The Killing Quilt

updated 11/15/1993 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/1993 01:00AM

In a gang-infested, desolate pocket of southwest Detroit, gunshots ring out and another teenager falls dead. It is a tragedy that occurs far too frequently in the city, where the number of teen homicides is expected to climb from 54 last year to 80 in 1993. But as tears of grief and anger continue to flow, a group of battle-weary residents is starting to fight back. Armed with stencils, bottles of glitter, bright ribbons and plain white cotton squares, they have declared war on violence. Their weapon? An eight-foot-by-eight-foot quilt.

The quilt, patterned after the vast AIDS memorial quilt, is believed to be the first dedicated to victims of street violence. Featuring 25 names—and counting—it is decorated with photographs and fabric cutouts of hearts, crucifixes and gravestones. Behind each panel is a story of tragic loss and the life-affirming struggle of survivors trying to cope with their sorrow.

"There's a lot of pain because you feel you can't control what's going on," says Yolanda Salazar, 38, the Youth Assistance Program coordinator who helped organize the quilt and whose 19-year-old nephew, Raul, was shot down three years ago. "One day I was looking at the quilt in our office and I started crying, because I thought, 'God, all these kids are so young, and they're killing each other.' "

Bullets meant for a son killed his father instead

James "P'wee" Santiago and his father, Eduardo, a roofer, usually got along pretty well. They liked doing fix-it jobs around the house or going fishing together in northern Michigan for bass and catfish. But like any father and son, they had their differences. Last spring, P'wee, 18, left home after a family argument and didn't return for several days. One night while he was gone, two young men armed with AK-47s jumped out of a car in front of the Santiagos' three-bedroom wood-frame house and sprayed it with bullets, fatally wounding Eduardo, 40, who was working in the attic. P'wee's mother, Margaret, 35, a cleaning woman, and his brother, Eduardo, 16 were watching TV in the living room and were unharmed. P'wee, since age 16 a member of the Latin Counts, one of Detroit's most notorious gangs, heard the news from a friend. "I knew it was meant for me," he says. "My mom and dad weren't causing problems for anyone."

After the shooting, P'wee felt "guilty and lost," he says. The quilt helped him cope. He spent three days working on his panel, which includes a tombstone and the inscription "R.I.P. Dad." "I felt angry," he says, "but while I was working on the quilt, I didn't feel any anger because I was doing it to let people know there was somebody that I loved who I lost."

Shortly after the mob-style hit, two brothers, Michael and Francis Giboyeaux, were arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The Santiagos have since moved to a new house in southwest Detroit. P'wee tries to "stay low" and help take care of his mother. But he hasn't quit the Counts. "I figure I lost my dad, and there ain't really nothing else that I can lose," he says. "It's not easy to leave a gang."

A victim is called to his own death, leaving a child fatherless

Wendy Muñoz knew she was flirting with trouble when, at 14, she fell in love with Octavio "Bootis" Viramontez, 13, who belonged to the Latin Counts. Her father, Juan, rarely allowed her or her younger sister, Juanita, to date anyone, let alone a gang member like Bootis. So for three years their romance was a secret. Wendy always told her parents that she was going to visit her best friend, Bootis's sister Brunilda. "We couldn't go out in public much," says Wendy. "I had to sneak out." Bootis never talked about his gang life, and Wendy never asked. "He didn't want me to know things, so there wouldn't be trouble for me," she says.

She found out the hard way. On Dec. 23, 1990, Bootis was talking on an outdoor pay phone at 2:29 a.m. when he was gunned down by someone driving by in a pickup truck. He had been set up. "Someone paged him on his beeper, and he went to return the call," says Wendy.

Sewn into Wendy Muñoz's quilt panel for Bootis is a picture of their daughter, Wendy Viramontez, now 2. Muñoz is still bitter that the little girl will never know her father. "While I was working on it, I was thinking, 'Why do we have to be making this for you?' " she says. "Sometimes I get real mad at him because he's no longer here."

A trip to the corner store ends with a bullet in the back

Maria de la luz Estrada liked to act as hard as the streets she grew up on. "She always tried to be tough," says her mother, Rosa, 39. "It took a lot for her to give you a hug."

Even last January, when she was 19 and had two young children, Maria still behaved like a reckless adolescent. "Her idea of having fun was sleeping all day and being out all night with her friends," says Rosa. But she had begun to show signs she was changing. She planned to move into a place of her own and take care of her two kids, Rosemary, 5, and Rodolfo, 4, who up to that point had been raised largely by Rosa. And Maria talked of being a cosmetologist someday. "It seemed like she was finally going to do something with her life," says her mother.

Then, on the night of Jan. 21, that possibility was foreclosed forever. That evening, Maria had been at home when, sometime around midnight, her boyfriend, Cisco, called to say he was dropping by. He asked her to go out and buy some beer. Twenty minutes later, upon returning to her family's house with three bottles each of Heineken and Corona, she was shot four times from behind as she opened the front door.

Because several gold chains were torn from her neck and some of her rings were taken, police believe Maria was a robbery victim. No suspects have been identified, and some family members believe the murderers were after Cisco, though Rosa insists he is no troublemaker.

Rosa, who is separated from her husband, now continues to care for Rosemary and Rudy, in addition to Maria's three younger brothers. Last June she began working on a panel for the quilt. "At first, when I started doing the actual cutting of the panel, it was difficult," says Rosa. "It took me two weeks to get started because every time I'd pick up something, it would bring back the memories and I'd start crying."

But now that it's completed, the quilt has helped Rosa accept that Maria is dead. "I don't want to have this hate inside," she says. "She shouldn't have been out there, but it happened."

J.D. PODOLSKY
SHAWN D. LEWIS in Detroit

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