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Lauren E. Bohn/ MEDILL

Silvia's boyfriend, Omar, died in a gang-related melee this past summer in Back of the Yards.

Gangs and violence not just a 'guy’ thing

by Lauren E. Bohn
Oct 20, 2009

Silvia Quezada, at 15, has been arrested for illegal possession of a firearm and has lost a boyfriend, gunned down in a gang-related melee.

Her life in the Back of the Yards has been anything but cosseted. She is affiliated with a gang through family members and her boyfriend.

When she heard about the brutal death of Derrion Albert, she was unfazed.

“I just thought, ‘Oh.' That stuff happens all the time around here,” she said flatly.

She also says she wants to break free. But she remains in place, saying there are few alternatives.

She is one of five at-risk girls who call themselves “Fresh” -- a circle started last summer in her predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the Near Southwest Side to deal with the challenges females face due to their own participation in gangs.

Indeed, while there are many programs citywide aimed at reforming male gang members, Quezada’s group is one of a few that target females who are members of or connected to street gangs.

Elizabeth Sauceda, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years, runs the group in conjunction with Boys Town of Chicago. The nonprofit organization owns a four-story house that provides shelter services to both boys and girls in the neighborhood, allowing them to stay off the streets and out of gangs.

“For many girls, the gangs are all they know or want to know because they are deemed cool," she said. “They like the attention and respect that is gained from running with a certain gang.”

John Hagedorn, associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago and co-editor of "Female Gangs in America: Essays on girls, gangs, and gender," said that females are often invisible or sensationalized in the public discourse on gangs. Programs need to be more focused on the needs of females involved with gangs.

Rosario Badillo, assistant principal at Lara Elementary Academy located in the Back of the Yards, said she knows this all too well. Badillo’s new out-reach group “The Pink Panthers," consists of 25 at-risk girls, grades 7 and 8, who are slated to meet for the first time next week.

“When it comes to gang prevention in the neighborhood, most outreach is for the boys,” she said, noting that Mexican-American communities are traditionally male-dominated. “Girls are lost in the dust."

For Silvia, there’s no end to gangs in sight for a neighborhood where at least one death each month is attributed to gang-related violence.

In one breath, she rattles off the finer points of five different gangs subsisting in a ten-block radius.

“It’s not that I want to be involved,” she said, scratching a tattoo on her foot that was recently inked by one of “the boys.” She keeps a photo album by her bed with pictures of her father who was deported last year after a subsequent gang-related arrest.

“But they're my like family, my 'nation',” she said. “How do you leave your family?”