As part of our continuing Community Voices series, Jorge O. shares what it’s like to live every day with neighborhood violence and how his community, Chicago’s Back of the Yards, copes with this often grim reality.
Whenever I hear gunshots or see police cars in pursuit or hear about a death in my neighborhood, I hardly react. Don’t get me wrong, I have my days where I really wish the violence would just stop to give my neighborhood some dignity. I do have fears that I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I try to approach the problem of violence in a different way. In all my time in my neighborhood, I have literally walked through these obstacles, actively refusing to let them bring me down.
I remember when I was about 8 years old, I saw police cars all over the block my family and I lived on and was curious about the commotion. I remember asking my dad what was going on and he told me that people kill each other for the stupidest reasons. That is how my community generally feels about the violence that happens in our neighborhood, that it is something dumb that degrades lives and the status of our neighborhood in the media. I hate that the good work that happens in the Back of the Yards is overshadowed by this gang violence.
Obviously, as we’ve seen too often, violence on the streets can end your life. Gang members in my neighborhood look intimidating; if you’re walking home and see a group of them walking towards you, you’d probably wish you would have taken an alternate route. But I refuse to fear these gang members. Some of them have actually shown me respect when my family and I moved into an apartment where they hung out. They told me that I didn’t have to worry because they wouldn’t hurt me. Does the media ever report on things like that?
But I am scared of the violence they bring to our neighborhood to solve problems with their enemies. I’m scared of going outside after there is talk that a shooting might go down, and I am scared for my friends and family who could be outside during these times. And in February 2014, that fear hit a little too close to home.
I was running errands with my brother, and my parents were at home. While we were gone, gunshots rang out in front of my house, and just seconds later neighbors were pounding on our front door, shouting to my parents that their oldest son (me) had just been shot. The young man who was shot resembled me so much that my parents were crying hysterically, cursing the world for taking their son away. They realized it wasn’t me after a couple of minutes, but very sadly, the young man who looked so much like me passed away in their arms.
I returned home and was squeezed to death by my crying parents as they cursed gang violence. I had always known that violence created fear, but that was my first true experience with it, the first time I ever REALLY saw the fear.
So I’m afraid of the violence, but I don’t fear the people. I have often seen gang members around Holy Cross talking with the pastor. I have been told stories about how gang members wanted an alternative high school in the neighborhood and how they got that wish and thrived in that school. Did anyone hear about the gang members who turned my neighborhood park into a cleaner and more fun place? I don’t see this kind of stuff on the news.
As constant as the violence sometimes seems, I refuse to tremble. I choose to think about my college finals, not the dangers of the streets. I try to be smart; I don’t go outside in the dark, I listen to what happens to warn friends, and I don’t get involved in anything that would get me into trouble. And most importantly, I try to spread the word that violence is something we should try to change instead of just being scared of it. Holy Cross’ pastor was angry at the violence, and that anger led him to his work with the gangs, even helping my little brother when he was thinking of joining a gang. Work like this has given our neighborhood a lot of hope. We have to create hope; we can’t avoid enjoying our lives because of fear . . . that just keeps the cycle of violence going.
Holy Cross needs your help to continue their essential violence prevention and youth work. The parish has numerous programs that keep kids positively engaged in their studies, the arts, and local leadership.
Donate today. Join Jorge O. in spreading a message of hope.