Cutting Ties

photo by Chris Vazquez

Through BUILD Chicago, youth impacted by gang life find an ally

By Brianna Bilter, Christopher Vazquez and Ben Schachter for MEDILL
March 14, 2018

Max Cerda was only 16 years old when he watched two members of his rival gang fire 13 bullets into his brother’s body. He died in Cerda’s arms, squeezing his thumb.

Cerda’s brother was not a blood relative, but was raised by Cerda’s mom—a brother nonetheless. He had moved out of the house, and was originally wary of visiting Cerda due to his gang involvement. But Cerda wasn’t “gangbanging” when his brother came to visit. They were ambushed.

“I didn’t have nobody to help me navigate through this experience,” Cerda said. “And for three days I kept the clothes on because I felt that’s all I had left of him. I didn’t realize how precious memories are, right?”

The night they buried his brother, Cerda retaliated. At age 16, he was tried as an adult and convicted of double-murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 35 years, of which he served over 18. Five and a half he spent in solitary confinement.

Max Cerda, a street intervention specialist at BUILD
photo by Chris Vazquez

“It’s something I gotta live with,” Cerda said. “When you take a life, you’re not just committing a bad crime. You’re committing spiritual suicide.”

Cerda’s pain is a kind many must endure.

Yet, despite the pain and loss associated with gang life, the incentives to join are considerable. In communities of concentrated poverty, the financial relief is often beyond alluring. It’s necessary. Others join for generational reasons, others for reputation and still others for revenge. According to Andrew Papachristos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, the primary reason for gang involvement is protection. Almost ironically, safety is greater in numbers.

And once you’re in, it’s not easy to leave.

“If a kid wants to leave a gang, sometimes he has to pay for it, either monetary-wise or physically,” said Felix Jusino, a street intervention specialist. “You have to get beat up, which they call a violation-out. Sometimes those can be really harsh… It can take a while for them to recover.”

Like Cerda, Jusino managed to leave his gang after serving time in prison. Both now work for the intervention team at BUILD Chicago, an organization dedicated to getting kids out of gang life and into school and the work force.

photo by Brianna Bilter

“It’s not just about getting them out of the gang,” Cerda said. “It’s about also giving them resources after that and staying in touch with them. You know, get them back into school, empowering them.”

91 percent of youth in BUILD’s intervention program reduced suspensions or expulsions and 78 percent of court-involved youth did not commit repeat offenses. A staggering 97 percent have avoided gang involvement or have broken ties.

BUILD Chicago Demographics
BUILD serves almost exclusively minorities. The social injustices that are so prevelant in the communities where BUILD works create what Cerda refers to as "a breeding ground for gangs."

BUILD also has an all female intervention program called BUILDing Girls 2 Women, which provides a safe space for young women impacted by gang life, according to community social worker Olivia Santiago.

How has BUILD been so successful? Cerda said it’s his own background in gang life that enables such strong bonds with the kids.

“We make ourselves transparent so these little brothers can understand that we understand,” Cerda said. “We understand what it is to be scared. We understand what it is to be confused, to be angry, to have an illusion.”

This trust—it gives the kids hope. But the job isn’t easy. Not every success story has a happy ending.

When Cerda was working for another organization called Aspira, a mom from Humboldt Park reached out to him on behalf of her son, who Cerda said was 14 or 15 at the time and was deeply involved in his gang. Initially, he wasn’t very receptive to Cerda, and was incarcerated three times over the course of a couple of years. But after the third time, he was ready. With Cerda’s support, he went through the process of breaking ties, got his tattoos removed, returned to school, and picked up his GPA.

But six months later, Cerda got a call. His kid had been shot. He died before Cerda reached the hospital.

Cerda walked away from intervention for a while. “I felt guilty,” Cerda said. “I could have saved this kid. But then I realized, I did save this kid. He was doing good. He was on his way. So I knew that this is my calling. And for his sake, and for his memory, I got back on the horse.”

Despite the abundance of tragedy that remains, gang violence has actually declined in Chicago.

“Gangs today, they’re not the same as they used to be,” Jusino said. “Twenty years ago, they were a lot more vicious. They were a lot more loyal to the gangs and there was a lot more honor… Today, you don’t find that. You find a lot of cliques.”

Papachristos said this trend has made gangs less violent, but more unpredictable.

“The next big step is to see ways that you can foster collaboration across agencies,” said Papachristos, who explained that agencies often carve out their own turf. “How do you get the city, the police, the public health, the schools to all work together in a way that’s collaborative rather than competitive?”

For now, organizations like BUILD are making strides. But it will never be easy to disassociate from gang life.

“You could leave a gang today,” Jusino said. “But if you see this guy from the gang that you were in fighting, then what are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna help him, or are you gonna keep walking?"

A collection of memories from the past year at BUILD
photo by Brianna Bilter