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The Oregonian

Axel Josue Miranda: Friends Hardly Knew Him In Life But Forever Remember In Death


June 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Summary: Bonds run deep as Latino youths honor Axel Josue Miranda, killed in a car crash a year ago

Miguel Gonzalez was supposed to be in the car.

But, for reasons he never learned, his 17-year-old buddy, Axel Josue Miranda, didn't pick him up.

"I talked to him several times, and he promised he'd stop by," says Gonzalez, 20, of Hillsboro. "He said, 'Hey, man, I'll never let you down.' "

Now Gonzalez wonders whether those last words meant his friend wanted him to live.

In the early hours of June 23, 2002, Miranda died in a high- speed car crash in downtown Portland. Another friend, Baldemar Lara- Mandujano, 22, also died. Both were from Hillsboro.

The driver, David Vaughters, 21, of Aloha, survived. In January he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree manslaughter and driving under the influence of intoxicants. He's serving 11-1/2 years in prison.

Monday night, on the accident's first anniversary, friends of the three men met at Southwest Fourth Avenue and Market Street, where Vaughters ran a red light and was broadsided by another car. One year later, the accident still resonates deep in their cultural spirits. Meeting at the site reminds them of all that was lost.

The friends don't blame Vaughters, whom they called a "racer," someone who loved driving fast in his tricked-out 1996 Acura Integra. They've spoken with him and know he's devastated.

No, they say, the accident was just something that happened. Some stupid lapse of judgment that stole two friends.

"To tell you the truth, I wanted to die with them that night," says Gonzalez. Ten feet away, skid marks on the sidewalk show where Vaughters' Acura screeched off Market and rammed a utility pole.

"The pain was terrible," he says, watching others light candles, place flowers and read poems. "Axel was like a brother to me. He was family."

Except, really, Gonzalez knew Miranda only a few months. In fact, most of the 10 people who gathered Monday night knew Miranda for less than a year, and they knew Lara-Mandujano and Vaughters even shorter times.

But they are Latino, and all have gang ties in Washington County. Some say they just party with gangs. Others say they fight. Gonzalez says he was shot once, the bullet grazing his ear.

And among them, bonds run deep. So deep that four of those who gathered Monday had tattooed "Axel," Miranda's first name, on their bodies.

"To me, he'll never be gone," says 16-year-old Anjel Ramirez of Aloha, whose tattoo wraps her wrist and includes "1984-2002." She lived near Miranda and dated him.

"He was the love of my life," she says quietly.

Yes, say the young people, they know tattoos last forever. But that's how it is in the Latino community. Friends may pass on, but they're never forgotten.

Susan Cabello, a Spanish professor at Pacific University who researches the local Latino community, says the attitude stems from cultural roots. In Oregon, those attitudes often are influenced by Mexico, where most of the state's Latinos trace their roots. Unlike the United States, where death often is hushed, the Catholic- immersed Mexican culture remembers those who have died, celebrating it with a "Day of the Dead."

Beyond that, she says young Latino men tend to bond in strong ways. They become "brothers" with loyalties to one another.

"They may have been born in Mexico, or their parents may have been born in Mexico, and they've grown up with one set of values and suddenly found themselves immersed in a very different culture," she says. "These young men tend to hang with others like them, who provide them with a sense of home. They want to be with others going through a similar transformation."

What made Miranda special was his ability to dream. He wanted to be a chef, to get away from gangs, to elevate himself. To be someone special.

He inspired others stuck in similar ruts to think the same.

"He was always saying, 'Don't worry, Dog' -- that's what he called me -- 'we're going to change, we're going to get out of here,' " Gonzalez says, shaking his bald head. "Then he died."

And when Miranda died, so did their dreams of change. They still talk about it, Gonzalez says. But change waits.

Everybody remembers a detail about Miranda. He drank Steel Reserve 211 malt liquor. He smoked Newports. He liked to call friends at 4 in the morning just to talk.

He also talked of going to Puerto Rico, his homeland.

"He wanted to show me Puerto Rico," says 24-year-old Andy Melendez of Beaverton, before draping a Puerto Rican flag on the utility pole hit by Vaughters' Acura.

Melendez wears a black T-shirt with the words: "In Memory of Axel J. Miranda, 84-02, RIP."

He named his 1-month-old son Axel.

"You know, I used to get mad when he called me at 4 in the morning," says Melendez, a light blue bandanna -- Miranda's favorite color -- circling his wrist. "But after he died, I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing. I kept thinking it would be him.

"Man, I wish he would call again."

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