The high school rivalry between the Generals from this Kern County city of 19,608 residents and the Tigers from larger Wasco (population: 26,994), eight miles north on state Route 43, has been intense through the years.
Wednesday morning, that rivalry was set aside as Assemblymember Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, joined community leaders in dedicating a stretch of state Route 43 after Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Barraza.
“We set aside the small-town rivalry for this,” said Air Force veteran Mariana Sobolewski, a senior master sergeant who now works as a registrar at Wasco Independence High School.
Sobolewski began the drive two years ago to recognize Barraza, a popular athlete at Shafter High who was 24 years old when he died from small arms fire in Ramadi, Iraq during his sixth tour of duty.
“Something needed to be done because he sacrificed his life,” said Sobolewski, a member of VFW Post 6742 in Wasco.
Shafter Mayor Gilbert Alvarado welcomed the state route designation.
“The mission is completed!” said Alvarado. “This was way past due.”
Salas authored legislation to designate the stretch of state Route 43 that runs through Shafter as Staff Sergeant Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Barraza Memorial Highway.
“I want people who pass this sign begin to ask questions. Who is Ricky Barraza? What did he do? Why does he have a sign?” said Salas. “I want them to learn about his history.”
Barraza was the middle child born in the state of Washington to farmworkers Francisco and Nina Barraza. He excelled in basketball, football and track in high school. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 1999.
Barraza deployed three times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and three times in support of Iraqi Freedom.
His cousin, Kern Valley resident Gustavo Barraza, one of three family members who served in the military, called Barraza “a great man, a great individual.”
“He never backed down from any challenge,” said the cousin. “He cared about you whether you were the highest-ranking person in town or homeless.”
Salas called the event “a significant, solemn and moving moment for our community.”
“It stands as a permanent tribute to Staff Sgt. Barraza’s service, bravery and ultimate sacrifice,” said Salas.
Sobolewski said the sign was a culmination of a community effort from residents of Wasco and Shafter.
“This is, in my opinion, a small gesture of gratitude for a service member who made the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation,” she said. “My wish is for all those who reside in the community of Shafter and those who commute through the city come to learn about the Army Ranger from Shafter who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and may they never allow his sacrifice to be forgotten.”
Shafter Police Chief Kevin Zimmerman, in his second year at the helm, never knew Barraza. But, he called him “a hometown hero.”
His officers wear black wristbands in tribute to Barraza.
“It helps remind ourselves that there are people out there who deserve that level of service,” said Zimmerman.