Vigil for PeaceBy Jose B. Rivera
Written and Submitted By Sarah Garland
With icy fingers wrapped around the stems of dozens of white carnations and cupping flickering candles, over 60 members of the East Harlem community marched on Tuesday evening to protest violence and crime in their neighborhood. Singing and praying in Spanish, the mostly Mexican group gathered on the corner of 116th St. and Second Avenue where Freddy Ardelio Paez, a 20-year-old Mexican immigrant, was shot in the face two weeks ago. Paez was killed in a fight that witnesses believe was a gang-related.
“We want to demonstrate that we want peace. We want peace for our children, for all of mothers who have children, so that the fights do not continue in the schools,” said Leticia Sosa, who moved to East Harlem a year ago from Puebla, Mexico, “We are here asking for peace all over the world.” A banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe with a picture of Paez taped to it swung from the awning of the deli over the heads of parents, children, grandparents, and passersby. They expressed a mixture of anger, sadness, and hope that East Harlem might become a more peaceful place to live.
The Mexican immigrant community is relatively new in the area, most of them having arrived during the past two decades. New Mexican gangs such as the Vagos and the Mexican Boys have grown up alongside older Latino and African-American gangs in the area. Rivalries between gangs such as the Bloods, a primarily African-American gang which witnesses have linked to the killing of Paez, and Mexican gangs have resulted in fighting and sometimes bloodshed. Just as often, Mexican gangs fight among themselves over the corners and stoops they claim as their own.
“This needs to stop: what happens between the boys, between ourselves,” said Francisco Contrera, a Mexican immigrant from Sonora who attended the vigil, “We’re killing one another.” Many of the participants in the vigil saw it as a first step toward a larger movement to end the violence in East Harlem. Contrera added, “We should be doing this constantly, so that there is more unity between people of different nationalities, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, black people. All of us.”
The uncle of the boy who was killed, Pedro Cruz, spoke at the vigil on behalf of his family. Paez’s mother, Araceli Cruz has returned to Oaxaca, Mexico to bury him there. “I thought there would be 10 or 20 people, but I feel good to see so many people, like we can begin to fight,” said Cruz. The main organizer of the vigil, Javier Guzman, has been a leader in the Mexican community for year. He saw the vigil as a way to turn the outrage many Mexicans felt after the killing of Paez into a positive force.
“We, the Mexicans, many of us are undocumented. We don’t think we have the power to demand and so our participation in the community is limited,” Guzman said, “We should capacitate the same people in the Barrio to be active in community decisions.” While many people saw the community activism as the primary way to combat violence, others pressed for more vigilance by the schools and police. “When they killed him, we were coming home with the children from school. A lot of people walk here, and we want them to control this, because you can’t walk peacefully,” said Maria Luisa Ramirez, also from Puebla, Mexico, “They should send police to watch over this.”
Elena Sada, the Parent Outreach Program Coordinator for Public Schools in District 4, said that a meeting had been called by school district officials, police and a variety of community organizations representing different groups in the neighborhood for Thursday to address the issue of violence. “A taskforce has been created to respond to the need to foster companionship and partnership between different ethnic groups,” she said, “We have to have a situation that involves not just the schools, but also the community.”
All Photographs taken by Sarah Garland.