Nanette Luna couldn’t imagine living without her son.
After Victor Felix Jr., her only son, was fatally shot in 2016 while on his way to school at John Hancock College Prep, she decided to keep the urn with his ashes near.
The wooden urn sits in her apartment surrounded by some of his favorite things — a bottle of Gatorade, his favorite barbecue sauce and a bag of Funyuns.
“Even though this is just a shell, that’s still my baby,” Luna said from her Southwest Side apartment. “And he belongs at home with me.”
Luna has pushed for an arrest in her son’s homicide. She’s spoken publicly about her son’s death, joined other parents at anti-violence rallies, called Chicago police and sent messages to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“How am I going to be able to push for my son when my heart and my life was shattered,” Luna said. “But you have to find that strength somewhere because if you aren’t your child’s voice and advocate, it’s just going to be swept under the rug.”
Her struggles to seek justice for her son mirror those of other Chicago parents who are navigating grief while seeking accountability. They’ve formed a community — mostly of Black and Latino parents — to support each other through the pain of unexpectedly losing a loved one while navigating the criminal justice system.
On Saturday, Elizabeth Ramirez asked a group of parents — who had come together to memorialize their children for Dia de Los Muertos outside of the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building in Little Village — how many have not gotten justice for their loved ones. Multiple hands shot up.
“None of us have got justice,” said Ramirez, the founder of Parents for Peace & Justice, one support group for grieving relatives. “The system has failed us in so many ways.”
In the past four years ago, more than 500 people have been killed in homicides each year in Chicago, according to an analysis of crime data from the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2020, there were 775 people killed in Chicago. This year, at least 670 people have been killed in homicides.
The year Luna’s son was killed, there were more than 770 homicides and only 29% were cleared, according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum. The homicide clearance rate increased in 2019 to 53%, though more than half of the cases were closed without an arrest.
At the Dia de Los Muertos memorial, photos of homicide victims dotted white crosses adorned with red hearts. Families also created traditional altars. Oreos, a Spongebob SquarePants figurine and a beer surrounded photos of Erick Macedo, who was fatally shot Sept. 28, while delivering food and driving on Interstate 55 near Wentworth Avenue, his family said.
“We ask for justice for all of our children,” said Eustoquia Alvarez, Macedo’s mother, to the crowd gathered Saturday. “We demand Chicago authorities support the families because sometimes there isn’t any support for Latinos.”
The event was organized by Cecilia Mannion, who founded Families Seeking Justice, and works as a victim advocate for Enlace Chicago. On Monday, she will start a weekly support group for parents.
“Our main goal is to create a safe space for families to come and feel like they belong or like they are being heard or acknowledged because there’s other systems that don’t allow them to feel that way,” said Jacqueline Herrera, the director of violence prevention for Enlace.
‘My life is not the same anymore’
For Salvador Aguado, talking to other parents of homicide victims makes him feel like he is among a family that understands him. His 22-year-old son, Alejandro Aguado, was killed during Memorial Day weekend in 2019 while he was walking on the 606 trail in Logan Square with friends. On Saturday, he placed a framed photo of his son holding up a Mexican flag.
The elder Aguado was told one of the suspect’s in his son’s homicide was later charged in a different crime, but no one was charged directly with his son’s homicide, he said.
“If my son was a well-known person, I’m pretty sure they would have figured it out,” Aguado said. “But since my son was nobody famous, no one knew him, it’s like kicking him to the curb.”
He tried to call the detective on the case a few weeks ago, but he hasn’t heard back. Aguado’s son had been working at a pizzeria and at Burger King to support his then 2-year-old daughter, he said.
“Life goes on and it’s not same; my life is not the same anymore,” he said about the aftermath of his son’s homicide. “But I try to make the best out of it now.”
‘You have to find that strength somewhere’
On the morning of June 1, 2016, Luna’s 16-year-old son said he didn’t want to eat breakfast at home because he planned to eat at school. She could smell the cologne he had put on, suspecting he was meeting up with a girl he liked.
What happened next sometimes comes back to Luna as flashes during nightmares. She remembers getting a phone call, running to a hospital, seeing the look on her mother’s face then seeing her son laying on the gurney.
She has struggled to get updates on her son’s case and doesn’t know who currently is in charge of the investigation.
“I need to know, are they even still investigating?” she said. “Do they have any leads? Are they going to switch it to a cold case?”
‘They have put me through hell’
Catalina Andrade has put up flyers about her 18-year-old son’s homicide in Little Village only to have them torn down. She hired an attorney after a tense conversation with a detective and now communicates with a police sergeant. And she once spoke at a City Council meeting, pleading directly to the mayor to solve her son’s homicide.
“They have put me through hell,” she said. “I have felt that I haven’t had the answers that I need. I’m still going to fight even though my son is not here. I think I’m his voice. I should continue fighting for his justice.”
Her son, Miguel Rios, was killed in the early morning hours of July 18, 2020. She’s been able to piece together that her son was in Little Village to visit his girlfriend. But Rios’ girlfriend heard gunshots while the two were on the phone and alerted her parents, who contacted Andrade, she said.
Rios was found shot to death in the 2300 block of South Washtenaw Street after his car collided with a tree, according to police.
Andrade’s son was working with his father that summer, and he planned to pursue mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I know one day I will get answers and I hope they give these criminals what they deserve,” she said. “But who knows how long it’s going to be. I just tell God, give me the patience to be strong because it doesn’t get any easier.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.