Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen individuals to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Peace Builder – The Peace Exchange and the Resurrection Basketball League
Sergio Melgarejo was important to the transformation of Throop Park from a gang-influenced corner to a space where young people play basketball every day.
He moved across the street when he was 11 years old and quickly realized that gangs took ownership of the parks in their territory. There were habitual shootings and he saw rival gangs throw bricks at each other. “Kids around Throop, Dvorak and Harrison parks, they would fight in school and outside of school,” he said. It was difficult to share the basketball court with the older, often hostile, teenagers.
A couple of years later Sergio got involved with the Resurrection Basketball League (RBL) which helped him make friendships with guys from all over the neighborhood. The program puts together eight block parties a year with basketball and volleyball tournaments, arts and crafts activities, free tickets to the zoo, food, and other perks for the residents. Sergio began as a participant and soon became an organizer.
Through regular interaction on the block, his relationship with the gangbangers and other youth improved. “I did have some trouble fighting with these people, who are now my friends, who now respect me for who I am and actually turn to me for things they need,” Sergio said. And the use of the court at Throop Park is no longer disputed.
In May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an appearance at the park. Sergio met him and has spoken to him a few times. “I told him we need more community programs to develop leaders like myself and after school programs that would actually help the kids stay involved. Because on the street they run into drugs or gang violence,” he said.
Sergio has always understood the motivation for joining a gang, like “being part of a family and sticking together through tough times.” But it comes at a cost. That’s why he thinks all of the youth he works with are “at risk.” They are exposed to the gang culture and other negative elements of their environment. So his role, as someone who has overcome those influences, is to support others in that vulnerable position.
He was nominated to The Peace Exchange by former Peace Builder and Pilsen resident, Henry Cervantes. Sergio completed 80 hours of training on the nature of violence and spent the summer in Nicaragua learning how the culture copes with community conflict and peace. The last phase of his work as a Peace Builder will be to share his experience abroad with 1,000 Chicago Public School students.
Sergio currently works as a lifeguard for the Chicago Park District and the City Colleges of Chicago. The 19-year-old goes to Malcolm X College and wants to become a history teacher and a sports’ coach.
Interview by Jackie Serrato
Photos by Jackie Serrato