Thirty-five years ago, friends and family of Gloria Salas thought she was crazy when she vowed to never allow the McDonald’s on West San Ysidro Boulevard to open again after 21 community members were killed by a gunman there on July 18, 1984.
“Most of the people were fixing the funerals for their families,” Salas said at a memorial ceremony Thursday. “I had to be their voice.”
Salas bought a big sign and carried it to the site of what was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. She remembers the restaurant being surrounded by dozens of police officers. Her legs were shaking as she walked up to the police. When they saw what the sign said—“Memorial Park”—they helped her hang it up on the fence, she said.
“I was so happy because that was the first step,” Salas said. “But there were still a lot of steps to go.”
Salas was among a group of faculty and students from Southwestern College’s Higher Education Center at San Ysidro and the greater community who spoke at a special ceremony commemorating the 35th anniversary of the McDonald’s massacre.
Built on the site of the McDonald’s restaurant, Southwestern College’s San Ysidro campus holds a special place in the heart of many residents. But many of the students currently attending the San Ysidro campus were not even born when the tragedy happened. That’s why it was important for Patie Montoya Bartow, the center’s acting director, to change that.
Working with faculty, staff and community members, Bartow turned the event into a learning experience.
“This is such a special place that we wanted to bring awareness of the significance of this campus to all our students,” Bartow said.
In the Art Therapy class, students created paintings and drawings expressing their feelings about the event. Other students wrote poetry. Their work was on display throughout the center during the ceremony.
Also on display were artifacts and newspaper clippings from the tragedy and the community rallies that followed. As Salas told a standing-room-only crowd Thursday, two weeks after the protests began, McDonald’s owner Joan Kroc visited Salas and promised the property would be given over to the community.
Salas then continued her advocacy, arguing that instead of a city park being built on the spot, do something that would honor those whose lives were taken.
“I wanted something great for our community because we have so many needs,” Salas said. “Southwestern College has been a gift from God.”
Guillermo Flores visits the memorial every year on July 18. His 12-year-old brother, David, was killed at the McDonald’s on that fateful day.
“This was our place,” Flores said of the McDonald’s. “We would ride our bikes, get our free ice cream cone and then go back up the hill.”
Flores, who was 11 at the time, said he would have been there that day, too, but he was in Los Angeles with his father. He remembers watching the television that day and the program being interrupted for breaking news.
“There was a helicopter flying over the McDonald’s and I saw my brother’s bike,” Flores said. He recognized the black bike with gold rims immediately, he said.
He cried uncontrollably that entire day and kept asking if his brother was alive or dead, but nobody would tell him.
It wasn’t until he and his father drove down from Los Angeles to San Ysidro and Flores got out of the car in the driveway when he heard his mother sobbing through the house’s open windows that he knew for sure.
An unexpected meeting in front of the memorial Thursday between Flores and San Diego Battalion Chief Dave Connor helped the ongoing healing process for both men.
Connor had been a first responder at the restaurant July 18, 1984. While he had passed by the education center many times, Thursday was the first day that he stopped in to attend the ceremony.
“This has been a mission,” Connor said. “I am 10 months from retirement, and this was an important part of my life that I have held for the last 35 years. (Coming here today) would help me get through the grief and bring closure.”
He definitely was not prepared to meet a surviving family member, Connor said, adding he has never met anybody connected to the tragedy.
“What a healing moment to connect to the community who we chose to serve,” Connor said. “He and I are forever connected.”
Flores felt the same way.
“I knew he was here for a reason,” Flores said. “I told him that I’m also sorry for his pain that he has carried all these years. We are connected for life.”