Johnny Vargas didn’t stand out in the crowd of neighborhood youth sitting on the stoop of a worker’s cottage in Little Village on the cool evening in mid-March until he hit the pavement.
Vargas and the group of young people he carelessly hung out with had no idea that that a gunman would appear out of nowhere and open fire. And they never imagined that the night would end with the 19-year-old being dragged inside a neighbor’s house where he would die on a blood soaked sofa.
With the number of gun homicides climbing in the packed, working-class enclave on Chicago’s Southwest Side, it wasn’t all together unexpected that gunfire rang out. Vargas was the first of three people killed in just six days this spring. Some people say the violence has become as much a part of everyday life as waking up. Yet, there was still a tinge of pain as rival gang members gloated about his death, spray painting, “Where’s Johnny, Ha, Ha,” on a garage door just hours after he passed.
“This is very much like a civil war taking place over here,” says Kathryn Saclarides, an outreach worker with Enlace, a nonprofit focused on interrupting and preventing the ongoing violence in Little Village.
Within hours of Vargas’ death, Saclarides and her co-workers rounded up Vargas’ friends and a handful of neighbors and held a vigil on a tree-lined block of West 30th Street, just west of Saint Louis Avenue, on the spot where he was killed. It was the nonprofit’s way of sending a message to the neighborhood that the gunplay and killing are not normal. Organizers hoped that the public display would force young, gang-involved people to honor both the dead and life itself by asking themselves, “What is my purpose?”
The task can be overwhelming in a neighborhood where gang rivalries run generations deep, Saclarides says. Enlace sponsors academic counseling at a neighborhood high school and pulls young people off the street after school and on the weekends to make art or play sports. The programs are all meant to help them cope with the violence and shield them from it.
The organization also coordinates a series of outposts where adults keep the calm as students pass to and from school. That network continues to grow; a group of parents recently mapped out more than a dozen key intersections that they’ll patrol. Sending the message to young people that violence is not the status quo is key: Roughly half of the community’s 80,000 residents are under 25 years old.
“Will it stop [people] from getting involved in gangs? I don’t know,” says Saclarides who points out that there is no quick fix to quelling the long-standing violence. “Will it stop them from doing something stupid? Absolutely.”
The bigger question, Saclarides says, is, “How do we get kids to change if nothing around them changes?”