Hector Sanchez Castaneda
Staff Writer
Photo by Leah Armer, Staff Photographer

University of California, Santa Barbara students, alumni, faculty and staff; along with local law enforcement, Isla Vistans, politicians, visitors, and family members of the tragedy’s victims—all gathered for a candlelight vigil at Storke Plaza on May 23 to remember and commemorate the lives of the six students who died in last year’s tragedy: George Chen, Katherine Cooper, Cheng Yuan “James” Hong, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Weihan “David” Wang, and Veronika Weiss.

The vigil, organized by Associated Students Program Board, began with a dance, choreographed by fourth-year dance major Kyleigh Carlson, and concluded with an open mic at People’s Park.

Eight students clothed in white performed a piece titled “Not One More.” The color was chosen to represent the dancers as angels and the choreography symbolized the will to live, according to Carlson.

“I choreographed this piece with the intention of creating a safe space for the six fallen souls to dance among us onstage,” Carlson said. “It is important to allow those affected to grieve in their own way. And as a dance major, dance teacher, and general artist, I believe that art heals.”

Following the dance was an a cappella performance of “Amazing Grace,” after which fourth-year global studies major and ASPB Commissioner Benjamin Simons addressed the audience before the vigil walk began.

“We all heal in different ways, at different paces, at different rates,” he said. “This space is for all those who need it. I just want to hope that we push on with positivity and just look back at all the great things that we’ve done over this one year to combat the hurt and the pain that we’ve felt, and to really build as a community from it.”

Storke Tower emitted six chimes during a moment of silence. After the sixth chime, the gathering started walking toward the illuminated Pardall Tunnel. Blue LED tea lights were distributed before and during the event. Earlier that day, Blunite—the student-run organization that began the blue light movement—constructed hundreds of paper lanterns containing the tea lights to illuminate the path for the memorial walk.

Second-year art and theater double major Madeline Berger is one of the student leaders of Blunite. Berger said project Blunite originated to increase the connection between UCSB and IV that the illuminated Pardall Tunnel began.

“[Isla Vista] is a really tight knit community, without stepping on anyone’s toes, and there’s a really wonderful sense of unity here,” said Berger. “There’s so much that we can do in this small town, and I think we are now starting to realize that we can take advantage of that and do wonderful things like Blunite.”

Berger also said the color blue is meant to represent the connection between UCSB and IV by connecting Nobel Prize Winner Shuji Nakamura’s eco-friendly invention of the blue LED light with the blue sky and ocean of the eco-friendly Isla Vista.

Attendees walked down Pardall Tunnel before turning left on Embarcadero del Mar. After following the Loop, people began filling up People’s Park, where a stage was set up that allowed the victim’s family members, friends, and community members to speak their minds.

Chancellor Henry T. Yang spoke first, speaking about how the event showed the strength of the community.

“We join together to remember these six students and to celebrate the beautiful lives they led; their memories shining among us like the soft glow of the blue lights that we hold tonight,” said Yang. “This evening is also a reminder of the strength, resilience and spirit of our community, a reminder that tragedy will not tear us apart but only bring us closer together.”

UCSB will establish six memorial scholarships to honor the fallen students’ lives, according to Yang.

“We can make their lives more meaningful by the way we choose to live our own, and we can make the lives of others more meaningful in the way we choose to honor them,” said Yang. “In this way, we will uphold their memory now and in years to come with six individual memorial scholarships established in each of their own names and also individualized to reflect their character and their passions, ensuring their legacy lives on through future students.”

Sociology professor and Chair of the Academic Senate Kum-Kum Bhavnani read a letter on behalf of Cheng Hong’s family that called for participation to end violence.

“There are many great activities and foundations who care for people in our society,” read Bhavnani. “Why should we choose hatred and violence? Say no to violence and yes to caring. It is the time to change the injustice and laws and policies. We together can make a safer and better world.”

Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, spoke next. He recalled the tragedy of last year but said that it is important to go on living.

“One year ago today, on this day, tragedy came to Isla Vista,” Martinez said. “One year ago today, our loved ones lived, full of hopes, full of dreams, full of life. One year ago today, our loved ones died—six young people. Unsuspecting, unprepared, just beginning their lives, each one in their final moment. Alone, in an apartment, on the street, at a deli… Today, one year later, we gather to mourn. But for our absent sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends, for their sake we must also live… We can mourn for those we’ve lost and we can go on living. There’s no contradiction in this.”

Kelly Wang, George Chen’s mother, addressed the audience alongside Jinshuang Liu, Weihan Wang’s mother.

“In their short lives, they loved heartily and were loved dearly,” said Wang. “Their kindness, compassion, and love will always inspire us in the life ahead… Dear six beautiful angels: may you rest in peace. We will carry your love and multiply by the hundreds, thousands, and millions. Evil will be defeated. Murderers will be judged. Love and humanity will prevail in the end.” Liu followed with a prayer for the attendees.

After the speeches of the victims’ families, the stage was open to all community members. One community member got onstage and asked the audience to sing along with her as she sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Attendees raised their blue lights as they sang along.

Multiple community members began to participate in the open mic to share their stories and fond memories of the six students that passed away. Computer Science professor Philip Conrad said he had Hong, Chen, and Wang in his COMPSC 40: Foundations of Computer Science class, and recalled how they always sat in the front row. Conrad also recalled how Weiss showed a strong will to succeed.

“Veronika was in a class of 180 students and yet I knew her name,” Conrad said. “And I knew her. She made herself known. She was the kind of students who was very serious about her learning, and if I wasn’t doing my job to her satisfaction she would let me know it.”

Joni Kent spoke of the memories she shared with Cooper.

“As beautiful as she was in body, she was in spirit, and in mind and in giving,” Kent said. “Oh my god, and she was beautiful and wonderful and smart and funny.

Friends of Christopher Michaels-Martinez recounted stories of him.

“No one else, I swear, no one else could pull off a Princess Leia costume,” his friend said. “He like totally rocked it. His girlfriend at the time was Han Solo—adorable couple. I was walking like down the hall because we were going to go meet up with them at Santa Cruz and I was like, ‘Oh who’s wearing a Princess Leia costume—Oh it’s Chris. I just checked out Chris.’ So that’s how attractive he was.”

As the speakers dwindled, people began to trickle out. At the end of the night, a tribute video was shown onstage.

“Katie, Veronika, George, Chris, David, and James will always be a part of this community, in our hearts and in our minds,” the video said. “Each and every one of us has experienced and processed this tragedy differently; and yet despite our differences, we have shown extraordinary resilience and solidarity … we would like to take this time to remember them: the six incredible people whose lives were lost one year ago today. Who they were, what we have done to grieve for their passing, how we keep their memories alive and how we, as a whole, move forwards. Together we are IV strong.”

Hector is from Ensenada, Mexico, and is currently a sophomore majoring in English. After beginning as a staff writer his first year, Hector became Isla Vista Beat reporter. If he isn't reading a book or re-watching episodes of Breaking Bad, he's probably writing about Isla Vista.