No words can heal the heart of a parent who has lost a child to gun violence. But for Pati Navalta Poblete, whose 23-year-old son Robby was fatally shot in Vallejo in 2014, writing helped.
“I started out writing letters to Robby every day,” she says, “from two weeks after he was killed to one year after.”
The grief is still raw — and now the murder trial of the four suspects has been delayed again until September — but Poblete no longer waits for words. The longtime journalist (San Francisco Chronicle, Vallejo Times-Herald, Alameda News Group) and author has written them herself. “A Better Place: A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy” (Nothing But the Truth Publishing, 2018) tells the story of loss, despair and eventually hope.
“I woke up one day and told my husband I was writing a book,” she says. “I wrote every day in a coffee shop in Vacaville that only later I learned was called Journey.” (Her husband, Cicero Estrella, is a Bay Area News Group journalist.)
The hold-nothing-back pace of the book lays bare the devastation of Robby’s death not only for his family, but their co-workers and community, as well. The book opens with “The Call,” in which Poblete learns of her son’s death.
“I was literally going through it as I wrote,” she recalls. “I went back and reflected every emotion. It was like picking at your own scab. Whatever I wrote, it would sit with me all day.”
The goal, she says, was to capture “the complete picture. Who was the victim, what life did they lead beforehand. Who’s left behind? Shootings or everyday killings should be covered with the same intensity as mass shootings are, but they’re not. Nor did I want to make this a true-crime story by emphasizing the trial. We always read about that, but we don’t read about the aftermath or the prequel.”
The question, she thought, was “what will make people other than his family care about Robby’s story?”
“A Better Place” introduces Robby as an eager young man, working at a biotech company with dreams of one day opening his own shop. The book retells this family’s history, while weaving in universal themes of mortality, poverty, crime and despair. And Poblete lays bare her emotions as she recounts the shock, anger, post-traumatic stress and depression, all expressed in a rush of words: “Ashamed and vulnerable, as if my organs were inside out: I mean, what kind of mother allows her son to be killed? Logically, there was nothing I could have done, and I knew that, but that didn’t stop the feelings.”
Ultimately, she says, “From page one to the last page, you see my evolution. I found the words would take me forward.”
Through writing, she discovered her own strength — and more compassion than she initially imagined for the people responsible for Robby’s death. “As horrible, tragic as it was, I found there’s hope if you’re open to transforming that tragedy. I wouldn’t have come to those realizations without writing this book.”
Poblete established the nonprofit Robby Poblete Foundation in 2017 with a three-fold mission: to remove illegal and unwanted guns from circulation through gun buybacks; to enlist the help of artists to transform guns into peace-centric art; and to provide vocational training and internships to high school students, young adults aging out of the foster care system and other less-served communities.
A year later, the foundation has already exceeded Poblete’s three-year plan. The gun buyback and art programs have been adopted by multiple cities in Solano and Alameda counties. More than 500 people attended the opening of the Vallejo Art of Peace exhibit in April. And in March, the foundation received a three-year $150,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation to support its core programs.
“There is a thirst for hope, for doing something about gun violence,” Poblete says. “It’s bigger than me, bigger than Robby. I’ve realized this can be national. The guns, transformed into art and tools of a trade, create sanctuary and symbolize harmony between humans.”