Six white caskets arranged in a semi-circle stood in front of the altar at Our Lady of Tepeyac in Little Village on Saturday morning, holding six of the 10 victims of last weekend’s house fire — the smallest for Amaya Almaraz, only 3 months old, lying at the center.
More than 200 community residents, friends, and family members — many bearing white t-shirts airbrushed with the names of the deceased — came to pay respects to the deceased at the historic Catholic church just two blocks away from the site of the horrific blaze.
Laid to rest on Saturday were siblings Nathan Contreras, 13; Cesar Contreras, 14; Xavier Contreras, 11; Ariel Garcia, 5; and Amaya; and their cousin Adrian Hernandez, 14. The children were at a sleepover on the second floor of a two-bedroom house at 2224 S. Sacramento when the fire broke out early Aug. 26.
The Rev. Alberto Rojas called the tragedy a “blackout” — a sudden event that “left us shocked as a community.”
“The death of these angels is something all of a sudden,” Rojas said. “We all feel it . . . and we have to comfort one another and support one another.”
Saturday’s memorial service was the first of three for the victims. Funerals for the four additional victims — siblings Giovanni Ayala, 10; Gialanni Ayala, 5; and Alanni Ayala, 3; and friend Victor Mendoza, 16 — will take place next week, according to the community group Enlace Chicago.
Tensions briefly flared in the middle of the services, and police were called to break up a dispute between two men that drew a large crowd outside the church. The encounter later ended in a handshake.
Those closest to the victims have convened at the fire site all week, where residents have planted a garden in honor of the children on the front lot of the house.
Eric Muniz, a former classmate of Cesar Contreras at Gerald Delgado Kanoon Elementary Magnet School, said he didn’t visit the garden during the week. He attended Saturday’s memorial to show his friend one last act of loyalty.
“I wasn’t Cesar’s best friend, but we were close. We had a lot of moments, just us two,” Muniz said. “I’m here to show that I was here for him, always.”
Community members with no direct ties to the children also came out to pay respects. Some came from farther away, saying they were moved to attend after learning about the gravity of the tragedy.
Imelda Arias said she traveled from Berwyn at 7 a.m.
“I hope that the tragedy that happened here in this community never happens again,” she said in Spanish.
As the caskets were rolled out of the church, family and friends formed a privacy barrier along with the help of a few cars that stopped, allowing the family a chance to say a final goodbye free of the media frenzy.
Juan Contreras, father of four of the deceased, declined to comment Saturday. Earlier in the week, Contreras said it was hard to process the tragedy.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Contreras said then. “There are no words to explain how I’m feeling right now. I feel empty.”
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.”
MORE ABOUT THE LITTLE VILLAGE FIRE
• City Hall lowers the boom on owner of building where 10 kids died in fire
• All 10 Little Village victims slept through fire — is that unusual?
• Memorial services set for 6 Little Village fire victims
• DCFS drops bombshell as it investigates Little Village fire deaths
• Smoke detector found in ruins of Little Village fire where 10 children died
• Child death toll in Little Village fire matches highest in city since 1958
• ‘Everyone knew these kids’: Family, friends mourn Little Village fire victims
• 10 children dead in Little Village blaze: ‘God, take them to heaven’