You Live By It, You Die By It

Latoya Winters

In 2011 and 2012, while more than 900 people were being murdered on the streets of Chicago, creative-writing students from DePaul University fanned out all over the city to interview people whose lives have been changed by the bloodshed. The result is How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, an extraordinary and eye-opening work of oral history.

Told by real people in their own words, the book contains the extraordinary stories of 34 Chicagoans. This is one of them.

Latoya Winters studies sociology and Family and Child Studies at Northern Illinois University. She hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree and work with at-risk kids in a neighborhood much like the one she grew up in: East Garfield Park, an impoverished area that has seen its population decline from about 70,000 people in 1950 to about 20,000 today. As a child, Winters lost several family members and friends to violence and saw her own mother spend time in prison. But she was nurtured and inspired by her maternal grandmother and found refuge at the Marillac Social Center, a Catholic outreach house that has served poor families on the West Side of Chicago for almost a century.

In many respects, Winters shares similarities with other college students on the verge of graduating: She is neatly dressed, has big dreams and is a fast, passionate speaker. But her childhood experiences are far different from those of most classmates.

My grandmother, Carrie Winters, was born and raised in Mississippi. After her parents passed on, she moved to Chicago. She wanted to find work, and she wanted a better life for her children. She worked all these odd jobs just to make a way for her kids—two to three jobs at a time. She worked at Campbell’s Soup forever, and that passed down to my aunt working there. My grandmother bought her house in maybe the ’40s and lived there until she died in 2006.

I always smelled a sense of soulful in her. I could smell this perfume that she’d always wear, especially when she went out or went to church. When I say she was churchgoing, I mean churchgoing. She was always cooking, everything from the big dinners to macaroni to the chitlins. She had a kind of curl to her hair, because she always wore rollers when she went to the beauty salon. She was a hard-working, independent woman; I see that in her from as early as I can remember. It is still deeply rooted in her grandkids today. Oh my God, we are pieces of my grandmother.

A lot of my grandmother’s kids strayed off—a majority of her kids, honestly. Some of them were alcoholics; some were drug addicts like my mother, Raquel. My grandmother raised me. My mother had nine kids, and my grandmother had custody of all of them, plus maybe 10 to 15 of my cousins. My uncles’ kids, then my aunts’ kids—my grandmother raised all of us. We had a two-flat building with a basement, a first floor and a second floor. There was always room.

My grandmother reached out and took care of kids that weren’t hers. At Thanksgiving dinner, if we had a friend who didn’t have anywhere to go, my grandma had enough to go around. She had her table set for everybody. If me and three cousins had to sleep in the same bed, we always had somewhere to sleep. My grandmother adopted all of us, because everyone had their different problems, and she refused to let us be separated. She never closed the door on anybody, including her own kids who didn’t, you know, fulfill their parent responsibilities. I never even heard my grandmother talk down about anybody, no matter what.

Gangs always existed in my neighborhood. The majority of the guys in my family are affiliated with the Gangster Disciples; so are the majority of people in my neighborhood, actually. I never understood what it was about gangs, but then, as I grew older, I learned more. I’ve had these sociology classes about it, and I see the way gangs have destroyed people. I’ve talked to people like my uncles and cousins and brothers who say, “I got put into the gang when I was younger,” and, “If I could have gotten out, I would have.” But some of them wouldn’t have. Like I always say, “You live by it, you die by it.”

Growing up, it was terrible. It was all I saw, all I knew. I think that I was scared that I might end up in a gang or something. I look back now, and all I can say is, “I am thankful.” I hate the lives that were taken, but I just thank God for the lives that were changed because they were given a chance to look at the positive and the negative and decided not to get involved.

I grew up not even a whole block away from Marillac House, where they have different social service agencies inside the building. Their main purpose is to make a safe environment for kids, so they don’t have to be out on the streets. My big cousins and my big sister actually went there first, but I was too young to go. They always had their jump-rope teams going, they had their cheerleading, and they had their dance groups, and it was like the spark of a movement or something. They would come home bragging, “We did this and we did that,” and I was just moping around, sad, because I wanted to do it.

That’s how I became involved, with my cousin Shavontay and my two sisters. We were the four young ones who begged and cried and whined, and they opened up the age range for us. I came in through Hope Junior, an after-school program. It went from just the basics of getting help with my homework to being involved in everything you can name, just to have something positive to do. I played basketball, I played volleyball, I did poetry, I did choir—you name it, I did it. As soon as I walked into Marillac, it felt like home, and you don’t get that everywhere you go. My Marillac family is like my second family, and the different things I’ve learned there, the many friendships I’ve gained there, are remarkable. I give them credit for me sitting here today. It’s made some of the violence in the neighborhood invisible, like it doesn’t exist.

My brother, my mother’s firstborn child, his name was Lamont. Lamont started out in a gang when he was about 13. He was heavily involved. Heavily. He did a lot of negative things, lived a very dangerous life, and it caught up with him. I was 10 years younger than him, and young when all this happened, but I did have a relationship with my brother. I knew that he would only be going out one way: through the jail or, you know, dead.

