Community gathers at vigil for victims of mass shooting in Back of the Yards

Pink balloons waved in the wind and candles flickered as dozens of mourners gathered in Back of the Yards on Monday for the victims of a mass shooting that killed a 9-year-old girl and left 10 others wounded over the weekend.

Family, neighbors and community members gathered in the 2000 block of West 52nd Street, where the 11 people were shot Saturday — including Ariana Molina, 9, who was killed when a bullet struck her in the head.

Residents held pink heart-shaped balloons and white candles as the Rev. Carmelo Mendez of St. Oscar Romero Parish led a prayer to honor Ariana.

Mendez had seen the family Saturday morning as he led a Catholic confirmation ceremony at the parish. The family was celebrating the confirmation when gunfire erupted.

"The same faith community that celebrated with them will now join them in prayers and join them in mourning. We all know it is very painful to lose a loved one," Mendez said.

The wounded included seven adults and three boys. Two brothers, ages 1 and 8, were shot several times in the abdomen. Their aunt, Alejandra Velasquez, said the boys were still hospitalized. A 9-year-old boy suffered a graze wound on his hand.

The wounded adults ranged in age from 19 to 40, according to police. Ariana’s mom was shot in her shoulder and remains hospitalized, Velasquez said. A 36-year-old man suffered gunshot wounds to his arms and back and was in critical condition. The other adults wounded were listed in good condition.

Police said the shooting was likely gang related.

Family members and members of Increase the Peace, an anti-violence advocacy group, said that the family was not affiliated with gangs and urged anyone with information on the shooters to come forward.

Ariana’s cousin, Esmeralda Vargas, was on campus at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign when her mother called Saturday to tell her what had happened. Vargas said she heard her family members screaming in the background.

"It truly broke me that I couldn’t be here and help them," Vargas said. "I just want to let my family know that I love them so much and I’m sorry that we lost my baby cousin. My family was celebrating a religious event and we are not gang-affiliated. It breaks my heart to see comments that we deserve this. We need to fix that narrative because that’s not what happened here.

"I just can’t believe this is what I come home to. She was so little. I’m tired of this happening. It’s unfair. I never thought that my family would be here. This keeps happening again and again. Why?"

Julia Molina, Ariana’s grandmother, said she misses her only granddaughter’s hugs and kisses.

"I miss my little girl, she was my only princess," she said.

Emilio Molina, Ariana’s uncle and godfather, said he carries a picture of Ariana in his wallet from the day she was baptized. He said he will always remember her as the person who taught his son how to pick dandelions.

"My son is going to miss her dearly," he said. "He was always after her. And today as he was grabbing those yellow flowers that we all hate, I just remembered how my little girl showed him how to do that on Saturday, right before she passed away. Through my son I will always remember her."

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) attended the vigil.

"For me these shootings are very personal," Lopez said. "Dealing with the gang violence is something that’s been a hallmark of my career as well as making sure that we highlight when innocent lives are taken in these kinds of situations. Here we have a 9-year-old girl whose whole life was ahead of her and it was tragically cut short by individuals who simply have no regard for human life and thought that it was their right to shoot indiscriminately on this block. We can’t allow this to become the norm here in Chicago."

Lopez urged any witnesses to come forward.

"Our goals has to be to ensure that the family is taken care of and that the community knows that they need to stand up and stand with this family in honor of Ariana so that her death is not just another statistic in the city of Chicago," Lopez said.

Relatives have launched a GoFundMe page to ease the financial burden on Ariana’s parents and four siblings.

On the GoFundMe page — which has raised more than the $10,000 goal — relatives thanked community members for their outpouring of support during this difficult time.