SSU student killed in head-on crash planned to be first in family to graduate from college
Brayan Alain Peña Rodriguez would have become the first person in his family to graduate from college on Sunday.
A passionate advocate for the local Latino and LGBTQ communities, the 23-year-old Sonoma State University student had tirelessly pursued the goal during the past four years at the school, where he was majoring in sociology and women and gender studies, his family said. Earning a degree was a way to thank his parents, who uprooted the family from their Mexican home state of Michoacán about 17 years ago and moved to California in search of a better life for their kids, said Irma Peña Rodriguez, one of his sisters.
“My parents, they didn’t finish any schooling,” she said. “And with my brothers, none of them had a diploma. He would have been the first one out of all of us.”
However, Brayan Alain Peña Rodriguez, the youngest of five, died in a crash a week before his graduation.
His 1994 Honda Civic crossed into oncoming traffic and collided with a garbage truck as he traveled east on River Road in the early hours of May 10, authorities said.
Peña Rodriguez tried to swerve before crashing into the westbound Recology truck, but neither he nor the truck driver was able to avoid the collision. An initial review of the crash found the truck driver, who escaped injuries, had done nothing wrong, though an investigation into the collision was still ongoing as of Thursday afternoon, the CHP said.
His family didn’t know where Peña Rodriguez had come from or where he was headed at the time of the crash, they said. He told them he was attending a dinner with friends the night before but never returned home, said his oldest sister, Maria Peña, who lived with him.
“He was always there for us, and he listened to all our problems without judging,” she said.“That’s what I’m going to miss.”
When Peña Rodriguez wasn’t in classes, he dedicated his time to community work, advocating for the betterment of others and celebrating his Mexican culture, his family said.
He was an active member of Sonoma State’s Ballet Folklórico de Sonoma, a Mexican dance ensemble, as well as the Mexican-American student group MEChA de Sonoma and the Queer Student Alliance. He enjoyed mariachi music and learned to play the violin through a mariachi program at his high school in Oxnard, Irma Peña Rodriguez said.
“He saw that in the Latino community, there is sometimes injustices,” Maria Peña said. “He always wanted to help and wanted (Latinos) to be heard in this country. That was his ideology.”
He also volunteered with the North Bay Organizing Project’s Rapid Response Network. He handled calls to the group’s 24-hour emergency hotline, which sends legal observers to help undocumented immigrants while they’re being stopped by U.S. immigration enforcement officials, said Omar Medina, a member of the response group.
Peña Rodriguez also worked as a youth organizing intern for the Latinx Student Congress of Sonoma County, also run through the North Bay Organizing Project, said Tré Vasquez, a lead organizer with the nonprofit. In that role, Peña Rodriguez visited local high schools to register students to vote.
“Everything he did in his life and did for his community is an inspiration for us to keep helping young people,” Vasquez said. “We’re heartbroken by his loss.”
The youth group has launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to help offset costs for Peña Rodriguez’s funeral services. He is survived by his parents, four older siblings and several nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held from 2-6 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Rosa Mortuary & Eggen & Lance Chapel. A church service will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Windsor, followed by a burial at noon at Santa Rosa’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery.
You can reach Staff Writers Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203.