Michelle Salazar, 36, can’t remember how many loose $1 bills she gave Xavier and Nathan Contreras this summer. But she didn’t care; she always caved.
“Almost every day I saw those kids on their bikes on the block, and they’d ask me for a dollar every time they saw me,” she said. “They’re so cute, I couldn’t say no.”
Xavier, 11, and Nathan, 13, died Sunday in a fire at their home in Little Village, the Cook County Medical Examiner said. Two of their siblings — Amaya Almaraz, 3 months, and Ariel Garcia, 5 — also perished, along with three of their first cousins — Alanni Ayala, 3, Gialanni Ayala, 5, and Giovanni Ayala, 10 — and Victor Mendoza, 16, a close family friend, authorities and relatives said. Another child, Cesar Contreras, 14, died Monday night while a 13-year-old boy remained in critical condition at Stroger Hospital, officials said.
The kids were together at the home in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue for a sleepover, authorities said.
Sunday’s fire, described by city officials as the deadliest in nearly half a century, ripped a hole in the hearts of many in the neighborhood. Dozens of family and friends of the deceased gathered at the home Monday to mourn. Many said they were cousins or close family friends of the deceased. Others had no relation to the family but wanted to pay their respects. All expressed pain and sorrow over the young lives lost.
One of those present was Arianna Rodriguez, 10, who was a cousin to several of the victims. Rodriguez says she spent much of the summer hanging out with her cousins and often looked after the younger ones while their parents ran errands.
“The last time I saw Alanni, she said ‘I love you,'” Rodriguez said. “I’m sure they’re all up there with my grandma.”
Angelo Diaz, 15, another cousin to many of the deceased, said that the children were visible parts of the community, even at a young age.
“Everyone knew these kids, man,” he said. “We all grew up together. It’s sad.”
Mendoza’s friends and relatives said he was a quiet guy who liked to stay inside and play Xbox, especially the game Fortnite.
“He was the sweetest, most genuine kid you could imagine,” said Jessica R., a friend of Mendoza who grew up with him in Little Village. “Look at his smile, it says it all,” she said, pointing to a picture of Mendoza that was displayed on a fence outside the home that included messages of hope and love.
Gabriel Gaviria, who lives a few blocks away from the memorial, arrived on his bike on Monday with an envelope in hand for the donation box set up on the sidewalk. He lost a 30-year-old son last week to gun violence, and wanted to help his grieving neighbors in their time of need.
“Unfortunately, I know what this is like. It’s an intense pain and you need all the help you can get,” he said in Spanish. “I don’t even know what to say. This hurts.”