The dried blood on the sidewalk was slightly covered with candles and flowers.
The makeshift memorial in the 1300 block of West 19th Street marked the spot where 26-year-old Miguel Vega was fatally shot by Chicago police earlier this week.
Dozens of neighbors gathered there, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Wednesday evening for a vigil that Vega’s family organized to mourn his death. The vigil was quiet and emotional.
Mexica dancers performed ancestral prayers, as the family sobbed quietly. They danced and burned copal, calling on the elements and their ancestors to bless the vigil.
“We want to thank everyone for coming out and showing your presence and showing that we’re not alone,” Erik Vega, 20, told the crowd while holding back tears. “It really means a lot.”
The Vega family is disputing Chicago police’s narrative of what happened Monday night. Police said five people were standing near the 1300 block of West 19th Street. Around 10:45 p.m., police said officers were responding to a call of a suspicious person and when they drove by they were met with gunshots. Officers returned fire, killing Vega. Two people fled the shooting and have not been located, while two offenders were placed into custody. A gun was recovered at the scene, according to the Chicago Police Department.
Erik Vega said he wants the truth of how police officers fatally shot his brother. He said Miguel did not have a gun. The gun recovered by police was nowhere near his brother, Erik Vega said. And since Miguel was shot in the back of the head, there’s no way he could have moved it.
“We’ll find justice for my brother,” Erik Vega added as the crowd erupted with cheers and claps. “No one deserves to be shot in the head, especially behind his back.”
A father of two young sons, Miguel Vega lived in the south suburbs, but he grew up in Pilsen. He was the oldest of four siblings. His parents met and fell in love in Chicago. Both parents were from Mexico, his mother from the state of Jalisco and his father from the city of Guanajuato. Vega attended elementary school just a block away from where police fatally shot him.
Erik Vega said his brother was unarmed and was not a gang member.
“He worked to take care of his children,” Erik Vega said. “He had just gotten a new job. He just happened to be in the neighborhood with friends he grew up with.”
The Pilsen Vega grew up in is dramatically different from the Pilsen where he died.
Mexican immigrants started moving to Pilsen in the ‘60s. WTTW reported that Pilsen became the first majority Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. But the neighborhood had limited resources. The schools were crumbling. There was no public library, factories from the nearby industrial corridor polluted the air and soil, and the neighborhood became a hotbed for crime.
Community members, including a group of mothers, started organizing to change things. After years of protests, civil disobedience and other efforts, the community got a new high school, opened a public library and closed its biggest polluter, the H. Kramer factory. But just as the community was winning those fights, the neighborhood began to gentrify. Pilsen’s affordability and its proximity to the University of Illinois at Chicago made it an attractive neighborhood. As interest in Pilsen has grown, so has the cost of housing. Advocates say soaring housing prices there have forced many Latino families out.
In the ‘90s, when Vega was a young child, 88% of Pilsen residents were Latino. Since 1990, the Latino population there has declined by more than 15,000. The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, spanning the years 2014 through 2018, shows that Pilsen is 74% Latino. And the Latino population is less than 50% in one section of the neighborhood, east of Ashland Avenue, according to the census data.
The Vega family is asking for donations to pay for the funeral.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.