Family, friends, and community members gathered to memorialize El Centro police Officer Efren Coronel with a candlelight vigil at Legacy Park in El Centro following the unveiling of a nearby street in his honor on Monday, Oct. 25. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO
EL CENTRO — On a day that family and friends normally would’ve gathered to celebrate the 53rd birthday of El Centro Police Officer Efren Coronel, they assembled instead to pay tribute to his life and legacy.
Part of that gathering took place in El Centro’s Legacy Park subdivision, at the corner of Third Street and the former Legacy Drive, which was recently renamed Efren Coronel Drive in his honor.
A 24-year veteran of the department, Coronel was roundly described by those who spoke on his behalf as a selfless public servant who touched countless lives.
“He was a man that was so humble that he just walked quietly and showed us what a giant he was in his actions and how he treated people,” Police Chief Brian Johnson told those gathered for the dedication of the street sign on Monday evening, Oct. 25.
Coronel died on June 3, 2020, after having contracted the coronavirus from a COVID-positive individual who he had arrested.
His passing dealt an emotional blow to the department he initially joined in 1994 as a community service officer, and where he was hired two years later as a police officer.
At various junctures he also served as a school resource officer, and was assigned to the department’s patrol, motor, and investigations divisions, as well as with its crisis negotiator team.
Chief Johnson said he took comfort in knowing that Coronel was driven by a profound love for his family, his faith, and a commitment to serve the community.
“There’s so many people in this community, so many lives that he touched that he will live forever in this community because of who he was,” Johnson said. “Being a servant, it took his life, but he did it for the greater good of this community.”
Within the Legacy Park subdivision, other streets are named after local law enforcement officials who had died in the line of duty.
El Centro Mayor Pro Tem Tomas Oliva told those in attendance that the city was more than willing to support the street renaming initiative so that future generations could be made aware of Coronel’s service and contributions to the community.
“He’s certainly left his fingerprint in this community,” Oliva said.
Coronel’s namesake street now joins those honoring fellow El Centro police Officer Rubert W. Franks, who died in a motorcycle collision in August 1948, as well as FBI Agents Robert J. Porter and Charles W. Elmore, who were killed in the line of duty in August 1979.
To get Legacy Drive renamed in memory of Coronel, supporters of the initiative had to get the approval of the residents in the vicinity, Sgt. James Thompson told those gathered at the street dedication ceremony.
The effort proved to be widely supported by the residents, many of whom knew Coronel either through his work with the department or because of his coaching of the Dynamo El Centro girls’ 2008 soccer team, Thompson said.
Many residents were eager to share their respective recollections of Coronel, which as appreciated as those remembrances were, also took up an unexpected amount of time for an effort that was on a tight deadline to get approved, Thompson said.
Thompson, too, is a resident of the subdivision and regularly travels on the recently renamed Efren Coronel Drive to get home. The route invariably prompts recollections of Coronel, he said in a choked-up voice.
“Almost everybody in this area knew him either through work or soccer,” he said. “It wasn’t just our lives at the Police Department that he touched. It was a lot of different people’s lives.”
Alexa Ruiz counts herself as one of the many lives that Coronel impacted for the better, both on and off the soccer field. Alexa was coached by Coronel when she joined the Dynamo El Centro Soccer Club three years ago.
His sudden absence has taken Alexa some time to adjust to. Yet that sense of loss is tempered by her memories of how Coronel constantly encouraged his team to become not just better players but people, as well.
“It hurt a lot, because he was always a second father to my teammates and also me,” said Alexa, who was among the throng of Dynamo players who were present for the street dedication and a candlelight vigil held at Legacy Park afterward. “But I know he’s always watching over us,”
The Dynamo El Centro Soccer Club was also instrumental in getting City Council approval to have Wildflower Park renamed Efren Coronel Park in October 2020.
Fellow Dynamo coach Miguel Garcia was also on hand for the street dedication and candlelight vigil. Garcia said he was glad to have befriended Coronel a few years back and held him in high esteem for the dedication he showed toward the soccer players and the wider community.
The fact that Legacy Drive was selected from among of all the subdivision’s streets to honor Coronel’s own legacy seemed fitting, as well.
“It’s just a reminder of Efren and the person he was and what he did for all of us,” Garcia said. “It’s just the least we can do for Efren and the sacrifice that he paid.”
Following the street dedication ceremony, the crowd reassembled at nearby Legacy Park for a candlelight vigil.
Christ Community Church Senior Pastor Chris Nunn, who also serves as the chaplain for the El Centro Police Department, told those gathered that Coronel was a man of honesty and integrity, someone who answered the call of duty each and every day.
“Efren was a man who found a way to make sure he was always able to see the best in this community,” Dunn said.
Coronel’s older brother, Francisco Coronel Jr., also addressed the crowd, and shared a story about how he came to accept his brother’s passing as the culmination of the works that God had placed him on Earth to accomplish.
“So, when I look at my brother’s life, I’m reminded that he finished everything that God asked him to do,” Francisco Coronel said. “And the reality is that should be an example for us that we ought to live our lives in such a way that at the end we can say that we finished everything that God asked us to do.”
Among the last the address the gathering was Coronel’s wife, Sandra Coronel, who was accompanied by their son and daughter, Sebastian and Galilea.
She thanked all those in attendance and acknowledged that every day since her husband’s passing has brought some additional healing, helped in part by some advice that he himself had imparted.
“Efren used to say, ‘God only knows the why of things,’” Sandra Coronel said. “We just need to try to understand and move on with our lives.”
She also thanked him for the honor of being his wife and the endless love that has allowed her to get through each day.
“Every day in some small way I will celebrate your life,” she said. “As long as our memories last you will stay in our hearts. Happy Birthday.”