By Jane Leyderman
Bikers in black leather vests lead the screaming crowd—their revving engines drawing stares from the pedestrians and residents going about their Sundays in Pilsen. Behind them, protesters wheel a pink casket—empty except for a mirror—through the streets.
The boy walking next to me smiles as he clutches onto his mother with one hand, holding a “make grilled cheese, not war” sign in the other. “Stop killing our friends!” he screams, then again, “Stop killing our friends!”
They all march with one agenda: to reclaim their neighborhood from gang-related violence—to say, as one protester’s sign reads, “Stop the violence in Pilsen. Give me a chance to grow up.”
The latest victim of gang violence is Jeff Abbey Maldanado, Jr., killed in a case of mistaken identity two weeks earlier.
The only time I saw Elizabeth Maldonado cry, we were sitting in a dark corner of Small Bar on Division next to paintings, posters and prints that were on sale to raise money for her son’s funeral.
As we continued the conversation we’d been having for two days, she finally told the story she had been holding back, the story of what happened to her son.
“What up, nigger?” Marcelino Sauseda had said before he allegedly opened fire onto the driver’s side of the van Elizabeth’s son Jeff was a passenger in—a van Sausedo thought belonged to someone else. The driver was Angel, a local barber and friend of Jeff’s who was driving him home from his birthday haircut, who was petrified as he sat wedged between two other cars on the corner of 18th Street and Blue Island while gunfire rattled his van.
After several shots were fired into the van, and one bullet hit Jeff in the head, Angel pulled through the intersection and into the alley next to a nearby liquor store where he watched his fatally wounded friend put on a Carlton Fisk commemorative White Sox hat—a birthday present from his parents earlier that day—claiming he was okay as he climbed out of the van.
Even minutes before he was pronounced dead on July 25, the day after his nineteenth birthday, at 8:20pm at Stroger Hospital, Jeff Sr. and Elizabeth listened to their son trying to respond to them and watched him attempt to lift himself out of the hospital bed.
While his murder has been labeled a “gang-related” case of mistaken identity, Jeff Abbey Maldonado Jr. was, by all accounts, not gang affiliated. He worked at the local After School Matters digital-photography job-training program for teens and was about to start his second year at Harold Washington College before transferring to Columbia College to study music.
But to say that he lived a life wholly removed from the gang violence that pulses through Pilsen would be inaccurate.
Elizabeth, a petite woman with enviable composure, was 18 when she gave birth to Jeff. Her husband, Jeff, a tall, congenial, tattooed man, was 20 and a former gang member of eight years.
By the time Jeff Jr. was born, Jeff Sr. had already turned a corner in his life, making the decision to become an artist. Now he is an accomplished painter, printmaker and muralist with a Pilsen studio who has been working and teaching art in Pilsen and neighboring communities for the fifteen years he has lived there.
When I arrive at the Maldonados’ home, anxious about speaking with a couple whose son had just been murdered, Elizabeth takes me to the corner of 19th and May, where her husband, dressed in all white, stands peeling paint off a wall.
This wall has a lot of significance in his life, Jeff Sr. tells me. It was the wall he was painting when he received the call several years ago telling him his mother was ill. From that point on, it became a wall he dedicates to loved ones who have passed away, a wall he will now dedicate to Jeff.
Over the next few hours that we speak inside their home—the walls covered in vividly colored paintings, photographs and masks reflecting their Mexican and Native American heritage—Jeff Sr. and Elizabeth keep coming back to one topic: the challenges and joys of raising a child in a community with so much culture, but also so much violence.
“What I used to teach him,” Jeff Sr. says, “was that this is not the way we want you to grow up. I went through it so you don’t have to. So I can teach you about it.”
“We saw some gang writing when he was a little kid,” Elizabeth remembers. “I can’t even remember which gang it was, but we squashed it right away.”
Still, according to Elizabeth, Jeff did have friends who were in gangs. Because he grew up and knew them before they formed affiliations, and because he was on good terms with them, Elizabeth felt confident that her son was safe.
While Jeff Sr. describes him as his “toughest student,” Jeff’s parents now realize that he took to heart the attitude toward art, violence and life in general they worked to instill in him.
Jeff—or J-Def, to his friends—was a hip-hop artist. Since his early teenage years, Jeff had written poetry and lyrics, and once he worked up the courage, he took to the streets to compete with other musicians in lyrical freestyle battles.
“He completely surprised me,” says Freddy Juarez, a close friend of Jeff’s, of the first night he heard Jeff rap. “We were all wasted and all of a sudden we hear a beat—this car bumping on the street—and next thing you know I hear words coming out of his mouth, and he was really saying things… By 16, he was just murdering everybody out there lyrically. He was just killing the game.”
Jeff was also a graffiti artist. Freddy laughs as he tells me the story of how he, at 15 already the leader of a Pilsen graffiti crew, first met Jeff.
One day, Freddy began to see his crew name tagged around the neighborhood so he began to seek out the impostor. Wanting to be part of the crew, 12-year-old Jeff had gone around Pilsen, mimicking the crew’s writing to get Freddy’s attention. When a member of Freddy’s crew spotted the copycat and the two finally met, Jeff was so thrilled to meet his graffiti idol that Freddy couldn’t help but take him under his wing.
From then on, “we went out every other night,” says Freddy. “We went out painting. We did things we weren’t supposed to do. We had a blast.”
As graffiti artists, Freddy and Jeff occasionally got nabbed by the police, and had altercations with rivaling crews. When a rivaling graffiti crew jumped Jeff, Freddy and his crew retaliated.
