Cover Stories

Why Nerdville, Watsonville’s First Comic-Con Event, Matters

Debut of mini-comic-con on Sept. 26 comes amid wave of violence in South County

Watsonville City Council member, Francisco "Paco" Estrada, is shown with his action figure collection at his Watsonville home. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula

There has never been a better time to be a nerd. 

Watsonville City Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada can say that with confidence. The former mayor isn’t one of those people that claimed their nerdom after Captain America, Iron Man and Batman started bumping shoulders with LeBron James, Justin Bieber and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in popular culture. No, Estrada has been carrying his nerd card since he was a kid scrounging through the second-hand comics at Country Cousin Liquors in Watsonville with his older brother.

“Now, it feels like everyone loves this,” he says. “I have arguments with my nieces who are 6 and 7 about this stuff, and that’s great.”

Estrada’s love for all things superhero has never wavered, and he hopes to share that passion at the inaugural Nerdville, Watsonville’s first-ever comic-con-style event. Friends of Watsonville Parks and Community Services (Friends), a small nonprofit that supports the City’s recreation programs, is organizing the event, with help from the city, Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) and the Community Health Trust of Pajaro Valley. Nerdville is set for Sept. 26 at the Gene Hoularis and Waldo Rodriguez Youth Center in downtown Watsonville.

Bringing an event centered around comics, art, fantasy and the collectibles that those realms inspire was something Estrada pitched to Friends shortly after he was elected in 2018. His goal, he says, was to give kids—and adults—a safe space to “nerd out,” connect with like-minded people and create communities of collectors, something that he says he wishes he had as a child growing up in Watsonville.

“When I was young, I would’ve loved to have someone tell me, ‘Hey, you’re not weird. That’s cool.’ Sometimes you need that. That feeling like you’re not alone,” he says.

Francisco “Paco” Estrada. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

There Was An Idea

As a kid, collecting was a way for Estrada to spend time with his older brother, who, unlike his dad, an immigrant from Mexico, understood why a pricey Spider-Man comic book or action figure wasn’t “garbage.” Eventually, his passion for comic books and action figures blossomed into lifelong friendships at school, and an obsession with collecting them. The last time he took inventory of his action figures and memorabilia a few years ago, Estrada counted more than 1,100 items. That includes replicas of Captain America’s shield and mint-condition action figures still enclosed in their packaging.

His collection has undoubtedly grown since then, Estrada says, as he’s nabbed other items off the web and at comic-cons over the years. Attending those events and others, he says, inspired him to bring something similar to Watsonville’s kids who may have always wanted to go, but never had the opportunity.

“I think of it as the Disneyland experience. I didn’t go as a kid, but I wish I did. Same thing here,” he says. “I don’t want kids to feel like they can’t have things like this in their town. They can. It just felt like somebody had to take up that crusade.”

Enter Friends and the city of Watsonville, which is waiving several fees and helping the nonprofit hold the event at the community center. Friends founding board member Maria Orozco says that although she is not clued into comic books, Pokemon or other hallmarks of nerdom, she sees a strong need to support this slice of Watsonville’s young people, the majority of whom are of Latinx descent.

Although blockbuster comic book movies have largely become part of the vernacular, other groups that might be interested in anime, for instance, still face some ridicule at school, says Orozco, who is also a PVUSD Trustee. It’s important, she says, to not only show those kids that they have a place where they belong but to also give them an opportunity to share their passion with their parents—or whoever they choose to bring with them to the event.

“I look at this as a family event,” she says. “It’s a chance for young people to connect with the rest of their community, yes, but also with their family.”

A big challenge that some of Watsonville’s young people face, Orozco says, is getting their parents to understand that there are career paths in comics, action figures and other similar fields. Many times parents, Orozco says, discourage their kids from studying art in college because there is no money in it. But that’s a misconception, she says.

“There is [money in the field] because art isn’t just sitting down and painting,” she says. “It’s graphic design. It’s website design. It’s that whole communication realm. I think exposing those types of career tracks to kids in the community is important.”

