Peace in the Streets and Options for Youth: The Work of New Life Centers

Paulino Vargas carries out an arduous effort to guide and support with empathy children and young people from Little Village to steer them away from gangs and violence, develop their potential, and focus on sports and recreational activities.

Paulino Vargas, manager of the Restorative Justice Street Outreach program in the streets of Little Village at New Life Centers. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza)

Paulino Vargas, manager of the Restorative Justice Street Outreach program in the streets of Little Village at New Life Centers. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza) Crédito: Impremedia

We know that violence is a reality in Chicago. Specifically, in Latino neighborhoods, its residents have learned to live with the concern that at any moment a shootout or violent event may occur. What perhaps many people are unaware of is that, in those neighborhoods affected by violence, there are leaders, mentors, organizations, and community efforts willing to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to prevent more youth and children from falling victim to violence.

New Life Centers is one of those organizations gaining more strength. It currently operates in different locations, in neighborhoods with a significant Latino population. New Life Centers is recognized in the community for offering various resources, including educational, mentorship, outreach and connection with youth, promoting social and emotional support.

Paulino Vargas, manager of the Restorative Justice Street Outreach program in the streets of Little Village for New Life Centers, has dedicated the last 10 years of his life working as a mentor in New Life Centers connecting with the youth.

When asked how he would describe his title at New Life Centers, Vargas indicated: “What we do cannot be explained, it has to be seen. Many wonder: what is outreach? We work almost 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, including holidays, depending on what is required because of the gangs in Little Village.”

It is known that there are three gangs in Little Village, revealed Paulino Vargas, or Lino as many in the Little Village community know him. “In Lawndale, you have to watch out; from Lawndale to California there’s another gang, and from California to Damen is the third gang, which are the largest in the city. You have to work with everyone, but they cannot be mixed because there are problems.”

In fact, most of the youth Vargas works with are already part of a gang, have records for weapon possession, theft, or drug offenses, among other crimes, have been incarcerated, and many of them are on probation. With them, the focus is to prevent reoffending in crimes or violent acts and remind them that they could lose their life at any moment if they continue to be immersed in violence.

Another group, which Paulino Vargas considers preventative and in which he firmly believes as part of the solution to the violence problem, is supporting children and youth to guide them with empathy and attend to their attention needs, focus them on recreational and sports activities, where they can express their aptitudes, focus their potential, and connect them with a mentor. This is how you can transform the lives of these young people.

Indeed, the work of Vargas and many other mentors at New Life Centers is constant, consisting of meeting with the youth during the afternoons. The relationship between mentor and youth is to know their basic needs about family dynamics, what troubles the young person, personal concerns or dreams, and from there take action and look for options to help the youth.

Generally, children or youth immersed in violence come from low-income families that work constantly and do not have the opportunity to be involved in their children’s development. They are children who, in gangs, the streets, and the vicious cycle of violence, find a refuge for their lack of attention, affection, and lack of opportunities. Vargas stated: “most are gang members because their parents, grandparents, brothers, uncles, someone was a gang member, and it’s the life they know, someone has to come and help with that.”

Paulino commented that successive generations settled in Little Village have seen how their community continues to be affected by violence and the three gangs that dominate that area have managed to establish their territory and have learned to recruit young people from that community, offering them a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and brotherhood.

Maintaining Peace

Leaders of New Life Centers have made cordial agreements with the gangs to allow mentors to intervene with youth involved in violence. That pact with the gangs is an achievement they keep reserved and is a topic they prefer not to address. Paulino Vargas has witnessed many stories of youth who have ended that cycle of violence through New Life Centers’ programs, considering that, in many cases, the parents of those youth were gang members. In Little Village, gangs are generational, a legacy of hate and fights between factions.

