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Back of the Yards residents want to tell positive stories of their neighborhood

Mayra Hernandez (Center-Left) and Gina Ramirez (Center-Right) tell personal stories about the Back of the Yards neighborhood | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Mayra Hernandez beamed when she remembered flying a kite from her bedroom window as a little girl.

The kite wasn’t a fancy one with fantastic-colored patterns, but one that was made out of a plastic grocery bag that was anchored to a string.

“I would throw it out the window on a windy day and just see how far the wind would take it,” Hernandez told small crowd recently gathered at the cafe she co-owns in the Back of the Yards.

“That was one of my favorite things to do as a girl, and from a young age. I was always very good at making something out of nothing.”

On the first Thursday of every month, Hernandez hosts “CounterNarrative: Back of the Yards Storytelling.”

The open-mic type event allows residents and others who live nearby to come together at the Back of the Yards Coffeehouse and Roastery to tell stories about the vibrant South Side neighborhood, offsetting its negative reputation.

Just last week, the Back of the Yards made headlines when during a three-day stretch last week, a 17-year-old boy was shot in the neck, a 3-year-old girl walking with her father was shot in the leg and a 40-year-old man was killed.

But Hernandez and other storytelling participants want others to know that violence doesn’t dominate their lives.

“We want to put a real face to our neighborhood to counteract the crime stories that we see in the news,” said Hernandez.

“While we know that there is a problem with gang violence, it doesn’t necessarily define our neighborhood. There are a lot of other things going on as well.”

Recurring themes of personal growth, peace, family and childhood floated around from most of the storytellers during one session.

Hernandez told her companions that she remembers seeing the Chicago skyline and Chicago White Sox’ fireworks  from the same bedroom window where she flew her kite.

She would later leave this house because her parents feared the neighborhood, but the neighborhood was where her best childhood memories were made. Of course, she came back.

Gina Ramirez, who lives in Brighton Park, once fell into the trappings of gang culture in the Back of the Yards. But she turned her back to that life and her old friends to pursue an education in criminal justice. Shortly after obtaining her bachelor’s degree, she received a job at a juvenile detention center where she was a youth development specialist for two years.

“After being there for so long I realized I wanted to be on the positive side of helping and mentoring,” Ramirez said. “I wanted to be out here in the real world before [these kids] entered jail.”