HUMBOLDT PARK — Several years before Gyovanny Arzuaga was murdered, he was a quiet but confident teen walking the halls of Association House High School, an alternative high school in Humboldt Park.
“Gyo had a smile that could pretty much light up the hallway,” said his friend and former classmate, Demiyon Eastling.
Another friend and former classmate, Lilianna Lozada, described Arzuaga as a “very special kid” who “wanted the best for everybody.”
“He liked seeing people smile because it made him smile. His laugh was so contagious,” Lozada said.
Arzuaga and his girlfriend, Yasmin Perez, were killed June 19 during the Puerto Rican Parade festivities. Video of the shooting spread quickly and shocked the city.
Arzuaga and Perez are among nine people who have been murdered in Humboldt Park this year. Their deaths show how the violence that surged in 2020 has not slowed down.
There were nine homicides and 29 shootings in the 26th Ward by Aug. 8; during the same time period last year, there were seven homicides and 31 shootings, according to a Block Club analysis of police data.
That puts this year’s violence on track to mirror what was seen in 2020, when the neighborhood ended the year with a total of 43 shootings and 11 homicides.
Though wealthier families have moved into Humboldt Park as it has gentrified over the past 20 years, data show shootings and murders in Humboldt Park have remained largely steady over the past decade.
While gentrification can coincide with a drop in gun violence, studies have shown, community leaders said the problems confronting residents have stayed the same.
As expensive homes are built along The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail, many Humboldt Park residents, some whose families have lived in the neighborhood for generations, are struggling to pay for basic necessities like food and housing, community leaders said. Gun violence has long been linked to poverty.
The pandemic has only exacerbated those issues, leaders said.
“There’s still a lot of people who are dealing with food insecurity, who are unstable in their housing, who are concerned for their safety, and I don’t see those issues in the immediate future changing,” said Jose Muñoz, the executive director of La Casa Norte.
Arzuaga grew up on a farm but lived with family in Humboldt Park as he got older, his friends said. In his teenage years, he struggled with school — first at Roberto Clemente High School and then at Association House High School.
At Association House, he regularly skipped class, dropped out a couple of times and at one point moved to Aurora, citing financial and personal hardships, which isn’t uncommon for students at the school, Association House Principal David Pieper said.
Association House High School, 1116 N. Kedzie Ave., is designed for teens “who have been left behind by traditional public schools,” according to its website. Many students struggle personally and academically, Pieper said.
“Gyovanny was very typical in those regards,” Pieper said.
But during his two and a half years at the Humboldt Park school, Arzuaga made a strong impression on his teachers and classmates. He didn’t talk much in class, but he had a lot of friends and was popular with girls, his friends said.
Lozada said he liked to read, particularly books about God.
“He was kinda like me in a lot of ways, and that’s why it was so heartbreaking hearing about what happened to him,” Eastling said.
Arzuaga dropped out of Association House for good in 2017.
Some young people in Humboldt Park see leaving the neighborhood as the only way to escape the poverty and violence they grew up around — and that’s exactly what Arzuaga did. He and Perez moved to suburban Hanover Park, and they had two children together.
It was when Arzuaga came back to Humboldt Park for the Puerto Rican Parade festivities that he was murdered.
“He was just there to have a good time and go back home,” his friend, Jae Pacheco, told the Sun-Times.
Anthony Lorenzi, 34, has been charged with first-degree murder in Arzuaga’s slaying. Officials said they think Arzuaga accidentally shot Perez as they were ambushed after the parade.
“A lot of the things [Arzuaga talked about wanting] he ended up having with Yasmin,” Lozada said. “They had a beautiful relationship. He loved her, and she loved him so much. They even moved out of the city together and started a family. … It’s just really sad to think about that.”
Lozada, Eastling and other friends and family members paid tribute to Arzuaga at a vigil in the Association House parking lot about a week after he was killed. Chicago has rallied around the couple, raising nearly $130,000 for their families in the wake of the tragedy.
Attempts to reach Arzuaga’s family have been unsuccessful.
“We are all heartbroken and devastated beyond belief as they leave behind two beautiful children, Sofiya and Jayden,” family members wrote in the fundraiser.
‘We Want To Stop That Cycle’
Humboldt Park community leaders said the steady gun violence is a symptom of a beleaguered community.
For decades, Humboldt Park-based community organizations like Association House, La Casa Norte and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center have worked to reduce gun violence with consistent programs, outreach and giveaways. The goal is to lift up young people and people in poverty, a strategy that has been proven to bring down shootings.
But the needs of the community have ballooned during the pandemic, and these groups are struggling to keep up.
More than a year into the public health crisis, food and rent giveaway events in Humboldt Park continue to draw long lines of people, said Jose Muñoz, La Casa Norte’s executive director.
“There’s still a lot of people who are dealing with food insecurity, who are unstable in their housing, who are concerned for their safety. And I don’t see those issues in the immediate future changing,” Muñoz said.
On top of the pandemic, many Humboldt Park residents are dealing with the effects of gentrification, community leaders said. Young, affluent people have moved in, driving up housing costs, which has driven out many Latino families.
At the same time, the neighborhood has seen an influx in shops and restaurants catering to young people, while Humboldt Park’s public schools have struggled.
“Humboldt Park is a really great microcosm for the inequities in Chicago generally,” said Juan Carlos Linares, the CEO and president of Association House. “Even if we see gentrification, some new buildings and people with higher incomes moving in — we welcome people, of course, but there are other consequences to that. When you have families moving away, enrollment becomes less and that puts schools at risk.”
The struggles fuel desperation — which can lead to violence.
After shootings, Association House and other organizations are left to pick up the pieces. In the case of Arzuaga and Perez, Puerto Rican Cultural Center leaders are hoping to provide the couple’s young children with mental health counseling and other services.
“If we don’t wrap our arms around them as a community, they will more than likely face the same lived realities their parents did. We want to stop that cycle,” said Jessie Fuentes, policy director for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
But Humboldt Park-based social organizations like Association House and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center face a major challenge in their quest to “stopping that cycle:” a lack of funding.
For example, Association House would like to expand child care for students and its family literacy program, but it can’t without more funding, Linares said.
“Humboldt Park is really lucky to have a lot of great services in this community, but we’re all in the same boat: We’re always scrapping for money,” he said. “We should be embarrassed by how much we underfund these kinds of services, which are solutions to the root cause of poverty and violence.”
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