Maria Gutierrez wipes away tears as she watches video of her son Angel staring at the camera, singing in a powerful voice that rattles her cellphone speaker. In a corner of her apartment, a poster depicts him smiling under a Cubs cap, a pair of wings Photoshopped onto his back.
She takes out a stack of yellow pieces of construction paper — notes of support written by his classmates after he walked out of English in May, frustrated by an assignment. "You smart but you don't try," one note read. "But just stay in school my dude ...."
After a peer delivered the notes, Angel Cano returned to class. And during the last two weeks of his life, his mother would find him in his room, reading the notes to himself.
Despite the efforts of many who cared about him, Cano, 16, lived on the edge of gang life. And he died on rival turf in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
His death would not make headlines like the innocents shot down in the city's parks last year: South Side teen Hadiya Pendleton, killed four months before him, or 13 people wounded at Cornell Square Park, blocks from where he lived, four months after his slaying.
But among the 415 killings in the city last year, his story was more typical than those that thrust Chicago into a national spotlight. Across the city, more than 2,100 people were wounded or killed by gunfire during the year. Most were boys or young men from the South or West sides. Many, though far from all, claimed allegiance to a gang.
Many, in other words, were like Cano.
In most communities, sticking by old friends will not get a 16-year-old killed. But in neighborhoods like Cano's, teens face much greater stakes, said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
"If you're growing up in Back of the Yards, you're much less likely to get the kind of second chance you'd get if you were living in a more affluent environment," Pollack said. "These kids don't have a huge margin for error."
The case of Angel Cano bears some resemblance to the more recognizable victims of 2013: He was no hardened criminal. He was a kid, who made some choices with consequences.
The afternoon of May 21 was turning into evening when Cano left his home in the 4400 block of South Wood Street.
His family had settled there the previous November, moving a mile northeast of his grandparents' home on West 50th Place, where they had lived.
On paper, the family's new home was in the same neighborhood, Back of the Yards. But for Cano, like many boys and young men living there, the two blocks lay on opposite sides of an invisible but very real line.
He had affiliated with the Satan Disciples, the gang controlling street corners in his old neighborhood. And his family had moved to territory claimed by the rival Latin Saints.
Although Cano remained close to friends from the old neighborhood, he was outgoing by nature and started to hang out with guys his age near his new home.
On the evening of May 21, he let his guard down enough to meet up with three people in the 4300 block of South Paulina Street, firmly on Latin Saints turf.
One of the three, 17-year-old Joel Batalla, led them into a gangway. Batalla and another then left, telling Cano and the fourth person to wait there, apparently to smoke marijuana later, prosecutors said.
Cano and his companion made small talk during what would be the final moments of his life. As Batalla was returning from the south end of the alley, someone commented on the pleasant weather.
"It's a beautiful day to get smoked," Batalla said, pulling out a gun, according to prosecutors. He shot Cano once, then squeezed the trigger again and again, pumping five more bullets into the boy's head, prosecutors alleged.
Police arrested Batalla early the next morning. Attorney Charles Lauer, who is representing Batalla, said Thursday he believes evidence at trial will exonerate his client.
"Mr. Batalla is presumed innocent, and we believe the evidence may show the people responsible are the ones accusing Mr. Batalla," Lauer said. He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing case.
Cano was 8 years old when his family moved from Guanajuato, Mexico, joining several relatives already in Chicago.
"We saw new opportunity here for everyone, for us," his father, Francisco, said in Spanish during an interview.
Cano would grow into a popular teenager, a natural athlete who spent hours playing soccer at a YMCA at the corner of Western and Blue Island avenues.
But as his son matured, Francisco Cano, a maintenance worker at a small company, became increasingly concerned about the allure of neighborhood gangs. Not far from the family home, local toughs not much older than Cano would stand on street corners, making little secret of their gang affiliations.
Cano wasn't one of them, but they all knew each other, Francisco Cano said. Eventually he started showing a preference for black clothes and sports jerseys, like some gang members wore.
Francisco implored his son to use good judgment.
"I would say to him, look, there are many people who live in neighborhoods and yet aren't gangsters," he said. "They have friends who are gangsters, but they're not gangsters. They live in dirty areas, but they're not dirty.
"I'd say to him that he could be like the ducks, swimming in the water but not getting soaked."
The Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy is a two-story brick building on Blue Island Avenue, just east of Western Avenue, an official border of the Little Village neighborhood. On a mural on the western face of the school, a woman raises her left fist in the air. Her right hand holds a sign that reads: "LA LUCHA SIGUE." The struggle continues.
By the time they come to the academy, called Rudy by students and staff, most of the 145 students there have either dropped out or been forced out of other CPS schools. In Cano's case, his parents pulled him out of another high school after repeated instances of fighting. His father said bullies were targeting Cano.
Teachers at Rudy say they push students to define themselves on their own terms, to replace negative narratives they may have heard about themselves with their own empowering stories.
Sixto Torres, a counselor, asks new students directly about gang affiliations. The answers help him develop plans to keep students safe. Many adults wouldn't get honest answers, but Torres, a former gang member, seems to.
