As Milwaukee moved into 2016, it left behind a bloody year in which homicides surpassed numbers totaled in 2014. As news outlets covered each violent act in 2015, most of the voices being heard were from adults — parents, neighbors, police and politicians. Very few teenagers had the opportunity to tell how violence had impacted their lives.
Teenagers at Casa Romero Renewal Center on Orchard Street don’t represent every demographic that lives withinMilwaukee County, but their stories have value and deserve to be heard.
Founded in 2001 by executive director Jesuit Fr. David Shields, Casa Romero describes itself as an urban, multicultural, bilingual spiritual center inspired by Catholic and Ignatian traditions. Four main areas of focus are youth development, family enrichment, spiritual formation and social justice awareness.
Valencia Lynch, youth programs director, is a Milwaukee native and graduate of Marquette University and UW-Madison. She knows what the kids at Casa Romero go through.
“When you grow up around that (violence), it’s not really extra work. You do what you have to do,” she said. “Your mind just adapts to that environment and you don’t even think about it. It’s like a coat you wear and you can never take it off. It is what it is.”
Seventeen-year-old Deangelo Cortes walks almost everywhere. He walks from home on 21st and Grant streets to his school, Escuela Verde Carter School, on 37th and Pierce streets, almost 2.5 miles one way.
“Sometimes I walk home, sometimes I get a ride,” he said.
Last December he was walking from his dad’s house to a friend’s house late one night when he walked into a life or death situation.
“Like three weeks ago, I was walking to a friend’s house and I was held at gun point and I got robbed,” Cortes said. “A bunch of people got out of a car, there was guns. It was terrible … I didn’t have a phone to contact anyone. I didn’t even know what to do.”
Cortes said he just put his hands up and they took his cell phone and anything of value.
“They were reaching into my pockets and being really rough,” he said. “One of them thought that one of my earrings were real and tried to rip it out. My ear was bleeding … it was really bad.”
During that time, Cortes said he was thinking, “Can I run? … What if the gun isn’t loaded?”
“But at the same time, they could probably beat me up so I wasn’t trying to get hurt,” he said.
Cortes said his dad didn’t have any illusions about the neighborhood and gave him a taser for protection.
“He knew I would be going out late and he’s like, ‘Just keep it in your backpack for whatever, just in case,’ and that’s not going to help me at all if people have guns,” Cortes said. “It happened really quick, but it felt like forever.”
The taser was also stolen.
Cortes’ mother, Annie Rivera, family programs director for Casa Romero, was shocked by what happened.
“I get this call the next day that he was held at gun point,” Rivera said. “My heart dropped because a gun was pointed at my son. Not just around him but at my son. And anything could’ve happened.”
Rivera asked her son if he called the police; he didn’t. At first she was angry that the police weren’t called until she heard his explanation.
“He never saw their faces,” she said. “That’s why he never called the police. He didn’t see the car. He just kind of looked down.”
It’s a difficult truth that some parents and children face in Milwaukee.
“It was very scary and that’s a reality we face living here,” Rivera said. “I’m worried about him.”
At minimum, there’s one lesson he learned.
“Now I take the busy streets,” Cortes said.
Jasmine Benavidez grew up feeling that her neighborhood was safe. The 16-year-old Divine Savior Holy Angels student said around third grade, things began to change.
“I don’t know what started but a lot of bad stuff happened,” Benavidez said. “There (were) multiple drive-bys, my uncle got shot twice and he almost died.”
Benavidez said she’s seen people walk through the neighborhood looking like they had been beaten up. In response, her family has installed security cameras and she’s become more cautious.
“Yeah, I’m a girl and I am aware that I’m a bit more vulnerable,” Benavidez said. “I usually don’t go out much. If we do need to walk, my mom makes sure there are multiple people with me.”
Despite the negative media coverage about crime on the South Side, Benavidez knows not everyone who lives there is connected to crime. However, that translation may have been lost on those teenagers who only know about the crime in her neighborhood and aren’t willing to reciprocate a friendship with her. The loss of potential friendships has been collateral damage caused by violence in the city.
As a student at DSHA, a school which has a high number of students living outside of Milwaukee, Benavidez feels there’s a lack of understanding among those at the school who are ignorant about crime in the city. Her experiences in her neighborhood don’t always align with the opinions of some of her classmates.
“Whenever they talk about the South Side of Milwaukee it’s always with a bad connotation,” she said. “There are good people that live here.”
The idea that crime only happens in a certain neighborhood is something that offends Benavidez.
“You can get robbed anywhere,” she said, adding someone’s car was stolen from the DSHA parking lot.
She added it’s even difficult to create or maintain friendships that develop at the school.
“If we invite them over to our house on the South Side, they won’t come because they’re paranoid,” she said.
Due to the sensitive nature of the information revealed, myFaith has chosen to change the name of the teenager .
Seventeen-year-old Julio is proactive when it comes to his safety.
“When I walk, I always take a knife or a gun, a BB gun,” Julio said. “It looks so real because it’s real metal.”
A student at high school in the city of Milwaukee, Julio said sometimes more drastic measures need to be taken.
“When I’m with friend, we’re in a car usually but they actually do carry guns inside the car,” he said. “These are real guns, real bullets.”
For them, it’s about survival.
“That’s how we keep ourselves safe, like a family, mostly like a gang,” he said. “But we’re just friends that met at school, but we don’t do crazy stuff like gang members. We just feel the need to bring one (gun) because of all the violence that’s happening outside.”
