Melissa Ortega migrated with her mother from Zacatecas, Mexico, to the United States in July 2021.
A year and a half later, on a snowy and cold Sunday afternoon, Little Village residents and community activists gathered at the corner of West 26th Street and South Pulaski Road. The gloomy weather only accentuated the brutal reality that had brought them together: the gunshot death of Melissa, 8, at that very spot in January 2022.
She is remembered as a “happy, smart, charming, sociable little girl with a great imagination,” according to artist Milton Coronado.
“A year ago we met here because of a tragedy, a tragedy that has traumatized our community over and over again,” said Baltazar Enriquez of the Little Village Community Council. “So we’ve all come together to see: What’s the solution? What can we do to stop this violence?”
On Jan. 22, 2022, Melissa and her mother were crossing South Pulaski Road hand-in-hand when a 16-year-old with a juvenile probation officer opened fire in broad daylight after seeing signs from a rival flash gang, prosecutors said. He hit his mark, but he also shot Melissa – who was wearing a pink hat – in the head. She fell to the floor.
Emilio Corripio, a teenager who prosecutors say was a self-declared member of the Latin Kings, then got back into a car driven by 27-year-old Xavier Guzman, and the two then drove to buy sandwiches and drinks. Four days after Melissa’s murder, her mother, Aracelia Leanos, released a statement forgiving the shooter.
“To the aggressor. I forgive you. You were also a victim. As a 16-year-old, the community failed you, just as it failed my precious baby,” said Leanos. “Words cannot describe the pain I feel. On January 22, I lost my greatest treasure in life. I lost my princess. She was the reason I got up every morning.”
Community activists spoke on Sunday about a culture of violence that must be fought so that young people stop turning to crime and guns.
“Here we have an 8-year-old victim and the aggressor is 16 years old — just eight years apart. So we definitely have a problem here that we need to get to the root (of),” Enriquez said.
He said the Little Village Community Council will open a mental health clinic to address the psychological effects of violence and trauma in the neighborhood, which he called a “resilient community.” In addition, he said, the council will create a committee called Mothers and Families for Justice to help reform the police’s homicide unit.
“I wish we didn’t have to remember her this way, but we remember her anyway. And we didn’t want this date to go by without remembering her and raising awareness about the importance of stopping violence and investing in our children,” Selene Partida, who helped organize the march, said in Spanish. “We’re here to remind the community, Little Village, all the Mexicans who live here, everyone who has cried over Melissa’s death, and everyone who has lost a loved one to violent crime, that we won’t let it pass, that we remember and that their lives were not in vain.”
Kristian Armendariz, community organizer at Little Village Community Council, said the council will also launch the Peace Project, which has been in the works for the past three months and will provide job readiness, mental health and financial literacy skills to young people ages 18 to 25 .
“It’s about time someone implemented initiatives like this in our community,” he said. “All these nonprofits that receive violence prevention money, funding, they should be here to fight for Melissa; they should be here more to provide more services to our youth, because our youth is our future – and if we don’t invest in our youth, what are we doing?
In 2020 and 2021, there was an increase in shootings, both fatal and non-fatal, of youths 17 and under in the city of Chicago.
ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, also spoke on Sunday. “These are not statistics; they are not numbers,” he said. “These are young people, these are our young people. Our families are torn apart by senseless violence.”
He cited a national youth mental health crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Chicago, he said, 3,000 to 5,000 children in Chicago Public Schools are at risk of violence.
“What are they doing to prevent this? What are we doing to keep our families and our children safe?” he asked. “Mental health care is vital and we need to invest in it,” he said. “We need to reopen public health psychiatric clinics, and that’s what we’re demanding of all those politicians who want to represent the city of Chicago.”
Sigcho-Lopez was referring to the December 16 shooting at Benito Juarez Community Academy, which killed two students and injured two others. He also mentioned Little Village vendors being “fattened and robbed” — after Tamaleros experienced a series of armed robberies in December — and the need to ensure they have safe workspaces.
After these speeches at the corner of 26th and Pulaski, the group of about 30 people walked three blocks west toward South Keeler Avenue. There, the group stopped next to a vibrant mural celebrating Melissa’s life — her smiling face surrounded by a rainbow, flowers, balloons, and clouds.
“Although she had difficulty speaking English, she made friends easily and discovered her passion for writing and teaching,” said Coronado, who painted the mural with another artist known as “The Kid from Pilsen.” Melissa collected water, soda, and shampoo bottles, put them in a circle, and pretended they were students so she could teach them.
Community members and activists released white balloons, set candles and roses and shared a moment of prayer. A small tree grows in front of the mural. It was planted there in memory of Melissa as part of the Peace Tree Project, which aims to promote peace in Chicago neighborhoods affected by gun violence.
“Let these (candles) we hold in our hands soften the memory of these lives and what we strive for together, to struggle together, to live together, to love each other together, to embrace each other together, to work towards together a better city,” said Coronado. “Today I invite you to love, for in love we shall find peace, truth, and surely justice.”