The three of us arrive at a family party. Our son, happy to see his primos, joins them and immediately gets lost in the sea of relatives. My husband and I join the chorus of tios, tias, cousins with kisses and boisterous hellos and inside jokes. Steam rises from the aluminum trays of arroz con gandules and lechon–the smell smacks of identity and tradition. I especially love the crispy pig skin and I make sure to get more than my share. The storm of salsa playing sways hips and nods heads. Family parties are an experiment in sensory overload. Our love for each other is loud. The buoyancy we feel grows out from sharing common joys and struggles.
There are all kinds of family here. Some primos have shaped a life of steady employment, some formal education, and are providing a stable home for their children. Other primos are still on the journey towards being able to do that—some have circled in and out of physical and emotional prisons and their ties to the darkside of the streets follow us all to this moment: cars pull up and an explosion of young men stop our celebration with their guns. Chaos, screams of desperation as we move to protect our children. Nowhere to be found is my boy. My first born, Nano—the baby born to me at 19 who loved me to wholeness—cannot be found. My being is floating, lost above the crowd at the thought of the light of my life suffering and afraid.
This is a nightmare. I shake myself awake. I cannot take the anguish. For as many times as I have had this nightmare the final fate of my son is never confirmed. I wake up relieved that Nano is in fact at home and alive, but disturbed that even in this fictional world I have no certainty of his fate. I need this assurance because while this was a dream, this kind of violence and its randomness has been a part of my family’s experience since they migrated from Puerto Rico to Chicago in 1968. My father’s two teenage brothers Luis Angel and Wilson were killed in 1974 on the same night. Some say, once you bury your dead somewhere it becomes home. Chicago became our home a few times. Three decades later, my eighteen year old brother (with no gang ties) was ambushed with bullets on his way to work and thankfully survived. Funeral homes, hospitals and prisons were familiar settings of my childhood. The insecurity that violence produces in all its forms have shaped all aspects of how I move in the world including how I parent my children. How could it not?
My husband Jorge and I are raising our three sons in Chicago because this is where we have our family support and work that we love. What we’ve learned is that family is everything and that they can hold you up at times when you don’t know how to do it yourself. So leaving is not an option we can afford.
A couple of days ago I posed the following question on my Facebook page: “How do you TRY to balance the trauma you carry of knowing urban tragedy first hand and giving your child the space to be free?” Many wise mothers and children who grew up In Chicago responded. Everyone agreed that “not worrying” is not an option. All spoke about how they kept their children and teenagers involved in sports and arts programming, which is what we do with our boys. They spoke of having networks of other positive and loving adults who can reach your children perhaps when you cannot. Faith and prayer were mentioned a lot too.
There was this other subtle yet profound thread of thought in the responses from my friends who are activists or involved in community building work. They also seemed to speak about being non-oppressive in our parenting and open to dialogue with our children. Fear is oppressive. It makes people shrink their world. It narrows what they believe is possible for themselves and from others.
I posed the question to my diverse and wise Facebook friends after one of those fights with my teenager about freedom. Now in Chicago July is the deadliest month of the year. My blunt response to my almost 18 year-old (as he reminds me often these days) when he asked if he can skip the family barbeque to hangout with friends was, “No, people get killed on the 4th of July.” Which I thought would immediately bring him back to his senses and realize that hanging out with his little brothers and his parents and grandparents was his best bet for survival. Pero no. He insisted and gave us the silent treatment. Nano is no wild child; he was kind of born old. As a small child he would rather have long conversations with adults about all kinds of things than play on the swing set where he could get hurt. So even though I totally trust him, I am paralyzed by the fact that violence can occur without provocation.
What I was reminded about again by my friends’ responses is that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is confidence in a broad sense of possibility for their future. And that we can also teach problem solving and creating healthy boundaries in their exercise of freedom by processing decisions, consequences and our fears with them. So, after 2 hours of the tense standoff with our teenage son it occurred to me that we as parents can technically be right but still lose by missing the opportunity to teach and learn a greater lesson about how to live in the world. I had to struggle to reroute my fearful thoughts and focus them on trying to find some solution that would respect Nano’s need to be with his friends and my husband’s and my need to keep him safe. We all sat down and yelled and cried for a while—it’s called process, people—but eventually we were able to check our tone well enough so that we could actually hear each other’s needs and come to some agreements. “Yes, you can go out but only until 8pm when you will get on the bus back to the neighborhood and then you can hangout with Carlos your buddy across the street until midnight and check in.” We got through it. We were tired because it took so much energy to stick through the conversation but we did it and I’d like to think that for one night we kicked fear’s ass (nonviolently, of course).
Nano lived to tell his own version of this story but ten others were killed that weekend in Chicago. One of them was seven year old Amari Brown shot while watching fireworks on his front porch, sharing the fate of my uncles who were killed 41 years ago and whose death sparked so much pain in our own family. While families grieve the death of loved ones may we also nurture a sober view of our children’s right to be free in an unjust and sometimes very scary world. Because what the world needs are people who are free and can create new and more just ways of life for us all. We desperately need that.
May all our children be well.
Juliet de Jesus Alejandre is a hot mess of love and ideas about self/barrio transformation and healing. She is mama to 3 boys (Nano, and 4 year-old twins Mateo & Santiago) and partner to the best man she’s ever met (for real) Jorge Alejandre. She is Director of Youth Organizing at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago. Check out her posts on cultura and passionately practicing Chingona-ism (it’s a real thing, I promise) at http://theslimmingdownofgordiflona.wordpress.com.