In Pilsen, mass shooting looms over Juárez, once considered ‘sacred ground’ for community

Weeks after a shooter opened fire outside of Benito Juárez Community Academy, leaders in the school and the community worry the mass shooting will overshadow strides made throughout school’s storied history.

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Mourners and supporters gather for a vigil outside Benito Juárez High School in Pilsen last month less than a week after a mass shooting outside the school killed two teenagers and wounded two others.

Mourners and supporters gather for a vigil outside Benito Juárez High School in Pilsen last month less than a week after a mass shooting outside the school killed two teenagers and wounded two others.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

When gunfire erupted outside of Benito Juárez Community Academy, it felt as if tragedy had struck Teresa Fraga’s family, though she wasn’t related to the two teens who were fatally shot.

“Any kid who goes there is going to a school that was built by families,” Fraga said. “So to me, Juárez — and I think students see it that way, that they see it as a sacred ground where it’s, like, blessed.”

For many in the Pilsen community, the Dec. 16 mass shooting, which also wounded two other teens, hit a nerve because the high school is so intertwined with the neighborhood’s history.

In the days following the shooting, some students returned to school before winter break while others stayed home. Students led a vigil and march around the neighborhood to decry gun violence. And residents signed up for shifts to hand out hot chocolate and snacks to students outside the school as a memorial grew for Nathan Billegas, 14, and Brandon Perez, 15.

Students and their supporters participate in a peace walk around Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, less than a week after a mass shooting outside the school killed two teenagers and wounded two others, Monday afternoon, Dec. 19, 2022.

Students and their supporters participate in a peace walk around Benito Juárez High School in Pilsen, less than a week after a mass shooting outside the school killed two teenagers and wounded two others, Monday afternoon, Dec. 19, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Fraga, now 80, and her family had lived in various parts of the country working in agriculture before settling in Pilsen in the 1960s. At the time, there wasn’t a neighborhood school and the community faced high dropout rates as the nearest high school — the Carter Harrison Technical High School in South Lawndale — struggled with gangs and racial tensions.

“It was very noticeable — your child dropped out (in) 10th grade,” Fraga said. “So in a meeting, somebody said what we need is a high school, and it just rang throughout the neighborhood. People started talking to people.”

With Benito Juárez Community Academy in the background, Teresa Fraga stands outside the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council offices Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Fraga, now 80, and her family had lived in various parts of the country working in agriculture before settling in Pilsen in the 1960s.

With Benito Juárez Community Academy in the background, Teresa Fraga stands outside the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council offices Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Fraga, now 80, and her family had lived in various parts of the country working in agriculture before settling in Pilsen in the 1960s.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In the 1970s, Fraga was part of a group of parents and community leaders who pushed Chicago Public Schools to build a high school by leading a boycott where parents kept their kids home, organized marches and vigils. In 1974, about 85% of students in Pilsen-area schools boycotted class for five days, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story published Oct. 2, 1977.

Their activism eventually led to the construction of what today is known as Benito Juárez Community Academy, Fraga said. A photo published Sept. 16, 1977, in the Chicago Daily News from the school’s dedication ceremony shows a group of people holding a banner: “Benito Juárez H.S. was won by the community struggle.”

Opening ceremonies for Benito Juarez High School, 2150 S. Laflin St., in Pilsen.

Opening ceremonies for Benito Juárez High School, 2150 S. Laflin St., in Pilsen.

Chicago Sun-Times collection/Chicago History Museum

The community celebrated with a block party that they named Fiesta Del Sol, which remains an annual summer festival in Pilsen, according to the festival’s website.

Throughout the decades, the number of residents who identify as Hispanic or Latino in the Lower West Side community — which includes Pilsen — has dwindled from 40,227 in 1990 to 23,974 in 2020, according to an analysis of census data by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Even with demographic changes in the neighborhood, Juárez’s student body remains overwhelmingly Latino. In the 2022 to 2023 school year, there were 1,598 students enrolled at the school, and about 94% of the student population identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to statistics from CPS. The ideal capacity for the building is 1,572 students, according to data from the district.

Crowds pack Cermak Road during the 40th annual Fiesta Del Sol community festival in 2012.

