With her backpack slung across her shoulder, Mireya Coriano, 19, leans in to kiss her mother goodbye.
Lydia Coriano whispers to her daughter, “Te quiero, mantenerse a salvo” – I love you, stay safe.
With her short pixie haircut–half black half red–and her dark eyeliner smeared across her upper eyelid, Coriano appears strong and unafraid. But deep down, she says she’s an anxious young Latina, fearful for her life.
She doesn’t feel safe in her Brighton Park neighborhood, which has experienced four homicides in the last year. She, like too many of Chicago’s youth, fears stepping outside her home and being shot or even killed.
The streets of her Southwest Side neighborhood are marked with graffiti, indicating which gangs control the area. They battle over territory and women, who fluctuate between opposing crews.
Boarded windows, broken-down cars and For Sale signs in windows of cars and homes highlight the challenges this poverty-stricken neighborhood faces.
Nearly one in four households in Brighton Park live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census data computed by the city of Chicago. The area’s per-capita income stands at just $14,000 – far less than Chicago’s $27,000.
“I usually walk to school with some of my friends in the morning. It’s safer to walk in a group than alone,” Coriano says as she kicks shards of glass on the sidewalk.
Coriano’s appearance makes her an easy target among her friends who don’t stick out as they walk along California Avenue to school.
Her friends have long black hair with similar dark eyeliner, but their clothing allows them to blend in with the crowds. Unlike them, Coriano’s top leaves little to the imagination.
Coriano’s 10-block walk to Kelly High School usually takes about 20 minutes, but on a cold April morning, it takes almost half an hour in the searing wind. Coriano arrives with just minutes to spare before the starting bell.
She grimaces before stepping into the brown-bricked building, foreshadowing a long day of math, science and English she will have to endure. She’s not a fan of school, but at least while she’s inside its walls, she feels safe.
Like her older siblings, Carlos and Maria, Coriano makes the same journey to school they did years before, but hers is more dangerous.
In 2009, when both Carlos and Maria attended Kelly, there were 459 homicides citywide, a 10 percent decrease from the year before, according to the Chicago Police Department’s 2009 Chicago Murder Analysis. Seven of those homicides were in Brighton Park, according to RedEye’s Tracking Homicide Data. Last year, as Coriano made her way to school each day, the city had 513 homicides, with 11 in Brighton Park.
For Coriano, Brighton Park is home, but not an especially safe place. According to the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), in 2012 the 9th Police District reported a total of 43 homicides and 152 shootings. A predominately Hispanic area, Brighton Park accounted for eight of those homicides and 27 of the shootings.
“I feel safe once I get to school,” Coriano says. “I’m not in danger while there, but it doesn’t stop me from worrying what happens after school.”
While at school, it’s easy for Coriano to forget—at least for a few hours—what’s happened to some of her friends and neighbors.
Alejandro Jaime, 14, was shot and killed May 18, 2012 while he and a friend were riding their bikes.
“He lived a couple blocks away from me,” Coriano says. “I didn’t know him very well, but he was killed so close to my house. We can’t even go outside and ride our bikes without being shot at and killed.”
When Coriano is not at school, she’s is inside her home safely doing homework, singing at her high school’s choir practice or participating in an after-school program. She’s not outside.
Latinos Progresando’s after-school program Teatro Americano, funded by After School Matters, aims to empower youth by allowing them to perform stories that express their community’s ambitions, success and worries, including violence.
In the scenes where Coriano participates in role-playing, she combats violence or bullying. She pulls away from an acting attacker, getting into a strong posture and saying in a firm loud calm voice, “That is not okay with me. I am leaving now.”
“I don’t like seeing bullying or violence in my community,” Coriano says. “When we do these exercises I feel like I need to be the one to stop the violence, or at least prevent it from going any further.”
Police blame many of the deaths citywide on gangs.
Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s executive director believes murders and “violence is up in Brighton Park,” but he doesn’t think it’s up as much as other neighborhoods.
The reason why there are so many murders is because killers rarely get caught, Patrick Brosnan says.
“They never catch anybody, they don’t even try. Go ask any of these kids why they don’t talk about these murders, it’s because they know nothing is going to happen.”
9th District police and commander had no comments to these allegations.
He believes if these kids can get away with murder, they’re going to commit murder, and they’re going to do it again and again. And that’s why there are so many murders in Chicago and in these neighborhoods.
“There are murders and there’s violence because it’s allowed to happen,” Brosnan says. “No matter what we do, if they don’t catch these murders, there’s still going to be a lot of murders.”
Two-Six gang controls much of the Brighton Park area, according to Chicago Police Department maps. Next to Two-Six gang territory is Satan Disciples, both of which are affiliated with Folks Nation Alliance, according to Chicago Gangs Index website.
Brosnan says Brighton Park has different types of violence that interact in a dangerous way against the youth in the area. A lot of the work Brighton Park Neighborhood Council does is try to find alternatives to violence for these youths in the neighborhood and keep them safe and stable.
For Coriano, walking to and from her school can be very daunting.
“I always have to be on the lookout,” Coriano says. “I don’t want to be another victim of gang violence and the shootings in Chicago.”
While much of the gang involvement is predominately male, there is a tendency for Hispanic females to be involved in gangs, especially if they are a girlfriend or a girl who has a child with a member of Latin Kings.
Coriano feels these pressures from male Hispanic gang members in her community – and she sees firsthand the consequences for those who join gangs.
“I just don’t want to be like those girls,” Coriano says. “I want to make something more out of my life rather than getting knocked up by some gang member and having to become his baby mama.”
One of Coriano’s largest influences is her mother who works two jobs to support her three children. Coriano’s father left the family when she was younger. The little time she has with her mom when she is home, she cherishes.
“I would never be as strong as I am without my madre’s help and love,” Coriano said. “I walk to school and in my neighborhood with the strength and guidance my madre taught me, with that I know I can do anything.”
This story was originally published in Extra Newspaper.