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Death March


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"Uno! Uno! Uno!"

The uniformed band matched its steps to the orders of the leathery brown man in military trappings. Balanced above the scraggly bunch was a cardboard coffin, empty and symbolically lined in red. Behind them trailed a collection of bereaved mothers, schoolchildren, and parishioners from Blessed Agnes Church.

It was indeed a special observance of Dia de los muertos, the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead. Honoring those slain by gangs, the procession, numbering perhaps 50 people at its peak, snaked through Little Village. It was a protest against the gang violence that preys on this neighborhood, especially its principal thoroughfare, 26th Street.

Even though more money changes hands here, along this thriving commercial strip, than anywhere in Chicago except LaSalle Street, nobody's sporting pinstripes or flashy foreign cars. Instead, gang jackets proliferate; parking meters host gas guzzlers--Buicks, Chevrolets, and late-model Cadillacs. While neon decorates the tops of the low-slung buildings, gang graffiti demarcates the disputed turf: "Latin Kings," "2-6 Boys," and, according to neighborhood resident Maria Gamboa, the more recent "La Raza."

"You don't have to belong to a gang around here to die," said Delia Perez, the mother of a teenager killed just off 26th Street less than a year ago. "You just have to wear a certain color or live on a certain side of the street."

This made the leadoff for the procession particularly ironic. The International Dragon Battalion came out of nowhere--uniformed boys enamored of colors, discipline, and membership. Unofficial parade sponsors, they nonetheless took over the proceedings. Dressed all in black, with white military spats and black shoes, Battalion boys took the corners with crisp military strides. Some sported epaulets and pins depicting two crossed clubs and an automatic rifle. Even their name connotes the macho mythology of a gang. (Like any guerrilla war, this one too attracts its mercenaries.)

"We teach these kids good ideals," said Jorge Covarrubias, listed as a "teniente"--colonel--with the Dragons. Covarrubias looks to be in his late 40s, with broad, open features and large brown eyes. In spite of the ominous black uniform and his marching barks, he still managed to radiate a certain naivete.

"We try to attract [kids] to sports," he continued, smiling. "Karate, mostly tumbling."

Covarrubias failed to mention the Dragons' other disciplines. In a flier advertising the group, there are listings for workshops in hand-to-hand combat, radio transmission, military sanitation, street fighting, riot control, military police force, military escort, and the "famous flight of the eagle (the tiger leap, flight over bayonets or circle of fire with moving motorcycles)."

"We welcome people of all nationalities," Covarrubias said, admitting the group numbers no more than 35. "They come from all over, from as far away as Lawrence [Avenue], Uptown, up north." He waved and one of the two black boys came forward to support Covarrubias's claims of diversity. (They also welcome women and children, in the Batallon Dragones Femenino and the Batallon Dragones Infantil.)

The Dragons' presence, however, didn't seem to faze any of the march's organizers. "You know, uniforms and militarism are part of Latin America," said Italian-American Allen Lencioni. He's a banker and president of the Little Village unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago board of managers.

"If they're antigang, I don't care about the uniforms," added Vince Gomez, director of the Little Village club.

But in fact, the Dragons, for all their workshops, don't have a specific antigang program or approach. "We teach them human values," said Covarrubias, "nationalism, love of country--the one they come from and the one they live in. We don't teach them Rambo, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee. We don't teach them the ideals of vengeance, just love of country, police, and sheriffs."

At least one of their trainers, Jose Castallanos (whose lapel pin bore a number one), seemed mystified by the group's participation in the antigang march.

"I wasn't really totally informed why we're here," said Castallanos, 23, thin and with a smudge of fuzz above his lip. "We're paramilitary, yes. We've just started to go to the Boys Club. We're trying to get people to join up instead of going around committing crimes by themselves."

At the corner of 26th Street and Avers, as the Dragons surrendered the coffin to a group of grieving mothers for the second half of the march, Junior, a 19-year-old Marine recruit, shook his head and chuckled. "It's going to take more than a parade, man," he said. "A couple of my friends died, a couple went south--to Texas--'cause gangs were after them."

Junior laughed out loud as he watched a handful of uniformed police Explorers walk by. He pointed to a tall, square-faced young man. "Jesus, he's a gang-banger." Then he shook his head again.

"You know, I saw her son maybe 20 minutes before he was killed," Junior said, nodding toward Frances Sandoval, the president of Mothers Against Gangs, one of the groups involved in the protest. "But there aren't enough mothers here; where are the mothers?"

Delia Perez agreed. "This felt good," she said when the march ended at the Boys and Girls Club, "but there should have been more people. My little girl hears gunshots now and she thinks nothing of it. That's bad."

"It's time to raise consciousness about death with these kids," said Luz Maria Ramirez, a Little Village mother whose family has, luckily, escaped gang violence. "This march isn't about mourning death; it's about respecting mortality."

Maria Gamboa agreed. "People who've lost somebody can use the loss to tell the community you don't have to lose your kids to that violence," she said.

Inside the Boys Club, more than 100 people gathered to hear antigang speeches and bilingual Aztec Day of the Dead rituals. Joining the marchers were 22nd Ward Alderman Jesus Garcia and perennial 25th Ward candidate Juan Velazquez. In contrast to the mostly working-class crowd, Garcia wore a dapper suit and tie; Velazquez was in denim.

At the front of the club gymnasium, which reeked of Spiritual Sky incense, flowers and baskets of fruit covered an altar erected for the occasion. "The altar is handmade in the traditional style of the Day of the Dead," said Nadine Rendon, another organizer.

On the altar itself there were votive candles, breads, small stone Aztec gods, cutouts of skulls, a Christian cross, thin plastic Halloween skull masks, and picture after picture of Latino youngsters slain by gangs. At the very front, Delia Perez had placed a picture of her son Albert "Danny" Perez, a T-shirt from Lu-Lu's, the hot dog stand where he once worked, and a shiny Cadillac hood ornament. "He never owned a Cadillac," she said, "but he dreamed of buying one all the time."

By the time the speeches started, the uniforms had all disappeared. The Explorers had left in a mini-van and most of the Dragons had disappeared, too. The Dragons' Covarrubias paced the hallway outside the gym. Those most intimate with the grief were left once again to bear it by themselves.

"My dreams were shattered when they killed my son," Delia Perez said. "It hurts. The gangs--they use the word 'wasted' when they've killed somebody--that's right--they're just wasting each other's lives. You know, if somebody were to ask me to go down 26th Street on my hands and knees to tell these kids to stop killing each other, I'd do it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack Lenahan, Chicago Sun-Times, Inc..

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