It’s a balmy SoCal Friday evening in January, and life goes on at Iglesia Catolica Santa Cecilia (St. Cecilia Church) at South Normandie Avenue and West 42nd Street.
Across the cracked asphalt schoolyard, inside the two-story elementary school, multiple religious education classes are underway for children. Adult apostolic groups plus a confirmation program are also meeting at the urban parish established by Bishop Thomas Conaty in 1910.
At the back and along the far side of the parish hall, the teen group has gathered, 11 girls and six boys tonight, ages 14 to 17. Two of the latter are picking at acoustical guitars, while the rest devour seven boxes of pizza and gallons of soda set out on a table.
It was this nondescript room and teenage group that Nathaniel Mota walked out of Friday, Sept. 13. A few minutes later at about 8:30 p.m., he was struck in a yellow marked crosswalk on busy Normandie by a speeding white Nissan Maxima in front of the rectory and Romanesque church.
The driver hardly slowed down before taking off. The 16-year-old’s body was thrown four car lengths. Paramedics declared him dead at the scene.
“We were jamming for a bit after, and all of a sudden we hear all of this commotion, people yelling in the street,” Ricky Santuario, 16, one of the guitar players, recalls of that fall evening. “We got really worried, so we went to go check. But we tried to keep the little kids behind, so they wouldn’t have to see anything that was bad.
“And that’s when we got the news that somebody had been hit. A few minutes later, they identified Nathan by his clothes. Like, it just happened so quick. And it just affected us so much.”
Another friend, Valeria Olmeco, laments, “I actually didn’t even say ‘goodbye’ to him.” She recalls how, during the group meeting, the normally ahead-of-the curve Nathan remarked how he hadn’t made his college plans yet and had to get on it. And then after, he was talking to the group’s adult coordinator and she didn’t want to interrupt. So she waved a generic farewell to everybody and left.
“On the playground we saw an ambulance go rushing by and stop right in front of the church,” Valeria, a ninth-grader, reports. “Then I got a text message out of the blue: ‘Nathan’s dead.’ At first I thought it was a joke.”
Nathan, a senior at all-boys’ Verbum Dei High School, taught Priscilla Deigadillo, 14, how to be an altar server at St. Cecilia’s. Together they often did the Sunday 9 a.m. Mass.
“He wasn’t much of a talker,” she says with a melancholy grin. “So when he spoke, he would say really big things. Like, he meant what he said. And he told us the song that he related most to was ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ by the Swedish House Mafia. We didn’t think about it much, and then he died. And it was kind of like his song: ‘Don’t you worry, don’t you worry, child. See heaven’s got a plan for you.’”
After a moment, she explains, “But now I feel like there’s a reason why he died, and maybe that’s for our safety to get a stoplight there. Basically, he gave himself up, and God must have had a plan for him. So we had the strength at the protest vigil to shout, ‘We want our stoplight! And we want it now!’”
At the emotional evening vigil on Sept. 18, the youths, Nathan’s family and others in the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” on what would have been the day he turned 17. LAPD officers helped people holding lit candles cross four-lane Normandie during the peaceful protest.
Still, with placards and their voices, the people demanded that Los Angeles install a traffic light at the intersection of the hit-and-run accident. And his mother, Lissette Mota, told CBS news, “There are people crossing the street, not animals.”
More teens have joined the post-confirmation group since Nathan’s tragic death, according to its adult coordinator Rocio Guerrero. Also, the bond among members is even stronger.
“But it was very hard for them,” she reports. “’Cause here we talk about God, and how can God help us with our issues. And then this happens and they ask themselves: ‘Why didn’t God take someone who was out there using drugs or drinking? Why did it have to be Nathan? And why don’t we still have a stoplight?’”
Father Jorge Ochoa, pastor of St. Cecilia, says parishioners are frustrated, too. Since before 2005, they have petitioned L.A. city officials to install a traffic light or at least a stop sign. And after the fatal accident, church members stepped up their efforts, buoyed by City Department of Transportation engineers’ recommendation that a traffic light should be installed along with signs and better pavement markings.
“We’ve written letters, we got signatures and we’ve gone to authorities, because there have also been a lot of car accidents just in front of the church,” points out the member of the Comboni Missionaries. “And then Nathan’s death. I’ve been told it will take like two, three years for a traffic light. If you want only a flashing caution light, it takes six months.
“But no one can give me a definite date,” says Father Ochoa. “That’s the question.”