A crucial role is that of the Peacekeepers, who are part of New Life Centers. From Wednesday to Saturday, they are in the community from 4 pm until the early morning hours, ready to intervene and prevent the youth from committing a crime. Vargas shared: “We face the same risks as a police officer, but without the weapons they carry, I don’t have a bulletproof vest, nor a gun, nor a whistle to blow, and we are in the middle of shootouts. But the Peacekeepers want to see a change in the community, we know the risk, we will die one day, but for a good cause.”

Nostalgically, Vargas longs for Little Village to become that safe, vibrant, lively neighborhood he is proud of and in which he also grew up. And he recognized, “growing up in Little Village is harder than in other neighborhoods because of the violence. I don’t like hearing that people want to leave here; I want Little Village to become a community where everyone wants to come.” At the same time, he reiterated about his neighborhood that “it’s a pride to be from here, I like the people who are here, even if they are gang members. Most of the guys are kind, they just look for an opportunity to do something with their lives.”

Through various leisure activities, interventions, emotion management, mental health, tutoring, classes, and peace mediators, New Life Centers has managed to contribute positively to creating real changes in Little Village. Vargas believes that in addition to the work of organizations like New Life Centers, families, residents, the community, teachers, schools need to be more compassionate and humane, not judge without first knowing the story of the young people exposed to violence. “That’s the bad thing, many people who have left the neighborhood and succeeded, many don’t come back to tell others ‘I also grew up here, I can help you, it’s possible for you to succeed’. They are not interested in coming back here,” Vargas noted.

For Vargas, the fact of being alive, surviving day by day the violence in neighborhoods like Little Village, is a success story. Many have seen how family members, schoolmates, neighbors, children, and young people have died at the hands of violence. Therefore, for every child and young person living in neighborhoods marked by violence, being alive is an achievement. The community in general has trained its mindset to live with and overcome the trauma of violence; without a doubt, this community is resilient.

A basic example of success for many of these young people is graduating from high school, learning a technical trade. Continuing their studies at a higher level is not even a wish or goal because there are not many references of that nature in their immediate environment. Therefore, programs with mentors and counselors like those of New Life Centers are making a difference.

Omar Pérez, a professional boxer, received support from mentors at New Life Center and has achieved success in sports, distancing himself from violence. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

Fists of Hope

Amidst all the adversities caused by violence in Little Village, it’s also possible to emphasize and promote success stories like that of professional boxer Omar Pérez, who is a second-generation resident of Little Village. His parents lived closely and experienced violence from birth, so Pérez learned from a young age to understand and adapt to the constant episodes of violence, shootings, and gang misdeeds in his neighborhood.

Pérez said, “I know friends who were gang members, have been in jail or died, they are no longer with us.” His parents explained the dangers and consequences, never hiding that their surroundings were unsafe. From that moment, Pérez knew he wanted to take a different path, never finding it attractive to be part of the violence.

For that reason, when he began to be part of New Life Centers’ activities, Pérez dedicated his energy to boxing. This passion comes from his family: his grandfather was always a big fan of boxing, and Pérez trained constantly at the gym located on 23rd Street and Millard. “I brought 10 or 15 friends to boxing, they tried it, some liked it and are still there, but few continued, it was hard. Boxing is not for everyone,” Pérez said.

For him, 90% of this sport is mental concentration and discipline, the rest is physical performance and training. Two of his favorite Latino boxers are ‘Canelo’ Álvarez and David Benavidez, and they are undoubtedly an inspiration to keep improving his boxing skills. In 2020, Pérez graduated from high school and acknowledges that the guidance and advice of mentors like Paulino Vargas positively influenced him to continue focusing on boxing and to graduate. The support of his family and girlfriend was another great motivation in life.

Five months after starting his boxing training, Omar Pérez won his first belt in a tournament. In the last 10 years of his boxing career, he has more than 85 fights to his credit, some losses have motivated him to continue perfecting his techniques, and his dream is to fight in Las Vegas and become a world champion. His most recent professional triumph was last September, winning by knockout the title of ‘The Midwest Boxing Showcase’ in Hammond, Indiana. For now, Pérez collaborates with New Life Centers delivering pantries to needy families, enjoys his two-year-old daughter, and trusts in being able to offer his family a different opportunity for life in a safer neighborhood. Pérez’s advice for children and youth exposed to violence is: “never feel pressured to do things, you should have the vision to follow your own route and create your own path, that’s how I avoided many things.”