It makes me curious, every time I think about him. I think about the day when me and my aunt and my cousins had just come from eating out, and he walked up to the car and said, “When I die, I want to be buried right here in front of this house.” He lived to see about two or three more days, and then he was dead.

People said that he had killed somebody a week before that, and somebody was coming back for him. My family was telling him to leave town and just go lay low. He had been wearing a bulletproof vest for a week, but then to just take it off… Why was he wearing that bulletproof vest all the time and he all of a sudden took it off?

I was in sixth grade when it happened. It was a normal day, and I was in the house. Me and Shavontay were hanging out and watching TV, and I had fallen asleep. Then, she was shaking me: “Wake up, wake up. I just heard gunshots.”

Gunshots in our neighborhood was like hearing the ice-cream truck, as sad as that is to say. I guess, when she told me, I kinda was asleep. Before I could fully get up, I heard people upstairs running out the door. I got outside and my mom’s all broke down and fell out, and the mother of Lamont’s kids is out there lying down on the street and she’s crying, and my sister’s crying, and my cousin—so I knew something happened to someone close. Lamont had been standing with my mom and sister and all these chicks, so obviously, none of them were holding any guns. These two boys came up through the empty lot next to our house and shot Lamont at close range, about 15 times. My uncle had gotten his pickup truck and put my brother in the back of it. There was a hospital up the street from us, and my uncle was just speeding. The police got behind him but he didn’t stop until he got to the hospital. The boys shot Lamont so many times, so I’m guessing my uncle already knew he was dead, but he still wanted to try and revive him.

I don’t understand why people do the things they do, but then, I have to realize my brother did a lot of bad things. I was just happy that my mom and my family didn’t do what some people do when they get on the TV news and act like their kids are innocent. My mom didn’t do any of that. I’m sad to say I lost a brother, but it’s just so much more than that. I’m sure that if he would have lived and been caught, he would have served time for more than just the murder. I’m sure they would have found all these guns somewhere, and probably drugs.

My cousin Andre was following in Lamont’s footsteps, because he started gangbanging so early. And then, when he was 17, the same thing happened to him as Lamont. Some boys came up through the exact same lot, and they shot Andre at close range.

I can’t forget that our other cousin Phillip was killed the year before Andre. So it was every year, we lost someone. It was emotional thing after emotional thing—a lot of death—and my grandmother was still standing at the top of us all. She raised them, she raised them all, and then to have to constantly bury them year after year? Everybody would look at her and say, “You are so strong.”

My cousin Shavontay and I went to an all-girls Catholic high school through a residential scholarship program that Marillac had set us up with. We moved to Evanston. We didn’t come home much, and my grandmother cried, but she thanked God for Marillac helping us get into the program. We had to get used to not seeing our family. It was hard, but I wanted to go to a good high school, get a real high-school education, because I wanted to go to college eventually. In my neighborhood, some people barely make it to high school, so you know how hard it is to go to college.

I ended up running for class president senior year and got it. So, by me having the top position in the school, I was the first to come out on gradu121 ation day. Graduation hadn’t started before I was crying. As I was preparing for our song to play, I was looking at everybody in my family that was in the audience. I will never forget it. When I got my diploma, I just stood on stage like the graduation was all about me. I raised my diploma, and my mother was the main one that I looked at. She had been in jail for my eighth-grade graduation, and none of her daughters had even gotten a diploma.

When I was younger, I was mad and I cried a lot and wondered why my mother couldn’t be involved in my life. She would stay at my grandmother’s some of the time, but she wasn’t stable. She was doing hard drugs, like crack, heroin, cocaine, stuff like that. I’d often see her, but she’d be hanging outside on the corner with the other drug addicts. It was like she’d rather spend time with them than me, and I always wondered if I did something wrong.

When I became old enough, I started writing her letters in jail—and as she started to better herself, she’d write me cute little cards back. As I got older, I got more of an understanding that this was just a problem she had. She had to take time to deal with it, to better herself when she was ready, not because everyone else wanted her to. I learned that it wasn’t my fault, and everybody goes through problems. It just takes some people a longer time than others.

Since my junior year of high school, my mother’s been doing good and has stayed clean. I wasn’t always proud to say, “That’s my mother,” because I’d see my friends with clean mothers with the nice clothes and the nice shoes and the job and everything. Today, I am proud. I say, “That’s my mother. Her name is Raquel. That’s who brought me into this world. I love her unconditionally.”

Her proudest moment was being at my high-school graduation and being able to say, “I’m here. I’m clean. I’m a mother. I’ve changed.”

Looking back, before high school, I would have never thought I’d even make it to high school because of where I lived and all the people I have lost. I thought that I would have given up a long time ago, but I’m still pushing and fighting and I plan on making it somewhere. I feel like, as long as you have faith and you have some motivation, it will take you a long way, a way that you would have never thought it would have taken you.

I’ve still never met anybody like my grandmother. I was 17 when she passed away, and it was like Rosa Parks died or something. I would give it all up if she could be here now, but I know that she sees what I’m doing and I know she’s proud. That’s why, when I’m done getting my bachelor’s degree, I’m moving to get my master’s degree, so she can say, “Everything she’s doing, I taught her that. And she hasn’t given up yet.”

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