“I gave them war,” Freddy remembers. “I bought 600 cans of paint… We weren’t going to use weapons and stuff like that, but we were going to use paint to destroy them. And they got dealt with.”
In the world of street art, Freddy says, respect has to be gained the right way. “We don’t go get bats and start beating up each other. We’ll get paint and we’ll take it out on the streets and on the walls… And Jeff gained a lot of respect. Out of not doing anything to harm anybody else, he gained a lot of respect.”
“Few people have the privilege to walk down 18th and not have a problem with any of the gangs,” recalls Freddy. But Jeff could “walk down the little streets and no one would bother him.”
As Freddy remembers it, Jeff embraced the people who, like his father, found the courage to leave gang life behind: “He had the attitude that we don’t like gang bangers, but if you want to do something good, we’ll take you. We’re not going to turn our backs just because you were a gang banger before.”
“He was always using his voice,” Freddy says. And while he’s gone now, Jeff’s friends and family have made it a goal to ensure that his voice will continue to be heard.
For several days after their son’s death, the Maldonados couldn’t force themselves to come back to the empty house where they had raised their son, and where he lived with them until he died. In the hotel room where they spent the nights immediately following Jeff’s death, they decided that they could no longer call the community whose gang violence had claimed their son’s life “home.”
Within minutes of stepping foot in their house however, “people were coming to our door. And it was non-stop,” Jeff Sr. says.
As neighbors came to show their support and sympathize through stories of their own losses, the Maldonados’ desire to flee transformed into an imperative to stay and turn their personal tragedy into a catalyst for change in Pilsen.
The outreach and love they felt from their neighbors, many of whom they were meeting for the first time, showed the Maldonados that change was needed and welcome.
“We got all the love from everybody and realized we couldn’t go anywhere,” Elizabeth says.
Several hundred protesters—the Maldonados’ friends and family, local artists and other concerned Pilsen residents—gathered on August 9 in front of Benito Juarez High School to march against Pilsen violence. Dressed mostly in white to fight off the ninety-degree heat, many carried signs bearing anti-violence messages such as “no gangs, just love” and “shoot cameras, not guns.” Many younger marchers carried signs depicting a photo of Jeff that read “a friend of mine,” and wore “R.I.P. J-Def” t-shirts.
Chicago artist Michael Hernandez de Luna, who is internationally known for his politically irreverent digitally created artistamps, was the head organizer of the march.
Hernandez de Luna led off the day’s events, asking participants to stay respectful, positive and safe, emphasizing that Pilsen was one community—a village—marching to one beat on “this sad and happy day.”
A co-organizer of the march, former principal of Benito Juarez High School Len Dominguez, spoke from the unique perspective of someone who was constantly exposed to gang-related teen violence.
“This march is response to a specific act, but also a feeling that enough is enough,” said Dominguez. “This action [is a] symbolic start of a larger process of trying to find peace in this community [that must] involve every entity in the community to declare Pilsen a violence-free zone.”
Leaving from the high school, marchers mourned Jeff’s death with shouts of “Stop killing our friends!” and “Stop killing our Children!” Jeff Sr. and Elizabeth led the march, carrying a life-sized poster of their son between them.
The block-long march headed north on Ashland, swung right on 18th Street, then headed east to 18th and Blue Island, the site of Jeff’s death, where Hernandez de Luna called for a moment of silence.
Jeff Sr. broke the silence: “We are standing at the site of Jeff Abbey Maldonado’s fatal shot to the head. A beautiful voice was silenced two weeks ago… This is a site of hate that has been replaced by love.”
…Things change when the crime takes away your soul
We understand what we’re told, as the truth unfolds
It sure is growing old, my generation’s dying quick
I heard about it in the hood, it was just another stick-up
We need to work hard to make the world better
Stop killing each other, start coming together…
Jeff’s lyrics, layered over an old school hip-hop beat, pour out of the stereo at the Maldonados’ Pilsen residence as we sit listening.
“I listen to his music, and his lyrics just have so much strength and power in them now. Even more so because they’re almost prophetic,” Jeff Sr. says.
On his birthday, just a day before his fatal shooting, Jeff articulated another idea that his parents now see as prophetic. From the back of his parents’ car on their ride home, Jeff—newly 19 and on top of the world—declared, “The universe unfolds as it should.”
The Maldonados have turned these words into the now-fabled rallying cry that has echoed through the events of the past month. Printed on the cover of Jeff’s posthumously released CD, the Facebook page dedicated to the peace march and art auction, and on posters and signs at the march itself, this phrase has served to affirm the community’s positive response to Jeff’s murder.
Plans underway to carry on Jeff’s message of creative expression and togetherness include the release of many tracks compiled by the musicians Jeff had collaborated with, such as Pilsen’s Ghetto Division DJ and production crew. Even though Jeff is no longer here, says Freddy, “he’s out there now more than ever.”
For Dominguez, who owns an art gallery in Pilsen, the next step on the road to a violence-free community is his art exhibition showcasing works related to anti-violence by local artists. The show opened last week, and at the end of the three-week run, the pieces will be auctioned to raise funds for a documentary film on Jeff’s life and music.
Freddy and Jeff Sr. have begun planning the wall mural two doors down from the Maldonados’ house commemorating Jeff’s life.
Jeff Sr. and Elizabeth plan to start a scholarship foundation for college students from Pilsen who want to study art or music. Jeff’s last paycheck from After School Matters will be the first contribution.
And it’s Jeff’s voice that keeps the Maldonados going. “It’s really tough but you can’t stay in bed,” Elizabeth says. “We have to protect these kids and their kids. He would have wanted it that way. I keep hearing him say, ‘Mom, you’re doing good. Keep doing it.’”