Giving One's All to Build Community
Was it a premonition?
On the day he died, Arnold talked with one of his coworkers at Centro Comunitario Juan Diego about his most recent run-in with a local slum landlord. "He looked at me like he wants to kill me," was Arnold's gut feeling after their confrontation. He also talked about "being old," about "being tired," and about death.
No one would have believed that a few hours later Arnold Mireles, age 35, dearly loved by everyone, would die tragically. That is...dearly beloved by almost everyone...except gang members, slum landlords, and others who did not his share his unending commitment to building a safer and healthier South Chicago.
Having earned a degree in art, Arnold had every opportunity to leave the community for a professional career in a "better neighborhood." Most of his contemporaries had done just that. In fact, many of his classmates were fearful of visiting him in their old neighborhood.
However, Arnold saw his neighborhood with different eyes. He saw beauty and goodness. "I love South Chicago," was his theme, and he lived and acted accordingly. He chose to stay and fight crime, racism, and poverty. He had a "pride of place" according to a coworker. No one could more ably convey such pride to others, especially to children. He knew and loved the people, their stories, the history of every building. He also knew what was happening to improve his favorite part of Chicago.
In 1997, he was delighted to become a staff member at Centro Comunitario Centro Juan Diego -- a grassroots organization founded in 1994 by Latino women to work for social change in the low-income, problem-plagued neighborhood of South Chicago. Arnold's main responsibilities were community organizing, court watch, an after-school tutoring program, and community policing.
Due to limited funds, salaries and stipends at Juan Diego are minimal; volunteers are integral to its mission. Arnold was able to commit himself totally because he lived simply, helped maintain the building (owned by his father) in which he lived, and did not have a family of his own. Rather, his "family" included everyone in the community: young, old, community organizers, the police, teachers, and so on. He could talk the language of children one minute and the language of politicians the next.
This was not always the case for him. A community organizer, who worked with him early on, remembers him as quiet and shy, hardly engaging anyone in conversation. As Arnold became increasingly involved in the issues of his community, his abilities grew. He gradually peeled away his natural layers of shyness.
It began with his involvement with neighborhood safety organizing and with his tireless commitment in naturalization programs on Saturdays as a volunteer with UNO (United Neighborhood Organization). He learned ways to address neighborhood problems effectively by working with other concerned residents. He learned to speak out, to listen carefully, to translate Spanish and English proficiently, and to connect people and resources in order to meet common needs.
Most people, friends and strangers alike, knew him by his smile. His positive spirit, smile, and personality drew people to him. Especially children. He loved children, and they loved and respected him. Of special delight to Arnold was taking kids on field trips: to the zoo, to museums, and even to jails. He wanted them to see what jails were like, so that they would have a choice. He had a gift of getting his messages across to young people -- messages such as fair play and commitment to one's neighborhood.
A coworker described him as a "pied piper." When he walked down the street, children and adults flocked to be with him, to talk with him, to ask for help with this or that problem. Amazingly, he always had time...for everyone. His organizational abilities impressed many, including one of his brothers. He saw Arnold as "always ahead of the game. God helped him do it. God gave him the gift."
Arnold seemed to have a sense of being called, a mission for others, to be faithful. This resonated in people's hearts. Did this mean he was never hesitant, never fearful? Not at all. Instead, he didn't let fear get him down. He found the inner strength to rise to the occasion when needed.
Such courage and steadfastness was most needed in challenging slum landlords to clean up neglected housing. Being an avid and excellent photographer, Arnold took pictures of dilapidated homes and brought his shots to housing court as proof of what needed attention. Aggravated slum landlords were among the few who did not like Arnold. One landlord in particular seemed to want to get rid of him. Who would have dreamed that this man would allegedly act a few days after Christmas, 1997.
On December 29, Arnold stayed late at the Center to carefully record and file his pictures. His small apartment was only a block away. He had only to cross the street to be at his front door when he was allegedly shot from behind by two teenagers hired by the landlord. With one bullet, Arnold's physical life was gone, taken from a community who dearly loved him.
A shrine spontaneously appeared at the location of his death. Among the many poignant notes left there were these from children: "Arnold, we miss you. Come back please!" "You are my best friend in all the world. Please come back."
Arnold's parents, brothers, and sisters were overwhelmed by the response of the neighborhood to his death. While they often missed him at home when he was working in the community, they had no idea of how many lives he had touched. The lines of mourners at his wake were seemingly endless. Over 1,000 grieving people from all walks of life attended his funeral or stood outside in the rain to pay tribute.
How many well-educated, personable, and talented people happily dedicate themselves to bettering their community, rather than gaining prestige, power or money? Not many. Arnold was an exceptional human being, an inspiration, and a martyr for his community.
While he is at peace, his spirit lives on. Commitment to the neighborhood has grown. Others have risen to continue his work. Along with feelings of deep loss, a friend and coworker also feels new life. "On Dec. 29, 1997, a life was taken away, and new life was born in me. I feel it." The circle of life continues: life, death, and new life.
Muchas gracias, Arnold! May your spirit always burn bright and ever inspire people to build life-giving and sustaining communities!
Pictures -- thanks to Centro Comunitario Juan Diego