The harsh realities of the world came close to home for Julio several years ago.
“I was playing with my brothers and neighbors when we heard six firecrackers; that’s what we thought,” Julio said, adding they were in the backyard of their house on 26th and Mitchell streets.
They quickly ran to see what was going on.
“We went in front … we saw three people lying down. Teenagers,” he said.
Julio said he thought one of them was dead and two of them were injured.
“This area is really bad,” he said. “It could seem like a nice, peaceful area but it’s not.”
For some families, they have other things to worry about besides violence.
“Not long ago, like two nights ago, Immigration (and Customs Enforcement) came to a home on 17th and Mitchell streets and I heard it,” Julio said. “My friend called me (and said) to lock the doors.”
Brandon Celis remembers almost being robbed over a year ago. He was walking on the sidewalk around 13th and Mitchell streets when a man approached him and demanded his wallet and cell phone.
“In that moment I tried to not be scared. I tried to talk to the guy,” Celis said. “I tried to have a conversation with the person like, ‘You know, people work hard everyday.’ I tried to give him a lecture. I don’t know why. I don’t know what gave me the idea.”
At the time, Celis didn’t know if the man was armed but Celis said he made sure he was aware of his surroundings to see if he could escape.
Then the situation escalated.
“He’s like ‘I’m going to call my brother over,’ and I’m like ‘Call him.’
And so he whistled and so that’s when I took the opportunity to go back and I walked to this elote (Mexican grilled corn) guy,” Celis said. “I can say this elote man saved my life, well, saved me from being robbed.”
Now 17 and attending Carmen High School of Science and Technology, Celis said he felt “paranoid” after that close call.
“I just don’t like the fact that we have to live among fear,” he said. “I feel like fear is controlling us and we shouldn’t let that happen.”
Celis said friends and schools are an important influence, but teenagers and young kids need more.
“Our city doesn’t have a role model,” he said. “Someone who we can look up to who you can say, ‘I want to be like that guy.’”
Celis says he tries to go to church when he can — his family attends Mass at St. Anthony Parish, but he doesn’t feel like the church is doing enough.
“I think the church is neutral; they just don’t try to get involved,” he said. “I’ve never seen them try to change violence or anything.”
Casa Romero has been a safe space for these kids and others to gather.
“A Catholic priest thought outside the box,” Annie Cortes said about Casa Romero. “I am so proud to be part of a place like this because this place changed me.”
Cortes uses her time at Casa Romero to prepare retreats for teenagers that focus on issues within Milwaukee.
During the interview she spoke directly to the kids.
“It’s not with a gun that you’re going to feel safe,” she told them. “I don’t feel safe because that dude has a gun but I’m going to grab a gun to feel safe? Understand, hate is not going to kill hate. That’s not going to conquer it. If we’re trying to stomp this out, we can’t use the same tactics.”
Where do we go from here?
It occurs to me, as I’m typing this, that the day is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Every year on this day we celebrate a great man of faith and cause. A minister who preached in front of a congregation but realized the way to enact change is to step outside of church walls and into the streets.
When I listened to the stories of those four teenagers speaking on the violence which is a reality in their lives, I came away feeling exhausted and empathetic for them. I’ve never had a gun (loaded or not) pointed at me while strangers put their hands in my pockets and tried to rip my earrings from their lobes.
I’ve never had to strategize the safest walking route home. I’ve never had a friend who didn’t want to hang out with me because of my neighborhood. I’ve never had to escape a situation and rely on the safety of someone passing by. I never felt the need to carry a gun for protection while I was still in high school.
In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, there are many programs inspired by the Catholic faith that help the poor and vulnerable. Casa Romero, an urban, bilingual retreat center, helps people on the South Side of the city. The House of Peace, run by the Capuchins, feeds and clothes people on the North Side. The St. Ben’s Community Meal Program, also run by the Capuchins, feeds the poor across the street from the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul serves the hungry with a meal site on each side of the city and with stores which provide household goods and clothing to those with a tight budget. That’s naming only a few of the many outreaches done under the umbrella of the Catholic Church.
There are a lot of parishes and orginizations that gather food and clothes for the needy and drop them off at shelters in the city. For some parishioners, that might be the only time they try to help someone in this community. What good does doing only that do? The needs are there the day before those goods are dropped off and the day after.
The feeling I got from these teenagers was one of abandonment. If their family and friends don’t help them stay safe, no one else will.
I’m not suggesting the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is abandoning the youth in bad neighborhoods, but perhaps there is a lack of visibility.
In June, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki appointed Fr. Tim Kitzke vicar general with a special emphsis on urban ministry. In this capacity, he is leading efforts to curb violence in the city and to hopefully address concerns like those expressed by the young people at Casa Romero.
It’s my hope that through his efforts, youth like Brandon Celis, who said he believes the church is neutral and inactive regarding violence in the city, will know the church truly is there and is working to make a difference in his life.
When I look at political and social movements like Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street, I see that seven months can change entire communities. The use of the Internet and social media can galvanize people of different backgrounds behind a common goal to work with each other in ways other movements could never have.
In the last year while walking to a friend’s house, a teenage participant of Casa Romero was robbed at gunpoint. The city of Milwaukee’s homicide count reached 145.
Eventually Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to step out from behind the pulpit, out of the pew and go where the problem was. On this day, as I type this, I listen to his “I Have A Dream” speech. On that day, he stood on the National Mall and took America to church.
“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he said. “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
It’s a new year; it’s time to get out of the pews and into the streets.