I’ve been talking a lot to some friends about Miguel Villalba, the 15 yr old boy that was killed last Sunday night in Cicero. Maybe it’s because I once knew him personally, or maybe it’s because he is, sadly, just the first youth in a string of more to come and lose their lives to gang violence this summer. Whatever the reason, I haven’t been able to shake off his death. During one of these conversations, someone said that she hoped the killer would be found so that there would be closure to Miguel’s murder. At the time, I agreed. But that comment got me thinking, will we really get closure? Based on media reports, Miguel was arguing with the shooter moments before his death. Because of this, I imagine the assailant was around Miguel’s age. If he is arrested and prosecuted, we didn’t just lose Miguel’s life to a senseless act of gang violence, we lost his as well.
As adults, we normally find easier to punish the bad child. Maybe it’s my bleeding liberal heart, but I don’t believe there are genuinely bad people in the world, simply misguided people. Yes, that means I don’t consider even racists, sexists, transphobes, homophobes and xenophobes to be bad. Our youth are in transition. Everything that will happen to us as adults — love, friendship, pain, stress, sex, violence — is happening to them in a very intense and compressed manner. But instead of guiding them, we dismiss their problems as petty. I know, because I’ve done it.
I’m guilty of assuming that, because they are young, the problems and feelings they are experiencing aren’t real. The truth is, while their problems may feel unimportant or small to me, to them they are much bigger and very real. Yet when whenever they act up, I simply punish them for it, often not bothering to know why they are behaving that way. Yes, we could find Miguel’s killer. We can arrest him, prosecute him, and throw him in jail. But did we really accomplish anything? I don’t think we did. All we succeeded in doing was losing two more youths to gangs.
So what are we to do? First, we as youth service agencies need to encourage parents to become a part of their children’s lives. We need to encourage healthy dialogue. This is especially true for us in the Latino community. Our parents (usually) come from a culture where complete respect for the authority of the parents was unquestioned. While this may have worked for our parents back home, it doesn’t make sense here. Life is different in the US. The way we shape our families needs to not only take into consideration our culture but also our current surroundings. Secondly, we as youth service agencies need to follow our own advice. Yes, it’s often easier to just discipline the child; but fundamentally understanding gets us much farther. If our youth feel welcomed within our doors, they won’t go looking for the false acceptance gangs give them. If we are their second family, gangs will not be able to compete. We lose too many of youth to gangs, both buried and jailed. It’s not easy raising a child. But in the world we currently live in, it’s not easy being a child either.
Last night, Miguel Villalba (15) of Cicero was killed by a bullet in front of Roosevelt Elementary School. Shot, according to news reports, in the back of the head. I only live about 3 blocks from where it all happened. I walk past it daily. Today, on my way to work, I looked around for any sign of what had occurred the night before. Of course, I found none.
The sad thing is, this is nothing new in Cicero. Summer vacation is also the time of year when the gangs are most active. I just heard loud noises from outside, as I write this blog. I recognize the sound very well. But for my own sanity, I dismiss them as fireworks.
I knew Miguel Villalba. He was once a member of the Boys Club of Cicero, where I work. Sadly, I can’t I remember much of him. Since discovering who exactly had been killed, I have been racking my brain trying to remember anything about him. Did he like dodgeball? Had I ever made him laugh or given him a band-aid after hurting himself? Did he feel safe at the Club? It frustrates me that I can’t think of anything. I feel as if I have failed him. My agency has failed him. All of Cicero has failed him.
Miguel wasn’t just a Boys Club member. Miguel had been moved out of Morton East and into the Alternative High School. He was referred to a CeaseFire Meeting with Corazón Community Services. It becomes painfully obvious that people around him knew he was at risk. Yet, as Youth Service agencies, we often feel our job is complete upon referral. We have, after all, so many youth to serve. We don’t have the resources nor the time to focus all of our attention on just one child going through a difficult transition into adulthood. Just today, I was surrounded by approximately 100 kids. Every one of them deserving my attention. Every one of them at risk by the simple fact of living in Cicero and being, well, brown.
I feel the same impotence that many do. What are we not doing? What am I not doing for our kids? Something is seriously wrong in Cicero. Everywhere I look, I keep hearing about the New Town of Cicero. But it looks like same old to me. Larry Dominick’s government is too busy worrying about parking ordinances and towing that it has forgotten about our kids. Just a few weeks ago I was ticketed for having a blown out tail light. The time it took the officer to check my insurance, write the ticket, and send me on my way could have been used to stop crime. But crime-prevention doesn’t put money in the coffers.
I can’t say I have answers or solutions to any of these problems, and that gets to me. I wish I could say, with certainty, that I knew what the Cicero government had to do to clean our streets and rid our community of violence. But I don’t. I wish somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain an epiphany would come, guiding me in the right direction. But instead, I will go to work tomorrow knowing that I one of my kids is dead, and I did nothing to stop it. Who knows which of my other kids may be next. I ask you not to dismiss Miguel’s death. He wasn’t perfect. He made his share of mistakes, just as we all do. But he was a person nonetheless. He was someone’s brother, someone’s son, someone’s friend and grandson. Today it was Miguel. Tomorrow it can very well be you.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own. They do not attempt to speak for or represent the opinions held by the Boys Club of Cicero, its Staff, Donors, or Board of Directors.