From Gangster to Student Body President

Kankakee Daily Journal

Jim Nowlan column: From gangster to student body president — Aug. 10, 2015

A recent Tribune story on gang violence noted that 150 people have been shot in the Back of the Yards (the former Union Stockyards) neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago in the past three years alone. So, I went to see for myself.

From the city’s Loop, I drove south through China Town, then under a spaghetti bowl of elevated expressways and into another world. I could have been in Guadalajara, yet, the Loop skyscrapers, just six miles away, provided the backdrop.

In three square miles, 40,000 mostly Mexican-Americans are shoe-horned into old two-story frame houses (three or four families to a building) that once were home to the Poles and Czechs who worked at the stockyards.

I took a long walk around, passing a large park with several Sunday soccer games going on, parents cheering, trolley vendors selling helado (ice cream).

Life centers around West 47th Street, a vibrant strip of taco restaurants, a tortilla factory and small shops, all signed in Spanish.

Gangs are a constant here. There are five, such as the Satan Disciples and Almighty Saints. Each is driven by DNA and a decades-old gang culture to consider it somehow central to life to protect their few blocks of turf from incursions by other gangs.

I met former gang member Cutberto Aguayo at Atotonilco, a popular taco spot.

Berto, 21, is a clean-cut, good-looking college senior at Dominican University in River Forest, where he is student body president.

At 13, Berto joined a gang and by 16, was involved in an altercation with guns. His younger buddy had a gun and started shooting at rival gang members, right from Berto’s front yard.

The cops were soon there, Berto face down on the ground, hand-cuffed.

His young mother, a hard-working beautician and single mom, sighed softly, in resignation, “Everyone told me you were never going to amount to anything, Berto. They’re right!”

That somehow struck a nerve with the young gangbanger, who began to turn his life around. To help, his mother sent him to a charter public high school out of the neighborhood, to get away from the gangs.

Berto asked to leave his gang and was “violated” (beaten up by gang members) as part of his departure ritual.

Soon, through a supportive teacher, Berto had an internship with an alderman, also outside the ‘hood. He saw how other people lived and worked. Berto decided he wanted the same for himself.

“There are so few positive role models in the neighborhood,” lamented Berto, “that gang members are, by default, big authority figures, looked up to.”

During high school, Berto worked after school in a small grocery on West 47th. He complained about the low pay, but didn’t quit. Later, he learned his mother actually paid his wages (the store paid nothing) — anything to keep her son off the streets.

As is often the case, I think his mom is the heroine of this story.

Another plus factor has been the Mikva Challenge, a do-good group that provides civics and politics training to inner city youth; Berto is a part of Mikva. I have been on the board of the group, and that is how I met the young man.

Berto has plenty of stories, but I lack space. For example, Berto said he thinks school uniforms are a blessing. At his charter school, he was required to wear a blazer and tie.

“Gangbangers don’t mess with kids who wear uniforms,” Berto observes. “You are not seen as a gang member nor are you a threat.”

Yet, gangs are part of the warp and weft in communities similar to Back of the Yards. Berto says youngsters join as early as age 10, often joining their dads in the gang.

How to reduce gang influence?

“Keep the kids busy,” declares Berto, who directs the “Hoops in the Hood” program for a local community organization. Hundreds of youngsters play basketball afternoons and weekends.

“We also need more Latino role models,” says Berto, who laments the lack of Latino teachers in the schools.

And he said he thinks the few successful Latinos in law, medicine and business also should spend time in the neighborhood, showing youngsters that they, too, can become like the role models.

Community policing is good, adds Berto. “I love seeing cops walking around the neighborhood, getting to know folks.”

I came away from my day in the ‘hood with mixed emotions. Stories similar to Berto’s are uplifting, but there aren’t enough of them.

See Original Article Here