Author, Youth Advocate and Public Speaker
I heard the gunshot outside my window while sitting in my office at United Bronx Parents, Inc. on Prospect Avenue.
The unmistakable pop that fills the air, followed by the sounds echo caught between the buildings, and finally the hum settles to an eerie silence as your heart rate slows in unison.
I stopped to listen for a few minutes.
I was waiting to hear if anyone was going to start screaming, but I heard nothing. So I went back to typing on my computer as if I didn’t just hear a gunshot outside my window.
Because it’s normal to hear a gun being fired in the middle of the day in the South Bronx, even though it’s not supposed to be normal.
This desensitization has taken place over the past 40 years and seems to be as ingrained in our psyche. We have come to accept the schools that continue to fail us, politicians and community leaders that fail to represent our concerns, and state and government agencies that have no clue how to improve our socio-economic living conditions – or simply don’t care to.
When I stepped outside my office a short time later, I learned that 16-year-old Paul Ulloa had been shot in a robbery attempt.
Paul’s two crimes were sporting an expensive leather coat in a bad economy, and leaving the school on his lunch break to grab a snack at the corner bodega.
His punishment was being carted away in an ambulance with a bullet hole in his body, while the police officers on the scene declared he’d died.
An article in the newspaper the next morning stated he’d actually survived, which was something that brought temporary comfort to my heart.
I say temporary because I moved back to the South Bronx last December to try to make a difference in this place I’ve always called home. And I take it to heart every time another teenager is shot down in the street. I take it as a personal failure of my own.
A failure to help rid the community I love of the violence that has plagued it for the last four generations.
When I relocated back to the Bronx, I walked away from a 15-year career, a comfortable living in the midst of a failed economy. I left behind a life of leisure on the beautifully manicured golf courses of Virginia Beach, and a peace of mind I’ve long since forgotten exists in this world.
But more difficult than anything, I walked away from my three daughters, who I left to be raised in a place of serenity, far away from a community that doesn’t seem to care enough to clean itself up.
It was a decision I made based off the fact that so few seemed to care about our youth and I had every intention of being the spark that ignited into a full scale inferno of positive change.
I was leaving my own children behind in hopes of rescuing the children of others who don’t have the means or desire to do so themselves.
This past Sunday, I heard the news of another shootout on Prospect Ave., and on my drive home Monday evening I witnessed a scene that is becoming all too familiar in this community – hundreds of people gathered behind yellow crime scene tape.
News began to pour in about the two shootouts that occurred less than two miles apart, which claimed five more victims of Prospect Ave.
The media came out in droves to report the story of a 15-year-old girl, Vada Vasquez, an innocent bystander now fighting for her life after being shot in the head on her way home from school.
She was struck by a bullet meant for 19-year-old Tyrone Creighton who was allegedly the intended target.
Creighton was also struck in the torso and leg in what Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is calling a retaliation shooting for a beating that took place on Rikers Island by a member of Creighton’s family.
Three hours later, just a short distance down Prospect Ave. another 19-year-old, Felix Del Valle, caught two bullets in the chest and died at the scene.
The smell of death once again fills the air of the Bronx as a candlelight vigil is held for little Vada Vasquez in hopes that in this ocean of failure, we’ll have one wave of success in the form of young Vada’s survival.
My thoughts race back exactly 20 years ago, to November 16, 1989, when I lost my first neighborhood friend, Zenun Berisha to a senseless murder on Fordham Road.
After Zen died there seemed to be a funeral every three months, until I finally threw in the towel and fled the Bronx in 1993 after the funeral of my cousin Tony.
Maybe that’s why this is all so personal for me, because I still carry the pain around with me as well as the memories of their lives and what they could’ve been had change come sooner.
I think this is what they refer to as survivor’s guilt.
I’ve recently sat across the desk of some of the most powerful men in New York City and they’ve looked me in the eyes and said the very same thing, “No one cares...”
“Make your money first and then write a check out to some organization and be done with it,” is what they’ve unanimously asked me to do.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s time for me to just give up like everyone else seems to have done.
But I don’t think I’m ready just yet to throw in the towel. Maybe my fate lies in the survival of Vada. Maybe she’s actually the spark that will ignite the inferno of change in all of us.
For now, I’ll continue to ignore the advice of the rich and famous in hopes of finding the right people to join forces with to combat the violence my generation was born into, the violence we made worse, and the violence we’ll probably leave behind for another four decades to follow.
One year after arriving to make a difference, I find myself with very little hope for this home of mine.
I don’t see any real community leaders out here. I don’t see any police officers in the community trying to engage the youth. I don’t see social workers who are able to relate to the struggles of the youth of today. And I definitely don’t see a Mayor who cares about the underclass of his city.
All I see is a bunch of candles that say, “Loyalty B4 Dishonor,” “Ladii True Ryders,” and “Peace and Love.”
All I see is a blue and white sitting on the corner way too late after another tragic shooting.
And all I see is a poster that says, “It takes the hood to save the hood…”
This city can’t save us anymore than Obama can.
I agree with the poster left sitting in the grass. If any real change is going to come, it’s going to have to start with the elders in our neighborhoods actually caring about the lives of the youth in each project building, on each block and in each section of the Bronx.
It’s going to have to start with a real plan of action and an agreement between the police officers and the residents of these communities to begin working together.
Otherwise all we’re left with is the desensitization of violence that leads to the $20 bet I overheard this morning between the bodega owner and a high school student.
“Papi, I bet you twenty dollars she didn’t die.”
To which the bodega owner placed his money on the counter and replied, “She died at 5 AM this morning… now pay me.”
I don’t know if Papi knows something the rest of us don’t know, but according to authorities Vada is still alive with a critical head injury.
I for one am holding out hope that she’ll survive to see her 16th birthday next year, just like my daughter Starr.
And I’d like to bet my entire future that little Vada Vasquez will find a way to come out of her medically induced coma to enjoy a full life.
Is there anyone out there willing to match my bet?
Editor's Note: Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on an anthology about successful NY Latinos.