Resistance and Courage

New Life Centers is part of CP4P (Communities Partnering 4 Peace), an initiative that recognizes there are neighborhoods with challenges for their residents and where models are implemented inviting inhabitants to participate in solutions to control guns and violence, working hand in hand with public agencies and authorities. These programs also receive funding from the city of Chicago and significant organizations, with leaders supporting the work of violence prevention and the rescue of safe communities.

Regarding how children or youth have access to firearms, Paulino Vargas stated that “it’s a good question for the government,” but gun control is not something New Life Centers focus on. They work on preventing violence and rescuing more youth from that fate.

The community of Little Village lives day by day, its residents go to work, school, their usual activities, to continue with their lives. Despite the challenges and violence, its inhabitants are resilient. When interviewing Mrs. Maricruz, who runs a street fruit and snack stand on Pulaski Road, one of the busiest avenues in Little Village, she mentioned she has suffered violent physical assaults and has been close to losing her life on several occasions. With sacrifices, like many other families, she moved forward with her daughter, and she and her close ones have experienced violence in this neighborhood. However, they do not leave Little Village because that is where they live and work, where they have been established for over 20 years.

Mrs. Maricruz, who preferred not to reveal her last name, explained it was difficult, but she found a way to keep an eye on her daughter: “during the afternoons, I would bring my daughter to the stand and here with me, she would do her homework, and when finished, we would go home.” Mrs. Maricruz, originally from Veracruz, Mexico, considered that being aware of children at all times is important to steer them away from bad actions and companies, and said she has seen how Little Village businesses have been affected and had to close due to violence. Nonetheless, she gathers courage and goes out to sell on the streets, undoubtedly one of the riskiest professions in this neighborhood.

Mr. Roberto, who worked for many years in the heart of Little Village and knows the neighborhood well, believes that not all the responsibility to act on violence lies with schools or institutions. “It starts at home, you have to know how to relate as a family, sometimes home dynamics are violent, abusive, there isn’t a cordial relationship between parents and also with the children. That’s a serious problem that children and youth replicate in their schools, on the streets, in their community, the practice of violence,” asserted Roberto, who preferred to withhold his last name.

He asserts that parents need to be educated that not all responsibility for violence is necessarily because there are gangs or violence. “It’s because something happens at home,” indicated Roberto. He was also a victim of violence, experienced jail, and now is dedicated to offering talks on improving relationships and steering clear of vices. He is grateful for having a second chance and takes advantage of it by helping his community. But unfortunately, according to Roberto, the issue of violence “is about pride and selfishness among people, with pride, mutual aid is not practiced to reduce violence and often there is no show of love at home, in the household.”

Opinions on the state of violence in Little Village are mixed and very diverse. Some highlight that even with insecurity, families have opportunities to succeed, to achieve success stories, like Mrs. Maria, who has lived in Little Village for two decades. She arrived to settle with her family and immediately found a community that made her feel like in Mexico, with its traditions, customs, neighbors who were like family. She acknowledges that there are times when one should be careful when walking the streets, especially at night it can become more dangerous. Mrs. Maria, who also opted not to reveal her last name, had the opportunity to stay at home and take care of her two sons, both now university graduates with degrees in accounting and graphic design, and firmly believes that being involved at all times in her children’s lives made the difference in steering them away from bad influences.

One of Maria’s pointed observations, she said, is that “especially in seventh, eighth grade, and freshman year of high school is when children need more attention, that’s when they are more exposed to gangs and bad influences, when children are not accompanied by an adult they are always the easiest prey to become victims of violence, bad influences, or gangs.” In her opinion, the fact that there are mentorship programs helps a lot for the youth to correct themselves, but definitely, parents must participate in their children’s interests.

