A Little Village mother forgave her son’s killer. Now she writes poems to honor victims of gang violence.

On a small table adjacent to a red couch, Doris Hernandez keeps the last photo of her late son amid dozens of crosses, a rosary and a Bible with worn pages bearing the weight of countless prayers.

Hanging on the wall is a card he gave her as a child for Mother’s Day.

There’s also a gold notebook that she keeps on top of the couch. Within its pages, penned with ink, grief and resilience, are hundreds of poems. Each verse is a tribute to her son’s memory, a whispered promise to keep his essence alive. They’re an orison to heal the wounds of mothers who, like her, have felt the searing pain of losing a child to gang violence in Chicago’s Little Village.

“The soul hurts,” she wrote two years after her son, Freddy Cervantes, 20, was shot in the face and chest while standing in an alley. He was part of a gang.

“It’s not a physical pain that my mind can control, it’s an anguish in the soul that medicine cannot cure. It is not the shadows of the deaths that make me feel lonely, it’s more of the sadness of not being able to see you, to hear you,” the poem read.

Devastated by her loss, Hernandez, 66, found solace and strength through poetry. She began to write, channeling her emotions into verses that pay tribute to the suffering of a community in Chicago that has been plagued by gang and gun violence for decades. There are more than 200 poems about her son and his friends, most of whom have been killed or are in jail, she said.

She’s also written about their mothers and their pain, humanizing stories that have been turned into numbers and lost to a narrative that has normalized the killings in Little Village.

“There were many nights where I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about my son. I found peace in writing these poems, but I never thought they would make it out of my notebook,” Hernandez said. “Now I realize that they’re an ode to a beautiful community that suffers, but is resilient.”

Though she’s afraid she’ll forget the sound of her son’s voice one day, she still remembers seeing her son’s blood being washed off the pavement as she pleaded to other young people there to let go of their thirst for retribution, for she had already forgiven the killer.

The very first time she read one of her poems in public was the day in 2013 when she announced she’d founded “Padres Angeles” or “Parent Angels,” to parishioners at St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish, 2651 S. Central Park Ave.. Driven by a desire to prevent other families from experiencing the same heartache, she founded the grassroots organization to violence prevention in her community. Its mission is to support parents who have lost children to gun violence and to empower young people to choose a different path.

The group holds workshops for parents who have lost a child or who have young ones at risk. It also does outreach through street masses, block cleanups and general outreach to the people of Little Village, including gang members. It is now also affiliated with Consuelo, a group created to help grieving parents and their families cope with loss.

On Friday, May 10, the day when mothers from Mexico and other Latin American countries celebrate Mother’s Day, the group met at St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish to celebrate with a healing circle led by a grief therapist.

“If I didn’t have their support, I wouldn’t have been able to move forward after my son’s death,” said Carlota Lopez, 56. Her son David Lopez was killed in 2009. He was 20 years old and had been vocal about leaving the gang before he was killed, she said. His journey was documented in “The Interrupters,” a documentary about young people attempting to reform their lives.

It took many years before she could watch the documentary. Now she plays it often just to hear his voice, she said. The mother of six said she found consolation and the strength to keep going because of Hernandez. She joined the group and has since become vocal about the systemic issues that led to her son’s death.

Every Mother’s Day is a stark reminder that she has an “angel” watching over her, she said while sitting in Hernandez’s kitchen a day before the Mother’s Day event, holding back tears.

Hernandez grabbed her notebook and turned the pages to a poem she had written about Lopez and her children. Though she had heard it before, it brought back a sense of acceptance over the loss of her child.

“In a way, it makes me feel like at least there’s someone who sees me and understands my pain,” she said.

Hernandez has prayed alongside hundreds of other grieving mothers since her son was killed. She’s partnered with Dolores Castañeda, known as the mother of Little Village for her advocacy work in the community, and the two have attended hundreds of funerals and vigils of those killed by gun violence. They also visit victims in the hospital and young people in jail.

Since March, they have attended at least 20 funerals of victims of gun violence in Little Village. Over the years, they’ve noticed that December and January, along with summer months are the deadliest, Castañeda said.

Each time, Hernandez returns home, grabs her notebook and writes.

