My Night in Chicago’s Little Village

I might be the first ‘fan girl’ of a non-profit community agency. Eight years ago, I read a New York Times Magazine article about an epidemiologist that declared gun violence an infectious disease. Gary Slutkin wondered why aren’t we treating violence in the same way we would malaria? Identify hot zones, interrupt transmission and change behavior. He created the Cure Violence Model. Over the years I watched the model evolve, adapt and be implemented in cities across the world, making a serious dent in reducing violence. I even thought this model was so innovative that for my qualifying exams I conducted a study grounded in the theory of the CV model. Last Tuesday, I shook Gary Slutkin’s hand after watching him speak. I told him I was a huge fan.

The magazine article that started this journey

Only a few day’s before I shook Gary Slutkin’s hand, I met Jesse Salazar and Angalia Bianca. For the American Public Health Association Annual Student Meeting, I organized an expert panel of violence prevention and interventionists in Chicago. It was my little passion project as a violence prevention researcher. Cure Violence was my first ask. Jesse and Bianca were special guests who spoke about their work with Cure Violence/CeaseFire Illinois. The panel went extremely well. The students left inspired and ignited after hearing them speak. Later, I got the chance to ask Jesse if he liked doing those types of talks. He said, “Eh, they are ok.”

Angalia Bianca, Jesse Salazar, Franklin Cosey-Gay, Rebecca Levin and Mighty Fine at the APHA Student Meeting

When I found out I was traveling to Chicago, the birth place of this agency that I had been following for years, I decided to try and get the most of it. Before arriving, I sent a quick email to Cure Violence office and asked if I could “see a site or an office while I’m in town.” The offices said sure and put me in further contact with Bianca. She suggested I go out with Jesse to see the work he does in Chicago’s Little Village. I asked Jesse what time we would meet. He said, “the later the better.” I was beyond excited.

Early in the evening, I spoke with Jesse on the phone and he told me to meet him in Piotrowski Park. He said he would be in the community all night. I had no idea what I was signing up for but my colleague Jaih agreed to tag along with me. I requested a car to drive me out to the park, and at that moment I had a flashing thought —

“I just requested a car to drop me off in at a park in the middle of a gang occupied community in west Chicago to meet up with a guy who stops gun violence for a living.”

I kept these thoughts to myself. My tough-girl-gang-researcher persona flickered for a moment, but then I rationalized that no one at the Cure Violence agency has any interest in putting me in danger. I was nervous, especially with Jaih enthusiastically in tow but I put my trust in Jesse. At 8pm, the car picked us up and drove us twenty minutes outside the city and all I was thinking was, “I’m not exactly sure how we will get back.”

Art inside the Field House of the Piotrowski Park Community Center

When we got to the park, there was a layer of mist of the grass where a group of boys were playing flag football. Jesse met us in the front of the community center field house. He has built relationships with the people that run the community center and they let him and other outreach workers use the space when they need to. He greeted us with a big smile. Turns out he was on an endorphin high. We got there in the middle of his workout. He used to be a powerlifter and Jesse just benched 295 for the first time in a long time. Any air of formality from the panel event earlier was instantly gone. Jesse introduced us to two youth that were lifting weights with him and Kanye’s “All Day” came on the radio. The combination of the fall mist, Kanye, Chicago and not knowing what was in store for the night made something in the air feel special.

Jesse Salazar’s ‘headshot’ that was included in the APHA Student Meeting Program

Little Village is Chicago’s predominantly Latino community, called the “Mexico of the Midwest.” Most residents, like Jesse, are born there and never leave. Multiple generations live in Little Village. One of the youth that Jesse introduced us to was named, Freddie. Jesse knew Freddie’s mom from back in the day. She was gang involved.

Jesse asks us, “Is it okay if I finish my reps? Then I can show you the courts and we can go for a ride.” I say, “Of course” but I’m thinking that I’m not exactly sure what ‘a ride’ is. After he finishes his workout, we go upstairs and Jesse shows us about 20 youth playing basketball. It’s just after 8 pm on a Tuesday night. They show no signs of stopping soon. Engaging youth in sports is one of the major roles of CeaseFire outreach workers. Jesse is coach for the “Play for Peace” flag football league. There is also a softball league and later we will see a boxing center for youth. Sports keeps youth off of the streets, out of trouble and out of danger.