A worker at a tire shop located on Pulaski and 28th streets commented that, just a day before, close to noon, a shootout had broken out there, in front of his workplace. “No one was injured, but situations like that are common in this area,” stated the resident, who has lived in Little Village for more than 17 years. When asked if he had any idea about the reason for the shooting, he responded that “it was most likely gang-related, what else?” He, too, experienced violence closely as a teenager and was afraid of ending up like his cousin, murdered at 14, and like other friends who also died due to violence. Fortunately, he managed to distance himself from bad influences and decided to direct his life on the right path; now, he fears for his son and is aware of the talks and mentorship provided by organizations like New Life Centers and the work many churches do. He himself took advantage of these talks when he was a teenager and applauds the existence of such assistance to guide parents with their children, so that young people have more opportunities to hear experiences from others. He assured that one of the major problems in this country, which offers so many opportunities, is that parents focus on work and do not have time for their children.

Roberto, a member of the self-help group Guerreros Chicago. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

Violence in Numbers

Recent data from the Chicago Police Department indicate that District 10, which includes Little Village, reported a total of 2,385 crime complaints by mid-October 2023, including murders, sex crimes, assaults, and car thefts, among others. Complaints of shooting incidents accounted for 136. In 2022, the total number of crime complaints was 1,908, with 175 complaints of shooting incidents.

At the time of this article’s conclusion, according to data from the City of Chicago’s portal, it was evident that 2023 would surpass the number of victims of violent crimes. As of October 2023, the 60608 zip code, covering part of Little Village, reported 814 victims of violent crimes per 10,000 residents, while the 60623 zip code, also covering part of Little Village, reported 1,472 victims of violent crimes per 10,000 residents. In 2022, the total number of all violent crimes in the 60608 zip code was 709, and in the 60623 zip code, 1,628 violent crimes were recorded.

The rate of shootings and homicides in different areas is one of the main indicators listed in Chicago’s comprehensive violence reduction plan ‘Our City, Our Safety’, which measures disparities between neighborhoods that experience relatively little violence and those that continue facing this grave issue. In predominantly African American and Latino communities, violence has persisted for decades due to root causes like systemic racism, lack of investment in those communities, poverty, lack of social services, and, unfortunately, using the police as the primary solution has failed.

One of the many challenges for communities like Little Village is having more assistance for the youth. Paulino Vargas asserted, “jails don’t work; the government, the city, have to change the laws so that there are opportunities for youth who have had criminal records, we need to offer them education, training to develop their skills and allow them to reintegrate into the community.”

For many residents in the Little Village community, the trauma of violence is real, and sometimes many families directly affected prefer to keep it a secret, but they need to talk to professionals about their experiences with violence, their fears, and anxieties, to be able to receive help.

Recently, there has been a more conscious openness to talk about their emotions, about how to understand and manage injuries caused by violence. Mothers who have lost children to violence have formed support groups to alleviate their pain and prevent more human losses. Paulino Vargas recommends seeking help; there are different programs, emotional support groups, resources with various organizations, and community events where people are guided and connected with different services. Assistance is possible.

For better or worse, and considering how much remains to be done to foster greater safety and opportunities, many of the families that continue in Little Village and experience incidents of violence do not think about moving from their neighborhood; they wish to remain part of this community. Here they have their stories, their dreams, their memories. Here they are happy, they feel at home.

Contact New Life Centers

New Life Centers offers the peacemaker program in its offices in Little Village, Pilsen, and Brighton Park. New Life Centers also has offices in Humboldt Park and Midway.

Address: Little Village / Pilsen: 2657 S Lawndale Ave. Chicago, IL 60623

Brighton Park: 4155 S Rockwell St. Chicago, IL 60632

Phone: 312-736-2466



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The production and publication of this story by La Raza have been made possible in part thanks to a grant from the Chicago Community Trust through its Cross Community Impact grant program.

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