“The heavy rain suddenly prevented the vigil from starting … their hearts in pieces showed their pain, their worried faces, not only because of the unexpected farewell but also because of the uncertainty of not knowing who will be added next to the bloody list,” Hernandez wrote in poem she dedicated to the family of Ramon Breceda, who was killed at 16 in 2014.

Three teens from the neighborhood were later charged with first-degree murder in connection with the killing. The accused teens were “aspiring members” of the Latin Kings and the shooting was part of their initiation into the gang, according to prosecutors.

“It is a battlefield, violence ends the lives of our young people, they are leaving us. But it also destroys families who are dead inside and left behind,” Hernandez wrote in the poem.

At those vigils, Hernandez and Castañeda also embrace other young men and women who find themselves drawn into gangs, letting them know they all are loved.

While some people cannot fathom her sympathy for the community’s troubled youths, Hernandez hopes that people are inspired to understand one another, their life circumstances and how they ended up in gangs.

Little Village is made up of mostly working-class families, and most parents are immigrants who work from dusk to dawn, often unable to keep a close eye on their children, Castañeda said. There are two major gangs in Little Village — the Latin Kings and the Two Six — and involvement is deeply rooted in the neighborhood. It’s fueled by a system that continues to blame young people and their parents rather than offer proactive alternatives, she said.

Falling into gangs and street violence is sometimes inevitable. Even when parents notice that their children are walking the wrong way, there aren’t many resources in the schools, churches or community centers to get them help, Hernandez said.

Before her son was killed, she desperately searched for support for herself and her son, who was deeply affected after his father abandoned the family when Freddy was 8 years old.

Hernandez hoped to find a lifeline with each phone call to the school, each visit to a church or community center — a program, a psychologist, anything that could offer her son the support he needed to drive him away from the gang. But she said she was met with a wall of apathy — a stark reminder of the systemic failures that plague communities like hers.

“Everyone told me that the only way to help him was if he decided to change his life,” she recalls. “Nothing and no one was able to help me.”

Hernandez’s son was fatally shot Nov. 17, 2012, while standing in the gangway of an alley.

Cervantes joined the Latin Kings around his freshman year at Farragut Career Academy. The night after he joined, Hernandez found him beaten and bloodied at a friend’s apartment. Even though she took him out of Farragut and enrolled him in an alternative school, Cervantes could not find a way out.

“Doris is a very strong person. The fact that she can embrace young people from both sides, Kings and Two Six, never knowing who killed her son, is admirable,” said Castañeda.

Sometimes, Castañeda said, “they almost look at her like a mother.”

Over the years, they’ve encountered several young men who come up to them and tell them that they’ve found a job or that they’ve moved away from a troubled life.

Part of her mission, Hernandez said, is to advocate for programs and laws that could prevent youths from joining gangs. But it’s an endeavor that requires the collaboration of communities, policymakers and law enforcement to develop comprehensive solutions that offer alternatives and support to at-risk youths.

In April, Hernandez and other mothers went to Springfield to push for two bills that would require the state to assist families with troubled youths in relocating to different neighborhoods and to provide more resources for mental health care for families in underserved neighborhoods, such as Little Village.

The group held a blanket with photos of more than 100 young lives lost to gang violence in Little Village before the House and Senate of the Illinois General Assembly.

In September, the group plans to travel to Washington with the support of Crime Survivors for Justice and Safety to push for more resources for youth at risk and their families.

Padres Angeles and their healing circle, Consuelo, are mostly funded by donations from community members. Often, though, Hernandez and Castañeda fully fund the activities and the programs themselves.

For the two mothers, it’s a labor of love. By helping others heal, they say, they heal themselves.

Hernandez recalled praying to God for peace when her son was killed. “Tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this love that is left that was supposed to be for my son,” she recalls saying while on her knees in the middle of the night.

“What I do, what I write, and what I say to help others is all the love that my son left in me to give the world,” she said.

In the streets of Little Village, Hernandez’s presence serves as a beacon of hope, reminding others that peace is possible — even in the darkest of times.

In the first poem for her son, Hernandez wrote:

“I want to walk alone through the streets where you walked, I pretend that I find you, but fear invades me because I know that this is not true.

“My deep and vivid pain becomes stronger

“the impossible desire to see you.

“I talk to the shadows of the trees in my path, and I only listen

“the crunching sound of its branches.

“I would like to run after you like I would when I would go looking for you, and I could surprise you where you least expected.

“Where is my son?”