To do this, Friends is bringing in local artists who will have sketch workshops throughout the day and will speak to attendees about the opportunities in the field. The hope is, Orozco says, that young people will be inspired to pursue their passion.

“We need some positivity in the community right now, and I think that this is an opportunity to provide something like that,” Orozco says. “I think we’re all in agreement that we need more youth-centered activities, family-centered activities.”

PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Healing Factor

After taking the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic in Santa Cruz County, Community Action Board (CAB) Executive Director Maria Elena De La Garza says Watsonville and the greater South County community are now dealing with the residual impacts of the last 18 months: violence that first started with a handful of deadly shootings some 10 months ago, and sent further shockwaves in an unprecedented fatal stabbing at Aptos High School last month.

De La Garza was one of a dozen people who spoke at a vigil for the slain 17-year-old Aptos senior in downtown Watsonville on Sept. 5, where more than 200 people showed up to pay their respects and call for the violence to halt. Many questions still remain unanswered about the attack, but Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart has said that the two suspects—aged 14 and 17—are “gang-involved.”

The death, De La Garza points out, came in the same month that a 15-year-old boy was fatally stabbed in Watsonville. There have also been several recent drug and gun arrests involving teens in Watsonville, including an incident the day after the Aptos stabbing in which a 13-year-old girl at a middle school pulled out a knife on a classmate.

De La Garza says that the recent violence has come at a time in which many families are still struggling to find jobs after being laid off or having their hours slashed during the pandemic-related shutdowns. For many families that were already struggling to make ends meet living on the pricey Central Coast, De La Garza says, their circumstances have only progressively worsened since Covid-19 arrived.

“People are dealing with poverty. People are dealing with being hungry. People are dealing with housing insecurity. And violence is a symptom of those root causes,” she says. “If you ask me how do we move forward, we have to come together … we need to embrace, acknowledge and support our young people in ways we’ve never done before to respond to their needs and to understand that it’s not just the young person, it’s the family.”

CAB, for its part, has multiple programs that support both young people and their families. That includes ALCANCE—an initiative that, among other things, provides a youth leadership development program called El Joven Noble taught by the National Compadres Network. That program guides kids through “rites of passage” while focusing on the prevention of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, relationship violence, gang violence and school failure.

Jaime Molina, a regional coordinator with the Compadres Network and a longtime counselor with the County of Santa Cruz, says El Joven Noble “plants the seed of consciousness” in young people by teaching them an awareness of their actions and the lifelong repercussions that they might face because of them. It also teaches them the concept of the “true self,” or an acceptance of who they are and the life they have ahead of them.

“So many of our youth think that ‘I got to be this,’ or ‘I got to be that,’ and, really, they don’t even know who they are,” Molina says. 

Parent participation, Molina adds, is an important aspect of these teachings. Through his work, he talks to families that have been impacted by gang violence and other traumatic events. Many parents he works with, he says, have a lack of awareness of what their child is doing—and if they’re doing something wrong—because they do not make the effort to spend time with them. Even a few minutes a day, he says, can change a child’s outcome.

“And we’re not really teaching [the parents],” he says. “They already know how to do this. All we’re doing is we’re helping them remember how powerful spending time with your kids is—for the entire family.”

The Right Path

Watsonville Police Department has made 68 arrests involving a minor this year, according to spokeswoman Michelle Pulido. In 2020, the department made 137 arrests of people 17 and younger, a decrease from the previous year when it saw 190 similar arrests. The drop over the past two years, says WPD Capt. David Rodriguez, could be because people were forced to stay home during the pandemic.

“It could be that there was more of that direct supervision throughout the day, as opposed to parents having to go to work and sometimes not be able to supervise their kids throughout the day,” he says. “Mistakes could be happening in that time period.”

Rodriguez was once a gang detective with WPD, and during that time he interacted with hundreds of gang members. Many, he says, joined gangs because their parents had to work long hours and they were left to spend much of their youth unsupervised while growing up in neighborhoods that have strong gang ties.

