Lemus sisters from Santa Rosa committed to working for community

The roots of the Lemus family run deep in southwest Santa Rosa, where the large clan settled six decades ago and forged their reputation as community builders.

At the forefront of their efforts in recent years are sisters Sylvia and Esther Lemus, who grew up along with their three other sisters on Moorland Avenue - once a rural and quiet street that has struggled in recent years with gang activity and violence. While the Lemus sisters moved out many years ago, they never quite left.

They continue to volunteer and take on roles as community organizers in Sonoma County and the greater Roseland neighborhood, a place their parents still call home. They’ve orchestrated local Cinco de Mayo celebrations, tutored children, participated in street cleanups, pushed for streetlights and sidewalks, and, as government employees, have helped address community problems, including gang activity, gun violence and domestic abuse.

“The neighborhood has changed, but that’s home to me,” said Sylvia, a Cotati resident who oversees employee recognition and civic engagement programs for Sonoma County within the Human Resources Department. In charge of recruiting county volunteers for the Day of Caring and Schools of Hope, she has encouraged more people to clean up streets and read to children in Roseland.

Esther is a deputy district attorney in Sonoma County, where she handles cases in domestic violence, drug treatment and mental health court. She also serves as the designated prosecutor in a joint-program with police focused on preventing and solving community problems. It’s a role that has frequently brought her out to southwest Santa Rosa to work with kids and parents.

“There’s just so much gang activity and related violence,” said Esther, 42, who teaches children about gang and gun violence prevention.

Families no longer feel safe letting their children go out and play, Silvia said in a recent interview. “Kids can’t be kids.”

Sylvia has served on the county-formed Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, charged with looking at policing programs and models for an independent civilian review of law enforcement in the wake of the 2013 fatal shooting of Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy.

The 13-year-old’s death, on a sidewalk not far from the sisters’ childhood home, exposed a deep rift of mistrust of law enforcement, particularly in local Latino and minority communities.

The Lemus sisters, working from within county government, have been key figures in the bid to rebuild trust and repair that relationship. They see their efforts as a way to give back to southwest Santa Rosa, ensuring safety and support for children and families in the most heavily Latino and low-income area of the city.

“We were raised to care about the community,” said Esther, the youngest of the five sisters and a Windsor school board member.

Sylvia, 49, the oldest of the sisters, was 4 years old when the family moved to Santa Rosa from the Central Valley, where their father, Jose - originally from the tiny village of Santiago Conguripo in northern Micahoacan, Mexico - had worked as an auto body painter and came from a family of farmworkers. One of his cousins had started a construction business in Sonoma County and asked their father to help out, she said.

The family lived in a rented home on the west end of Sebastopol Road for about a year before moving into a granny unit behind her grandparents’ home near Goodman Avenue.

Two years later, her parents bought a house on Moorland Avenue, where the couple still lives to this day. The sisters attended Bellevue Elementary and what was then called Cook Junior High.

Their mother, also named Esther, was raised in a churchgoing family of California farmworkers. Her father served as a deacon at a church in Selma, a small city southeast of Fresno, but the family used to move often to follow the harvests around Fresno or near Watsonville in Santa Cruz County.

Unable to attend college, she encouraged her daughters to pursue higher education and careers after they graduated from Montgomery High School.

“She wanted to make sure we were strong and independent,” Sylvia said about their mother, who returned to school to get her GED and early-childhood teaching credentials before going to work at a Head Start program.

She set an example for her daughters, Sylvia said. One sister became a registered nurse, another a school administrator and the third Lemus sister works for the county’s child support services agency.

Esther went to UC Berkeley and studied law at UCLA. She worked in the office of an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Bay Area and Southern California before joining Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Sylvia, who had a radio show on local bilingual broadcaster KBBF while in high school, went to Santa Rosa Junior College. She worked for the nonprofit California Human Development before joining the county 26 years ago. She started in the Human Services Department, helping people in with public assistance, and then moved on to child support services and human resources, where she has remained for the past 15 years.

“She’s really hardworking and very dedicated to whatever she commits to,” said Caroline Bañuelos, co-chairwoman of the city’s Cinco de Mayo committee with Sylvia.

“Esther is the same way,” Bañuelos said. “(They) have a strong work ethic.”

She added, “They’re really a great example of a cohesive family that supports one another ... Many people in the community know them and look to them to move forward in whatever they’re doing out there.”

Bañuelos and Sylvia Lemus worked together for nearly a decade putting on the May 5 festival, which draws thousands of people each year. The festival started in 2006 after years of unsanctioned Cinco de Mayo gatherings that turned rowdy and violent, pitting unruly celebrants, including some armed with rocks, against law enforcement officers in riot gear and wielding pepper spray.

The festival has since gained a reputation as a family-friendly celebration and has become a source of pride for many in the community, said Bañuelos, who also led the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force formed in the wake of the Lopez shooting.

“It’s really brought the community together and changed the whole nature of how people, particularly young people, see Cinco de Mayo,” said Vince Harper, a Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County assistant director who has worked in the Roseland area for two decades.

Esther, who has two children, 9 and 7, recently held a workshop with CAP’s Padres Unidos program, talking to parents of at-risk youth about the legal systems, school truancy and domestic violence.

Monica Hurtado, a parent in the program, said the deputy district attorney was humble and sincere as she spoke to the group, encouraging them to fight back against domestic violence in their homes and neighborhoods and learn about the services available to them. “It encourages you to get involved,” Hurtado said.

Esther has spoken to at least 100 parents involved in Padres Unidos, program manager Carlos del Pozo said. People relate to her and find her approachable, he said, adding that she often shares her story about growing up on Moorland Avenue.

“She knows the community,” said District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who touted Lemus as a valuable liaison to the public, educating residents about the criminal justice system and the role of the District Attorney’s Office.

“She works hard every day to improve our community,” Ravitch said. “I wish we could clone her and her sister (Sylvia). Each of them has incredible energy and initiative.”

Their work in the community hasn’t been without challenge.

Sylvia raised two children on her own while juggling her full-time county job. Still, she found time to volunteer at the food bank and would bring her children to the Cinco de Mayo committee meetings and volunteer at the festival. Her daughter, now 26, still participates in the celebration.

“I’m a piece of the puzzle - one candle in this community,” Sylvia said, who voiced confidence in the power of collective action to improve her hometown.

“We can change things,” she said.

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