Melissa Ortega migrated with her mother from Zacatecas, Mexico, to the United States in July 2021.
A year and a half later, on a snowy and cold Sunday afternoon, Little Village residents and community activists gathered on the corner of West 26th Street and South Pulaski Road. The gloomy weather only accentuated the cruel reality that had brought them together: the shooting death of Melissa, 8, in that same spot in January 2022.
She is remembered as a “happy, bright, charming, sociable little girl with a wonderful imagination,” according to artist Milton Coronado.
“One year ago, we met here due to a tragedy, a tragedy that has traumatized our community again, and again, and again,” said Baltazar Enriquez of the Little Village Community Council. “So we have all come together to see: What is the solution? What is it that we can do to stop this violence?”
On Jan. 22, 2022, Melissa and her mother were crossing South Pulaski Road holding hands when a 16-year-old on juvenile probation opened fire in broad daylight after seeing a rival flash gang signs, according to prosecutors. He hit his target, but he also shot Melissa — who was wearing a pink hat — in the head. She fell to the ground.
[ 8-year-old girl fatally struck by stray bullet in Little Village ]
Emilio Corripio, a teen prosecutors said was a self-admitted member of the Latin Kings, then got back into a car driven by 27-year-old Xavier Guzman, and the two then drove to buy sandwiches and drinks. Four days after Melissa’s killing, her mother, Aracelia Leanos, released a statement forgiving the shooter.
“To the aggressor. I forgive you. You were a victim too. As a 16-year-old, the community failed you, just like it failed my precious baby,” Leanos said. “Words cannot describe the pain I am feeling. On January 22 I lost my greatest treasure in life. I lost my princess. She was the reason why I got up every morning.”
Community activists on Sunday spoke about a culture of violence that needs to be dealt with so young people stop turning to crime and guns.
“Here we have an 8-year-old victim, and the aggressor is 16 years old — just eight years apart. So we definitely have a problem here that we need to get to the core (of),” Enriquez said.
He said the Little Village Community Council will be opening a mental health clinic to address the psychological effects of violence and trauma in the neighborhood, which he called a “resilient community.” Additionally, he said, the council will establish a committee called Mothers and Families for Justice to help reform the police department’s homicide division.
“I wish we didn’t have to remember her in this way, but we remember her anyway. And we didn’t want this date to pass without remembering her and raising awareness of the importance of stopping violence and investing in our children,” said Selene Partida, who helped organize the march, in Spanish. “We’re here to remind the community, Little Village, all the Mexicans who live here, everyone who has cried over Melissa’s death, and everyone who has lost a loved one to violent crime, that we’re not going to let it pass, that we remember them and that their lives were not in vain.”
Kristian Armendariz, community organizer with Little Village Community Council, said the council will also be launching the Peace Project, which has been in the works for the last three months and which will offer job readiness, mental health and financial literacy services to young people ages 18 to 25.
“It’s about time somebody implements this type of initiative in our community,” he said. “All these nonprofit organizations that receive violence prevention money, funding, they should be out here, fighting for Melissa; they should be out here providing more services for our youth, because our youth is our future — and if we don’t invest in our youth, what are we doing?”
In 2020 and 2021, there was an increase in shootings, both fatal and nonfatal, of youths 17 and younger in the city of Chicago.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, also spoke Sunday. “These are not statistics; they are not numbers,” he said. “These are young people — these are our young people. Our families are being torn apart by senseless violence.”
He mentioned a national mental health crisis among youth that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Chicago, he said, 3,000 to 5,000 children in Chicago Public Schools are considered at risk of being victims of violence.
“What are doing to prevent this? What are we doing to keep our families, our kids safe?” he asked. “Mental health services are vital and we must invest in them,” he said. “We need to reopen public health mental clinics, and that’s what we’re demanding of all of those politicians that want to represent the city of Chicago.”
Sigcho-Lopez referenced the Dec. 16 shooting at Benito Juarez Community Academy, which left two students dead and injured two others. He also mentioned Little Village vendors being “brutalized and robbed” — after tamaleros experienced a string of armed robberies in December — and the need to ensure they have safe spaces to work.
After these speeches at the corner of 26th and Pulaski, the group of approximately 30 people walked three blocks west toward South Keeler Avenue. There, the group stopped next to a vibrant mural celebrating Melissa’s life — her smiling face surrounded by a rainbow, flowers, balloons and clouds.
“Though she struggled with speaking English, she was easily making friends and discovering her passion for writing and teaching,” said Coronado, who painted the mural alongside another artist known as “The Kid from Pilsen.” Melissa would gather water, soda and shampoo bottles, place them in a circle and pretend they were students so she could teach them.
Community members and activists released white balloons, set down candles and roses, and shared a moment of prayer. In front of the mural, a small tree grows. It was planted there in memory of Melissa as part of the Peace Tree Project, which seeks to promote peace in Chicago neighborhoods affected by gun violence.
“Let these (candles) that we hold in our hands soften the reminder of these lives and what it is we aim for together, to struggle together, to live together, to love each other together, to embrace each other together, to work toward a better city together,” Coronado said. “I invite you today to love, because in love we will find peace, truth and, most definitely, justice.”