“They see that on a daily basis, they interact with some of those people that are already in that life and sometimes they’re just drawn to it because that’s where they’re getting their attention from and they see it as a familial scenario,” he says. “That happens quite a bit.”

For Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Watsonville, it was sports and his parents’ interest and involvement in his childhood that helped him stay on the right track. “It was the rule of the house: you’re going to go to school and you’re either going to work, or you’re going to do some kind of extracurricular activities,” Rodriguez says. “You’re not going to just come home, and watch TV or run around. You’re going to have something to do.”

But he says that others close to him did choose to get involved in gangs, and says that he knows firsthand how it impacts a family. 

“Like we say, it takes a village to raise a kid. And for us, especially in my family, the family beyond my immediate unit were huge influences for us … when siblings or cousins go down the wrong path it really has a great impact on the family at large—the aunts, grandparents, uncles, everyone,” Rodriguez says.

WPD has had success with its youth diversion initiatives, particularly with its Caminos Hacia el Exito program, which gives first-time youth offenders a chance to stay out of the system if they agree to undergo, among other things, counseling, participate in pro-social activities and perform community service. Roughly 91% of the 428 kids that have completed the program since its inception in 2012 have not gone on to re-offend.

But Rodriguez says that there is no better time to steer kids away from gangs than before they are ever approached to join one.

“That’s why we value programs like [the Police Activities League] where we can interact with our kids in the community on a daily basis and not through police enforcement actions, but more like relationship building, trust-building and pro-social activities and events,” he says.

Closing The Gap

Estrada says Nerdville is the start of a greater effort from the city to meet the demand of residents who have long asked the municipality to help organize more weekend events for—and bring more resources to—young people. That push from city leadership also includes a roughly $22 million investment in a complete renovation of Watsonville’s largest park and the use of American Rescue Plan Act funding in youth-serving programs like a youth job training and mentoring initiative.

“At least we can say that we tried to address the issue, and do something positive for the youth,” Estrada says. “It’s incumbent on us to do something because if we don’t do something nobody is going to do it.”

It’s not lost on Trustee Orozco that, as CAB’s De La Garza says, the underlying issue of the recent violence is poverty—the median household income in Watsonville is nearly $30,000 below the countywide median of $82,234. With that in mind, Friends is trying to make Nerdville as affordable as possible. It will be $7 to get in the door, but that fee will be waived for those that show up in cosplay, or if they are a member of local nerd-related groups. They will also waive the entrance fee for PVUSD students with proof of ID.

In addition, Estrada says, they’re encouraging their vendors to have items at all price ranges. He wants everyone who attends to have the chance of feeling what it’s like to collect. They will also have various raffle prizes.

“Maybe I only have $5, and I can only buy one thing,” Estrada says. “But we want to make sure that everyone that goes can leave with at least one thing. We want to make sure that everyone can get the special feeling of going home with something.”

The event will also feature panelists that have a strong connection to Watsonville. After all, Estrada says, although the event is indeed inspired by comic-cons, Nerdville hopes to be unique in the way that it meshes collecting and the Watsonville community. Yes, the collectibles will be Nerdville’s main attraction, but the connections and acceptance created from the gathering, Estrada hopes, will be the event’s true superpowers.

“I don’t want ours to copy the mold. I want ours to be about community. The community should be the theme … I want to hear stories from somebody like me, or somebody that loves collecting as much as I do,” he says. “To me, it’s come as you are. You’re accepted here. You’re not weird. Your love for this is awesome and we’re going to celebrate it—together.”

The first Nerdville mini-comic-con will take place on Sunday, Sept. 26, from 10am-5pm at the Gene Hoularis and Waldo Rodriguez Youth Center, 30 Maple Ave, Watsonville. Tickets are available on Eventbrite or at the door. Event-goers can also cash in their ticket for a $5 pizza and soda deal at nearby Slice Project. For information about the event, visit friendsofwatsonvillepcs.org. For information about ALCANCE, visit cabinc.org.

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