Who here has lost somebody to gang violence?” funeral director Concepción Rodriguez asks a group of attentive teens. Here, at a high school in Chicago’s working-class Pilsen neighborhood, several hands go up. “In the casket you saw them nice, but when I pick up kids at the morgue, their bodies are mutilated,” she says to suddenly serious faces. “It’s ugly.”
Starting calmly, then turning passionate and tearful, Rodriguez, 42, spends the next hour stripping away the romance of gang life with its guns and bravado to reveal the grim consequences—from a video of young gang members who now are dead or in jail to a graphic description of the autopsy process on bullet-ridden corpses to a casket she has on display. It’s a personal mission for Rodriguez, who, as an angry 16-year-old, proudly walked the streets as a member of the Lady Aces. “We were bad,” she says. But when a close friend was gunned down in 1980, she re-evaluated her life. “I could retaliate and end up dead or in jail. Or I was going to live,” recalls Rodriguez, now a married mom of three. In 1995 she joined the Zefran Funeral Home and began speaking at schools and community centers four years later. Now she visits about 10 a year.
Rodriguez’s tough talk hits a nerve. “She was amazing,” says Brenda Hernandez, 15, who attended the recent presentation and, just a few weeks later, shielded her niece from a hail of bullets. Hearing Rodriguez last year helped Fernando Cervantes, 17, choose college over his neighborhood gang. “I knew one person in the pictures,” he says. “I don’t want to be that person.”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com.