Rita Chairez has been selected by Catholic Digest as one of 12 Catholic heroes — laypeople living and/or working in the United States who are performing exemplary work in the spirit of the Catholic faith. Catholic Digest recently spoke with Chairez, 47, about her work at Comunidad en Movimiento —— a group under the umbrella organization Proyecto Pastoral, which was founded by Jesuit Father Greg Boyle — and about the tragic incident that spurred her to take a greater leadership role in reducing violence in her community.
CD: How would you describe Community in Action (Comunidad en Movimiento) and how it began?
CHAIREZ: Community In Action started in 1996, identifying the issues around human dignity. In the community we were going through a difficult time — the housing projects were being renovated, so people were being displaced, and also immigration — people were going to lose their benefits if they didn’t become U.S. citizens. At that time, Consuelo Valdez, who was the director of Comunidad en Movimiento, was going to train people on how to fill out the application. (In 1999) I attended a meeting and she asked if I was going to be able to help her out. I and two sisters and my mom became U.S. citizens at that time.
CD: And you had come from Mexico, is that right?
CHAIREZ: Yes, I come from Zacatecas Mexico.
CD: The focus of the group changed somewhat in the year 2000. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened?
CHAIREZ: It was October 8, 2000, and we had just come from a retreat to plan the novenas and posadas for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was around 6 o’clock, and we had gone to our homes. I was resting. And we just heard shots and people crying and yelling, and I came down from my house and walked over to where I saw a lot of people, and then I saw (a little girl lying on the ground, shot down in the midst of gang gunfire). (I saw) Stephanie (Raygoza)’s dad pick her up and put her in the car and take her. And the mother was left behind, and I asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital and she said yes. We went inside the emergency room when they told us [Stephanie] was dead, and a couple of community members and myself went in to pray the Rosary for her. And I think as mothers we were stunned and we were like, No, this cannot be happening. Today it was Stephanie, but tomorrow it could be my daughter, or my son.
I think the community came together in love and unity and faith, and we started seeing a lot of things that were wrong. The alleys were wide open, people could come in and out, the streets were not paved, the sewer had not been touched in 40 years, and our streets had not been touched in 40 years. So we started noticing a lot of those things and we said, “No. We are dignified people, so we deserve more. And we don’t want our children dying in our streets.” We had been working a lot before that in doing peace walks, and working with Father Greg Boyle and just doing the basic human rights and justice (work), but I think Stephanie woke something up in all of us in the community to come together and say, ‘This is enough. We won’t have another youth die in the streets.” I think she put a lot in our hearts, and she became a symbol for us. In the year 2001 we stared a leadership training.
CD: And where specifically did that happen, in what neighborhood?
CHAIREZ: Dolores Mission Community. This is Boyle Heights. We’re between east L.A. and downtown L.A.
CD: What was put into place as a result of Stephanie’s death?
CHAIREZ: Leadership development. We identified 30 co-leaders, and out of those 30 co-leaders, approximately 15 key leaders. We did about 500 one-on-ones with different people from the community, just asking what were their issues, their concerns. And violence was identified as the number-1 key issue, seconded by the lack of jobs for youth, youth opportunities. And then we started developing the research meetings with different key city leaders and we also went to Chicago and San Diego to research their community policing projects and adopted them to what was happing in our community eventually this helped us in development of The Dolores Mission Safety Project.
We put everything in place based on the community needs, and in 2001 we asked the mayor to sign onto it — the mayor, the chief of police, and the [city council representative]. The police can’t do it by themselves, we can’t do it by ourselves, the mayor’s office can’t do it by itself, so in partnership, it was just a matter of letting the public officials what was the need, and (telling them that) to keep the information confidential you don’t come and knock on people’s doors; you provide a safe place or a safe number for people to call and be anonymous.
CD: So that was one of the things that were put in place — an anonymous hotline of sorts?
CD: What else was done for the safety project?
CHAIREZ: The streets were repaved and handicapped access was also put in place, and we also closed the alley that was used by shooters to go into the community and also lights were installed — sensor lights on the streets of the homes.
CD: What kind of impact did these sorts of programs began to have on the community?
CHAIREZ: Well, I think we took a really active role, more than ever, in insuring the safety of the children. I mean, how can you go to school when the night before, you heard shots, or you saw a little girl die? And I think that was, for us, a stepping stone. In the year 2000, we had three homicides in our community, and then in the year 2003 we had two homicides, and then the year 2004 we had one homicide, and then when we went to D.C. to receive [the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s Development of People Award in 2006], we hadn’t had a homicide in two years. And then in February we had a death — we had a homicide.
CD: And today you are community organizer for the group? What does that entail?
CHAIREZ: I work with issues identified by community residents. And we’re mainly women. I work with Safe Passage, the women’s conference — this year we had close to 350 women — which took place June 30. We also work with the leadership development and the safety project.
CD: How would you say that your Catholic faith impacts your work?
CHAIREZ: I remember when my cousin was killed about nine years ago, and I remember the women gathering here at Dolores Mission, and walking and singing and praying to where he was killed. I hadn’t been exposed to that kind of unity and that kind of love. That showed the compassion that they have for what happens to you in your life. You start wondering, Where do they find that faith? And the only answer that I’ve found for myself is, you just come and you listen to the word of the Lord, the Gospel, and you act on it. You walk with people in their faith and you will have that faith. CD
A closer look at Rita Chairez
- Favorite book: Dying to Cross.
- Favorite music: Spanish
- Favorite family activity: Chairez, her husband Sergio, and their five children, who range in age from 13 to 23, enjoy traveling to Mexico.
- Her heroes: “My mother, Maria Chairez. She’s the one that is holding the family together and that has [passed on to me] her faith. And after having two sons killed … [and after] my father died three years ago, she’s standing there keeping the family together. So for me, she is my hero. And so is my sister, Leticia. She has endured a lot of pain [but] continues to move forward.”
- Favorite way to relax: “Driving long distance.”
- Hobbies: “I love watching CSI Miami and Law and Order. Anything that has police work in it.”
- Favorite saint: The Virgin of Guadalupe
- Best advice you’ve ever received: “I received it from Father Michael Kennedy (former pastor of Dolores Mission Church) and from Father Greg Boyle. They always say, ‘Working for the kingdom of God and peace and justice, your life will never be the same. Confirmation will be in every step you take, and Jesus will be in every life you touch.’”