From about age 15, Cano had run with a tagging crew, Torres said. Usually focused on graffiti, crews sometimes turn to violence but generally are less intense than formal gangs. Cano, though, was soon drawn into the Satan Disciples, the gang that claims the block where his grandparents lived.
"It's an adrenaline being a part of that lifestyle," Torres said. "And it's an addiction, just like a drug or alcohol. You have to have it. You get a taste of it, and you like it. You like the attention; you like the popularity.
"If we cannot funnel that adventurous energy in a young person, then they're going to find their own (outlet)," Torres said.
Still, Cano appears to have largely stayed out of trouble, maybe a testament to his father's advice. The teen had two minor arrests on his juvenile record.
The 2012-13 school year was his first at Rudy. Though he struggled in class at times, he quickly won over peers and teachers with his "goofy" antics, English teacher Hilda Franco said.
His powerful voice would float through the hallways as he sang corridos, Mexican folk ballads, in dramatic fashion, Franco said.
On a day Cano was having trouble concentrating, Franco promised he could perform a song if he behaved until the end of the period. "And he's like, 'OK, deal,'" Franco said. "So he got it together; he finished the assignment."
When the time came to sing, Cano became uncharacteristically nervous, but his classmates egged him on. He sang his favorite song, "El Terasco," and soon was forwarding a video of the performance to friends.
"He was so excited, like telling everybody, 'Hilda let me sing in class! Hilda let me sing in class!'" she said.
The Latin Saints and Satan Disciples were tangled in a bloody cycle of shootings last year in Back of the Yards, police say.
In the police district that covers the neighborhood, roughly 4 miles in each direction at its widest, 24 people were killed during the year, according to a Tribune analysis.
While it's difficult to know exactly how many slayings stemmed from the gang feud, it's clear that young men and teenage boys make up the bulk of the victims. All but two of the 24 were male; more than half were in their early 20s or younger.
Cano, according to those close to him, never underwent a gang initiation, which can mean shooting someone or receiving a beating from fellow gang members. One can be affiliated without being initiated.
By the time his family moved, he was demonstrating allegiance to the Satan Disciples. He sometimes wore his hat turned slightly to the side and posed for photos later posted online, flashing a gang sign. He was disciplined at least once at school for throwing a gang sign, Torres said.
Weeks before his death, a video appeared online of him gloating over penetrating the Saints' turf as he rode in a car through his new neighborhood.
His girlfriend, Floribel Ferman, declined to discuss whether he was affiliated with a gang. She preferred talking about him as a boyfriend, recalling dates by Lake Michigan and the countless tortas de chorizo he ordered at their favorite Mexican restaurant.
But she noted that neighborhood loyalty was powerful for boys — powerful enough to put them at risk just blocks from their home.
"Once you're caught up in that mess, it just becomes something you do for the rest of your life," she said. "It's not about being affiliated in the gang. It's just about knowing people and having their back because they have yours."
Police agree. "A lot of these gangs are just the people you grew up with," said a Chicago police officer once assigned to a gang unit in the area.
The night before Cano was killed, he and Ferman lingered on the phone until about 3 a.m. — long enough that his sister knocked on his door and asked him to keep it down.
Normally playful, Cano sounded serious that night, concerned about his safety and his girlfriend's. "I remember him saying he would go crazy if something would happen to me," she said.
Her last contact with him came on Facebook the next day, when Cano sent her a message about 5 p.m. that he was headed outside. The first indication something was wrong came on Facebook too. Someone had posted on his wall: "Rest in peace."
On Dec. 26, the day Cano would have turned 17, about 60 friends and relatives lined the front pews of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a lofty brick building on West 48th Street. As a guitarist played, the Rev. Hugo Londono stood in the pulpit in a deep red robe, guiding the mourners in Spanish through songs and prayers.
Toward the end of the service, Londono asked those gathered, many of them Cano's age, to take a moment and greet each other.
Among them was his 17-year-old cousin Michelle, a former high school dropout who was among Cano's closest friends and is now following in his footsteps as a student at Rudy Lozano.
Cano was close to his parents, his 13-year-old sister and his 7- and 11-year-old brothers. He tried hard to be the respectful son and protective brother at home despite what was going on outside, Michelle Cano said.
"He was different," he said, "when he was with his friends from the hood."
After the service, family members gathered at the grandparents' home on 50th Place. As they waited for tamales, relatives looked at photos of Cano and admired an elaborate Nativity scene assembled by his grandfather.
Half a block from the home, several young men stood near 50th and Oakley Avenue, staring down drivers as they approached. Occasional shouts pierced the night air, and several times the young men swaggered into the street to menace passing cars.
At one point, one of them urged another to leave something behind as they got into a car. "I ain't trying to ride dirty," he said.
Like many parents in the city, the Canos did their best to keep their son away from the violent street life, said Torres, the school counselor.
"But it was right in front of their house," the social worker said. "He walked out, and it was there."
Tribune photgrapher Abel Uribe contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun