart,” Arenales said. “I would’ve gone to pick him up. He didn’t have to die.”
Editor’s note: After publication of this story, we added a correction to note that Jerry Gonzalez was not enrolled in the Elev8 program. We added a clarification to make it clear that Ms. Arenales adjusted her immigration status over the years and is no longer an undocumented American. We also removed some information that raised safety concerns.