Teen Deaths Prompt Funeral Director to Act
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When gang violence hits Chicago's southwest side, it often means more business for Concepcion Rodriguez. But she's not particularly happy about that. Rodriguez is a funeral director and she says that she is tired of burying kids and teenagers.
Chicago Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer has the story of her crusade to keep kids out of gangs.
ROBERT WILDEBOER reporting:
If you didn't know better, you might think Concepcion Rodriguez suffers from mood swings. One minute she's laughing and jolly, raving about the Mexican food in her Pilsen neighborhood two miles from Chicago's Loop, and the next minute she's weeping because of the violence here. Both reactions appear to stem from her deep commitment to this Mexican community.
Ms. CONCEPCION RODRIGUEZ (Funeral Director, Chicago): This is the one house that I grew up in, 1912 South Miller. I haven't left the block since I got here.
WILDEBOER: A large woman, Rodriguez is kind of squished into the driver's seat of her white minivan. She's wearing a typical outfit for a funeral director, a nice black dress and jacket with a white blouse. This van doesn't smell good and there aren't any seats in the back. That's because it's the vehicle she uses to pick up bodies from the morgue. Turning off her street, she points out the local sights of interest.
Ms. RODRIGUEZ: A lot of makeshift memorials are all over. A little boy was shot here a couple of years ago, right after Anna Mateo.
WILDEBOER: Rodriguez often refers to Anna Mateo and our tour eventually leads to her family's house.
Ms. RODRIGUEZ: We can get out right here.
WILDEBOER: Five boys play kickball on the sidewalk, using a fire hydrant as home plate. The ball is constantly bouncing into the street.
(Soundbite of children shouting)
WILDEBOER: And hitting cars.
(Soundbite of car alarm)
WILDEBOER: A couple of years ago, seven-year-old Anna was playing here when a gang fight broke out at 18th Place and Hoyne. A bullet traveled two and a half blocks and struck her in the head, killing her.
Anna's mother sees us and comes out of the house. She recounts the tragedy and though Rodriguez has heard the story hundreds of times, she again weeps. But she's not content to just mourn with grieving families. Over the last seven years she's gone to schools, churches and community centers to try to convince kids to stay out of gangs. This day she's in a library.
Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Good afternoon. Buenos tardes.
WILDEBOER: A light pink metal casket with white satin lining stands between a globe and a bookshelf. It's just one of the gimmicks Rodriguez uses to get her message across.
Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I'm tired of burying kids. I'm tired of going to the morgue and picking up kids that are all mutilated because of autopsies.
WILDEBOER: She graphically details an autopsy, reads a remorseful letter from a gang member in jail and she tells how as a teen she and her friends thought it would be fun to start a gang called the Lady Aces.
Ms. RODRIGUEZ: All that changed for me when my girlfriend was walking down 18th and Blue Island with her boyfriend, who was a Latin Count, and they shot her three times, one in the neck, two in the head. They buried her in her Quinceanera dress.
WILDEBOER: While no one's second guessing Rodriguez's good intentions, Gordon McLean doesn't know how effective she is. He's with the group Youth for Christ and has spent 50 years working with kids who want to get out of gangs. He says you can't scare kids straight.
Reverend GORDON MCLEAN (Youth for Christ): You're not going to convince them with logic. The math of it says so many kids are going to, you know. It will not get through.
WILDEBOER: It didn't get through to Jose Sandoval. His mother sits at the kitchen table while young neighborhood kids come and go. She's crying about his gang involvement when he walks in. It's awkward, but he sits down to talk and says he remembers Rodriguez's presentation, but joined a gang called La Raza anyway.
Mr. JOSE SANDOVAL (La Raza gang member): I didn't give a damn about it, you know. I heard a bunch of times, you know, like the same thing, you know, don't join a gang, don't join a gang.
WILDEBOER: Jose's brother Ricardo is a different story. Rodriguez's talk seems etched in his mind. He remembers all sorts of details, like the Quinceanera dress and her deep concern.
Mr. RICARDO SANDOVAL (Chicago teenager): It's painful for her to see like little kids dying, even though it's her job. She doesn't want a future like that for all of us.
WILDEBOER: At 13, Ricardo's convinced and he's sworn off gangs. Stories like that fuel Concepcion Rodriguez's crusade. She says she has faith that in 20 years, people are going to come up to her and tell her she made a difference in their lives.
For NPR News, I'm Robert Wildeboer in Chicago.
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