Jesse takes us outside to his car — a silver sedan with some seriously tinted windows. Jaih and I hop in. He tells us we are going to drive “The Beats” — the same ones as the Chicago Police — and see what is happening in the neighborhood.

As we are leaving Jesse spots Freddie and his friend across the street from the field house. Jesse honks at Freddie, rolls down the window and shouts across the street,

“Freddie, let me give you a ride”
“No I’m good”
“Why don’t you want a ride??”
“I’m cool”
“Ok ok. Call me if you need a ride later.”

Besides sports, Jesse also offers youths safe rides around the community. They can avoid dangerous spots or potential conflict. Getting youth home safe is a priority.

As we start cruising down the beats, it takes only a few minutes into our ride for Jesse to show us the site of Little Village’s most recent homicide. There is cluster of candles burning in the driveway of the fire station. On Monday night, after ‘Hot Sunday’, Eric, a 23 year old, was shot and killed.

The site of Little Village’s most recent homicide

We continue to ‘canvas’ the neighborhood. Jesse zig zags through the streets and alleys of the neighborhood, giving us the history of each street corner. He shows us the murals he has painted around Little Village. Jesse began painting murals around the community with youth and organizations on abandon buildings and shops. He says that if there is ever an empty wall space, the gangs will tag them up. If there is a mural, the gangs won’t tag that space. For the most part, the gangs respect the art. Jesse’s murals are beautiful. All have themes of faith, love, peace and his Latino heritage. He shows us a mural he did with an image of his son that says “Don’t shoot I want to grow up.”

One of Jesse’s murals with an image of his son Angelo

Next Jesse takes us to another ‘safe haven’ a.k.a. a place where people can go that they know they will be safe from violence. It is another recreation building run by one of the local churches. We go up four flights of stairs to find another basketball court. The building is old and the architecture is beautiful, like most in Chicago. There are about ten youth on the courts playing ball. We meet another handful of outreach workers and violence interrupters watching the youth play. This group of adult males, plus a few others, represent all of Little Village’s community mentors. They take on the sole responsibility for providing a safe, supportive and positive role model for Little Village’s young men. Most are volunteers, few are paid. For the few that are paid, it is not a lot. Everyone is extremely friendly. We dodge a few rogue basketballs while I ask Jesse and company more questions.

“How do you recruit more mentors? How do you get more mentors out in the community?”
“It’s hard because there is no money in it. There isn’t enough funding to hire the mentors. Crime pays. This doesn’t.”
“What about the girls?”
“They aren’t here. We don’t have any female mentors in the community. But the girls are just as at risk. Two girls got shoot just a few weeks ago, one in the chest and one through the arm”

He points to the exact places on the body that were hit. I’m amazed by Jesse’s ability to manage so much information. He knows everything. He knows who runs each block. He keeps track of who is where. Who got shot recently. Everything. I try to get as many details on how he does what he does but it’s really not clear. There is no schedule. No company email. No apparent system for organization or at least no in the ways I would expect it. And somehow he manages it. What is clear is that Jesse works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He is never not working. Part of Jesse’s job as an outreach worker is after there has been an incident of violence, he goes to hospitals, vigils, funerals to talk to families, friends, affiliates and prevent another act of violence. I ask him, “How do you know when to go to the hospital?” “Networking.” Jesse has built a huge informal network of people and his own communication system throughout Little Village. He definitley knows people. Part of this work I suspect was done before he transitioned out of his gang.

A picture of Jesse and his mentor when he was an ‘at-risk youth’

Jesse was a gang leader. Growing up, his mother was involved and his older brother held a leadership role a local gang gang. His older brother, just like Jesse, was blessed with artistic skills. Jesse’s brother did not want him to get involved with gangs. When Jesse was in eighth grade a kid in his class was shot and killed. Jesse’s brother tried to protect him from this and told him never to get involved. He taught him how to paint. But then Jesse’s brother was arrested and was sent to prison. With his brother no longer around, Jesse eventually joined a gang and quickly rose through the ranks.

An award Jesse won with other CeaseFire workers presented by Illinois’ Governor Quinn. Jesse is not pictured as he was in jail when the award was given.

Jesse is one of the most friendly, no-barriers person I’ve ever met. Instantly there was a feeling of comfort, like we were old friends. There was never a lull in conversation. He told us everything and answered all of our questions. After spending time with him, it is clear to me why he was a leader in his gang and now he is a leader on the streets as a mentor. He’s a cool guy. He’s smart, easy to talk to and he cares. He never made me feel uncomfortable, even though he had plenty of opportunities to do that. On the surface, I am the polar opposite of Jesse. We come from very different places and upbringings, but I think he knew that we shared something in common. We both really genuinely care about youths’ lives and making the world a safer place.

