ENGLEWOOD — Family and community members gathered Wednesday evening at I Grow Chicago's peace garden to honor the life of 4-year-old Manuel "Manny" Aguilar.
Manny’s malnourished body was found in a burning, vacant Englewood home Aug. 2, four days after he died. His mother, Alyssa Garcia, 27, hid Manny's body in the basement of the house because "she didn't want DCFS to take away her kids again," Assistant State's Attorney Jamie Santini said during a bond hearing last month.
Garcia is accused of regularly locking Manny in a back room, denying him food and access to a bathroom, and physically abusing him.
Memorial service attendees were encouraged to leave notes for Manny's siblings. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Touched by Manny's story, Robbin Carroll, president of I Grow Chicago, a nonprofit that assists children, organized the small memorial to honor the boy. His three older siblings were active participants for more than a year.
Family remembers Manny, a 'deep thinker'
Manny’s grandmother and great-grandmother attended the memorial held at 6402 S. Honore in Englewood.
Deborah Weathers-Lee, Manny's great-grandmother, described the gathering as beautiful and said that it “went above and beyond” her expectations.
She said the family was still struggling with the loss.
Manny was a “deep thinker, very loving” and stayed by her side always wanting to help, said his grandmother, Garcia's mother, who declined to give her name.
What her daughter was accused of doing to her grandson was news to her, she said. The two weren’t close, and Garcia was in and out of her life, she said.
She could be seen dabbing a tissue at tears during the program. She also participated in a balloon release. She said the event was “touching,” and that she still was reeling from the loss of her grandson.
Weathers-Lee said she, too, appreciated the memorial and that it wasn’t just for Manny, but for others who have lost someone.
To prevent what happened to Manny from happening to others, Weathers-Lee said it’s crucial that people talk to their neighbors. She said communities used to be close-knit, but over the years that has changed. She would like to see neighbors get close again.
Community vows not to forget
The program opened with prayer and included a moment of silence, followed by instrumental music. Children attending, some of them classmates of Manny's siblings, blew bubbles and released blue and white balloons.
Two guest speakers addressed the audience, both child-abuse survivors.
Sammy Rangel, founder of Formers Anonymous, shares his child-abuse story with memorial attendees. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Rosemary Palmer, a pastor at Lion and the Lamb Ministries, 7052 S. Western Ave. shared her story of being sexually abused at age 5.
Another speaker, Sammy Rangel, founder of Formers Anonymous, said he, like Manny, was locked up and abused by his mother, who tried to kill him.
Both speakers stressed the importance of community awareness and involvement and challenged the narrative of "minding my own business."
“We have to start getting involved and change the culture of 'that’s not my problem,'” Rangel said. “Every voice matters. We have to have more courage than fear. We have to speak up.”
“No child at 4 years old should have to die alone like that,” Rangel said.
A death and abuse allegations
Authorities say they believe Manny died on July 29. His body was found Aug. 2 by responders to a vacant building on fire.
Garcia, Manny's mom, her 17-year-old boyfriend and his brother, 19-year-old Christian Camarena, are accused of wrapping Manny in a blue blanket, driving him to an abandoned home in the 1400 block of West Marquette Road and setting his body on fire using lighter fluid.
Garcia and Christian Camarena are charged with concealing a death and attempted arson. Garcia's 17-year-old boyfriend was charged as a juvenile.
DCFS is investigating Manny's death, including allegations of abuse and neglect, said Veronica Resa, a spokeswoman with DCFS. In February, the department investigated allegations of abuse and neglect involving one of Garcia's older children. The report was "unfounded," Resa said.
Confronting the silence
Palmer, who lost her son to gun violence, said she’s praying for the city.
“I believe change is going to come,” she said, adding that in order for the community to heal, there needs to be a "village" mentality.
“God is with little Manny right now,” Palmer said. “He isn’t sick anymore, he isn’t suffering anymore. He’s in heaven and has no more fear, sickness, abuse. He is now free.”
What began as a mournful gathering soon turned into something uplifting and encouraging as Palmer and Rangel spoke. People shouted “hallelujah” and “That’s right” in agreement with their words.
Children release balloons and blow bubbles at a memorial for Manny Aguilar. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Manny had five siblings and was the big brother to week-old twins. The three eldest children attended the Montessori School of Englewood.
The school's executive director, Rita Nolan, was at Wednesday's memorial, along with several teachers who had Manny’s siblings in their classes.
Everyone described the children as bright, innovative and kind.
They won’t be returning to school this year, and the teachers said they will be missed.
Nolan said no one would have have suspected that Manny had been abused. When Garcia came to the school she was always “sweet and nice,” Nolan said.
A tree soon will be planted outside in the garden for Manny, organizers said. Its future home was marked with a cross Wednesday.
Carroll said it was important to organize the memorial service because the community is too accustomed to pain and concealing its hurt.
“We have to learn to deal,” she said. “And together we can do anything.”
Ending the code of silence
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) didn’t speak to the crowd, but stood quietly in the background to show his support.
“The memorial was a good positive step in the right direction,” he said afterward, adding that communities need to stop participating in the code of silence.
“We have to step up and speak up when we see potential threats against children. We have to [remove] the stigma of fear that speaking out against a threat to a child will threaten one’s own family.”
He said he’s working on a program with the city's health and family and support services departments to educate people about what happens when they report a possible crime against a child.
Lopez is also working with the Department of Forestry to plant a tree in Manny’s name, he said.
Late Wednesday, an anonymous donor contacted his office and donated $1,000 to help with burial costs, Lopez said.
Anyone who wants to help with donations for Manny’s siblings can contact either Lopez’s office, 773-823-1539 or I Grow Chicago at 312-286-7392.
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