Normally, I never weep in public. My window in my Fordham University residence looks straight down Bathgate Ave. into the heart of this legendary borough, insofar as it has a heart.
Friday afternoon,(June 29) for the second time I tramped down this street to reconsider the public mourning over the death of 15-year-old Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, also known as Junior. At 11:40 pm Wednesday eight young men jumped Lesandro who had fled into the the Chiky Grocery store on the corner of E. 183rd St and Bathgate Ave. in Belmont, to escape. The store’s staff made no physical effort to protect him while gang members dragged him out and stabbed him repeatedly with their machetes, then drove away in a light colored sedan. With whatever life he had, Lesandro ran in the direction of St. Barnabas Hospital until, blood pouring from his neck, he collapsed on the sidewalk.
It is a neighborhood of rows of two-storied white shingled homes, as well as multifamily homes high above the street, with long iron steps leading up to the porch. Then there are long five-floored brick apartment buildings leading to automobile repair shops dominating, it seems, every corner. Motorcycles let out their horrid roars. The block-long Theodore Roosevelt High School and the Mount Carmel church and school lend dignity, but the huge sprawling asphalt practice field is abandoned. Along the way walls were smeared with hideous graffiti, likely including secret symbols understood only by secret national gangs, like those who murdered Lesandro.
The murder had been recorded on surveillance cameras and spread far and wide. A Brooklyn rapper, Maino, added his voice to the chorus rising far beyond the Bronx. His new song, “Coulda Been My Son,” echoed his deepest feelings, since his son was Junior’s age. Maino himself had spent 10 years in prison for a drug-related kidnapping.
Suddenly I was surrounded by several hundred young men and women of every race, color and national background. The police had cordoned off the corner with a fence separating the crowd from close to a thousand wax candles, some lit, in glass covers embossed with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hundreds of stuffed animals and other presents pushed against the walls. Big cards displayed letters of love to the departed boy in English and other languages. He had wanted to be a policeman, now he was dead and buried with over a dozen policemen protecting his mourners, many of whom had never met him.
Since I usually control my emotions, why were those tears, part compassion and part anger, forcing their way into my eyes, threatening to run down my face? His mother Leandra, 38, said her son had never been in a fight in 15 years. He was a member of the Explorers, a police-sponsored club to mentor high school students. The gang members, Trinitarios, from the Dominican Republic, had been falsely informed that Junior was the one who had circulated a sex tape in which he has sex with a hooded girl friend of a gang member and they killed the wrong guy. Sorry about that.
Hundreds of mourners overflowed into the streets at Wednesday’s funeral celebrated at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish church just a few blocks from the scene of the crime. The six pallbearers wore New York Yankees shirts, presuming that would have been Junior’s decision: They are his favorite team. The celebrant, Fr. David Guzman, preached, “We pardon those who did not do more, who could have intervened, but didn’t.” One female mourner said later, “All of these people could have saved this poor boy’s life.” She speaks for me. Jonaiki Martinez-Estrella, 24, who police say delivered the fatal blow, says he was in Pennsylvania at the time of the crime. All eight, between 17 and early 20s, have been charged with murder. This case has given New York a lot to think about.
Unlike Junior’s mother, the parents of the young killers have not been interviewed by the press. How could responsible parents allow their children to join international gangs? According to the New York Daily News editorial, Junior is one of the 50 murder victims in the Bronx so far this year, a 92 percent jump from last year. The Police Force has established a scholarship fund in Junior’s name. Nice, but not enough. Before this happens again, all the elected officials, school teachers, journalists, priests, ministers and rabbis should look in the mirror, and assume the responsibility for human life we have been reluctant to embrace.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., author of nine books, is an editor emeritus of America magazine.