Crowds pack Cermak Road during the 40th annual Fiesta Del Sol community festival in 2012.

Sun-Times Media

The movement to create a neighborhood high school spurred more activism as leaders went on to start other community organizations focused on children and women, Fraga said.

Raul Raymundo, the chief executive officer for the Pilsen-based Resurrection Project, was part of the second class that graduated from Juárez in 1983.

“The history of the school is the history of this community, and that is that it is a community that’s always been fighting for justice, for assets, for making it better,” Raymundo said, adding that it was part of how the growing Mexican immigrant community sought resources.

He remembers students flocking to the school when it opened. In its early days the school struggled with overcrowding and gang issues, Raymundo said. But over the decades, he’s noticed changes at the school.

The movement to create the neighborhood high school that is now Benito Juárez Community Academy spurred more activism as leaders went on to start other community organizations focused on children and women, said one residents of Pilsen since the 1960s.

The movement to create the neighborhood high school that is now Benito Juárez Community Academy spurred more activism as leaders went on to start other community organizations focused on children and women, said one residents of Pilsen since the 1960s.

Chicago Sun-Times collection/Chicago History Museum

“It is a school of choice,” Raymundo said. “The issues of gangs are not necessarily relevant inside the school. Unfortunately, this incident that happened, it happened outside the school tied to students at the school but not because of what’s happening in the school.”

Steve Vidal has taught at Juárez for 24 years, and he’s observed that more students are traveling from farther away to attend classes. And he’s noticed fewer families living in the neighborhood.

When he started working at Juárez, the school struggled with fights, and gangs were more present in the neighborhood. But over the years, that gang presence has diminished as the neighborhood’s population changed, Vidal said.

“People would say, had this happened back then, it would not have taken so many people by surprise, including myself,” Vidal said about the recent mass shooting.

For Iliana Méndez, teaching at Juárez is an opportunity to connect with students on a deeper level.

Méndez is the third generation in her family with strong Pilsen ties. And after going to school and facing racism in the suburbs, it was important for her to connect culturally with her students, seamlessly transitioning from speaking Spanish to English.

“I teach students that look like me, that have similar — not completely shared — experiences, but similar experiences that are perhaps grappling with identity issues that I myself had grappled with growing up,” Méndez said. “I can teach them things, Latino authors, talk about things in Spanglish.”

Opening ceremonies for Benito Juárez High School, 2150 S. Laflin St.

Opening ceremonies for Benito Juárez High School, 2150 S. Laflin St.

Chicago Sun-Times collection/Chicago History Museum

She, like others, thinks the school has made strides in experimenting with different methods of education. In 2015, the school shifted toward competency-based education, which allows students to obtain credits toward graduation in non-traditional ways outside of classroom time. The school also changed how it classified classes, removing barriers between “regular” and “honors” courses, Méndez said.

Reyna, who asked that her full name not be disclosed, is a parent of a senior at Juárez, and her daughter plans to attend as a freshman next year — though the family is reconsidering it in the weeks since the mass shooting took place.

Reyna likes that the school is a short bus ride away from their home in Little Village. She also likes that the staff speaks Spanish and can provide her with information in a timely manner.

Her son, who did not witness the shooting, was not scared to return to classes, Reyna said. But in the first days after winter break, he’s struggled to concentrate as students continue recounting the shooting, she said.

“More than anything, I’m worried about the mental health of the youth,” Reyna said in Spanish. “There were many who were affected, and there should be a way to help them.”

Another parent, who asked to remain anonymous, is worried about her son, who is a freshman at Juárez. In the weeks since the shooting, he’s struggled to return to school. He couldn’t sleep the night before classes resumed this month.

She’s considered looking into transferring schools as she remains worried about his safety.

“I’m asking God every minute to keep my son safe,” she said in Spanish.

Vidal worries about the impact the mass shooting will have on the school’s legacy, especially after years of making improvements to the academics and programs that connected students to internships and collaborating with community-based organizations. He said it’s important for the community to reclaim the space as a way to heal.

“We cannot allow this tragic event to define who we are as a school, as a community,” he said. “And in the memory of the students who lost their lives and were injured in this senseless act of violence, we need to continue striving to become better students, educators and community.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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