Op-Ed: El futuro del barrio, está en nuestras manos

Photo courtesy of Berto Aguayo.

Photo courtesy of Berto Aguayo.

The future of the neighborhood is in our hands

My parents immigrated to Chicago in the early ‘90s when they were teenagers and, like many immigrants before them, they decided to settle in Back of the Yards. At the age of 16, my mother gave birth to me at St. Anthony Hospital. My dad worked a factory job to get by and my mom sold tamales.

Growing up, life was a little rough for my younger sisters and I. Money was scarce, activities for kids were limited, and violence was pervasive both on the streets and at home. My dad was a heavy drinker and episodes of domestic abuse were frequent. When I was 10 years old, my mom finally built up the courage to get a divorce.

When my dad left the picture, I felt relieved. No longer would I come home from school to my mom with a black eye and no longer would my sisters and I be caught in the middle of the violence of my dad. However, the sense of relief was temporary. Now a single mother, my mom had to work long hours in a beauty salon on 47th and Paulina to care for me and my three younger sisters. My sisters went to daycare, but I stayed at home unsupervised without much to do. I loved playing soccer in the street and when I tried joining a soccer league to stay busy, the fees were well over $100 and my mom simply couldn’t afford it.

As I got older, I was spending more and more time on the street and when I became a teen, I was increasingly having questions about my own identity. I was rushing to become a man- whatever that was. Before I knew it, at the age of 13, I joined the neighborhood gang. At the time, it was almost a natural step for me to take. The gang provided me with everything I didn’t have: male role models that could lead a pathway to manhood, a sense of belonging, an identity, a way to show love for my community, and a family I didn’t have at home. I went through many life and death experiences, lost many friends, and got into a lot of trouble.

The older I got, however, the more I became disenchanted with the gang life. In my junior year of high school, I remember serving an in-school suspension for a gang fight when my principal walked in. She gave me a job application to Mikva Challenge-an organization that engages youth in the political process. I applied and, to my surprise, I was accepted. Subsequently, I was placed in Ald. Michelle Smith’s office in Lincoln Park during the summer. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., I was working in her office.

The experience was transformative. For one, I had rarely gone outside of the confines of Back of the Yards and Canaryville. Just looking at the discrepancies between our neighborhoods on the South Side and those on the North Side, in places like Lincoln Park, was eye opening. Secondly, in that office I fell in love with the concepts of civics and community service and I found an alternative way to show love to my community. That opportunity granted me the chance to see what was possible for a kid like me. As I was going through this experience that summer, I also lived in contradicting worlds. Once I hopped on the bus back to the South Side, I would hit the streets, but I knew that wasn’t the life I wanted to live anymore. I was ready for a change.

On the first day of my senior year, I gave a speech in front of the whole high school about my experience at my summer internship. That day, an underclassman came up to me and said, “man, bro, I want to be like you.” In that moment, I realized I had to change. I proceeded to leave the gang, my family of four years, via a 3-minute beating.

After leaving the gang, I founded a mentoring program for at-risk youth in my high school. I went from a 1.5 to a 3.0 GPA. I graduated high school, and I did the unthinkable: I enrolled at Dominican University.

During my college years, I pushed my boundaries. I became the youngest student body president in my school’s history; I worked with the Mayor’s Youth Commission to recommend policies to benefit Chicago’s youth; I worked for a State Representative, and I went to work in Washington D.C. with Sen. Dick Durbin. When I came back from working there in December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed me to My Brother’s Keeper Cabinet- a White House initiative that aims to help young men of color succeed.

I tell you my story not because I’m the exception, but because my transformation was a product of someone believing in me, giving me an opportunity and the support and guidance necessary to succeed. A lot of these things are too often missing in the lives of the young people in our neighborhood. Now that I’ve graduated college, I decided it was my turn to open the doors for more kids and employ the skills I’ve developed to empower our neighborhood.

This summer has been a painful one for our community, with more than 70 people becoming victims of gun violence so far this year. Because of my experiences on the streets, I developed an acute understanding of my own mortality and I knew I would hate myself if something were to happen to me and I didn’t do my part to improve our community. In addition to this sense of mortality, I have always believed that the objective shouldn’t be to “make it out the hood,” but to make the hood better because we need to be the role models we never had. Despite all the struggles that we face here, we love where we come from. We love walking to La Michoacana to get some ice cream, we love chilling by the fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and we love going to the 47th Street festival. Because of our deep love for our neighborhood and because we actually grew up here, we are the only ones that can change the trajectory of our community. Together we can put a stop to the violence. Together we can develop our neighborhood. Together we can make our community a better place. They say it takes a village to raise a child, so it will take all of us to ensure that youth in this neighborhood can grow and reach their full potential. Our collective success is inextricably linked to the success of our younger people because they are the future. What does your role look like? It can be easy as volunteering for Father Bruce’s mentoring program, volunteering to walk around and promote peace with the Institute for Nonviolence, or coaching one of our basketball teams for our Hoops in the Hood program.

If you don’t know how to get involved, stop by our office or give us a call, 773- 407-2603 or email me, berto.aguayo94@ gmail.com. I know that making our hood be a better place might seem like a big undertaking, but, in the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”