Jesse drove us around more beats. We went up and down every street. We crossed Lawndale. Literally separated by train tracks, one side of the road is occupied by African American gangs and the other side its Latino. Most of the gun violence in the Latino gangs is motivated by gangs. They have occupied the neighborhood since the sixties. Jesse says this is different than violence in the African American communities which is primarily motivated by drug sales and your ‘block’. I ask Jesse,

“What about innocents? Do non-gang involved people ever get hurt?”
“Yeah… A month ago a six year old girl was killed. She was just playing on her porch during the day. The people that lived at her house were involved, and rival gang members came by shot at the house. She was shot in the chest”

In my experience with talking with gang members, one of the most shocking things is lack of emotion when they recall such horrific events. But you can’t blame them because gun violence is so common and such a normal part of their lives. When Jesse tells us this story, I can hear a slight crack in his voice. He struggles, only subtlety, with telling the story. Jesse has a 4 year old son, Angelo, and an 8 month old daughter, Giselle.

Getting youth involved in pro-social activities, such as team sports, is an important part of keeping youth safe. However, Little Village has a deficit of green space. Jesse seems to function as a part time community advocate and activist and he and his community fought for a second park. Little Village know hows to fight. In 2001, there was a hunger strike in support of a second high school in the community. Jesse takes us by the new park. We get there and it’s empty but it’s lit up. There are multiple fields with turf, basketball courts, skate parks, play areas. All the things you would expect. It’s a nice, new park. However, the city charges about $75 an hour to use it for team games. But this isn’t the worst part about the new park. There is a catch. As we stand in the middle of the football field we look directly west, less than 100 yards are the barb-wired lined fences of the Cook County Maximum Security Prison.

Football fields in La Villita Park illuminated by the Cook County Prison in the background

As we talk, you can actually see the silhouettes of inmates before 10pm lock up. Seeing this — feeling this — was one of the most upsetting things I learned that night. I can’t imagine what it is like to live in a neighborhood where a prison was located smack dab in the middle of the community, and then you fight for a park. The city answers your request, but with a catch. The prison looms over the park. It feels as if it the park was just was a stepping stone, a pipeline, to prison. You graduate from one to the other. I joke that they probably were saving this space for prison expansion, so perhaps this is a small win, but I’m pissed. Not only are youth immune to the effects to violence, prison is also normalized. How can we expect different of youth when we actually surround them with these images and physical barriers?

Our conversations continue for a while after that. I ask about youth leaving jail. I ask about kids experiencing homelessness in the community. I ask about the gang database. Jesse told me that if a cop pulled by right now Jaih and I would probably be entered into Illinois’ database. I asked a plethora of questions and Jesse was happy to answer them all. We also talked about life. Jesse is on a diet. He gave up pop and potato chips. No more chips unless they are kale chips. Jesse is also into chia seeds.

Jesse works around the clock seven days a week. He tells me he has no social life. On his hours off, he sees his kids. He says this job ruined his marriage. I told him, this is his social life and look at all the people he’s connected with, but I know that shouldn’t be consolation.

We need more Jesses. He can’t do it on his own. It is clear that so much of the good work that is being done to reduce violence and change the lives of youth in communities like Little Village relies on positive role models like Jesse and Bianca, but the problem is there aren’t enough. As much as Jesse and Bianca willingly sacrifice their own lives to literally save kid’s lives, it’s not enough. It’s not fair. We need more money, more funding, for more Jesses and Biancas. We also need a new system that diverts the need for more Jesses and Biancas. We need less prisons and more green space. We need less guns, less normalization of violence. We need a lot of things. I’m not sure if we even really know all the things we need quite yet. I do know that we need all hands on deck.

As our evening comes to a close, I’m tired. Jesse is tired. I call a car to come pick us up in Little Village and take us back to our hotel on Millennium park. I have a feeling that my work isn’t done in Chicago and that it is not done with Jesse and Cure Violence. During the wait, Jesse shows us pictures of Angelo and Giselle in their Halloween costumes. Then he shows us a video he saw on WorldStar the other day and for some reason this seems like the perfect end to our evening.