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Grief for three slain children brings strangers together

THE TWO of them climbed aboard the No. 7 bus from Lombard and Broadway, in Fells Point, and they rode all the way out to upper Park Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, where the big crowd filled the street to comfort itself and remember three children lost at the edge of a blade. And for a moment, in this city grown numb to wholesale murder, they helped turn a killing field into a holy place.

Sarah Rodriguez, 72, stood there next to Curtis Allen, 45. They never knew the three slain children, nor had they known each other until now. Rodriguez, a retired baby sitter, arrived here from Argentina 60 years ago. Allen, a burly construction worker, is a Baltimore lifer. They came together through simple human grief.

"We met on the bus and started talking about it and discovered we were both coming out here," said Allen. "Everybody on the whole bus was talking about it. Even the bus driver."

"You think you see everything," said Rodriguez. "But then, something like this ... "

She looked at the crowd, gathering under gloomy storm clouds, and she saw all those nearby, watching from their windows in the big apartment building across Park Heights. "This is what brings everybody here," she said, "this sense of suffering so great that we need to pay respects. That's why people are here from all over the city."

On this wet and cool Wednesday evening, they were still coming to grips with it, with the obscene, inexplicable killing of 9-year-old Ricardo Solis Quezada Jr., his 9-year-old sister, Lucero Solis Quezada, and their 10-year-old cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, all from Mexico, all imagining the good life in America.

And the crowd saw, as it filled the broad street now, the arrival of the grieving parents. There were Noemi Quezada and Ricardo Espinoza, holding each other tightly and sobbing over a large stuffed animal on their laps. And Andrea Espejo Quezada, the tears spilling down her face and her whole body trembling without cease. She held her hands together, as though praying. Or maybe it was too late for prayers, and she was only trying to keep herself from shaking.

"I got goose bumps walking down the street," Del. Sandy Rosenberg said softly as he looked around. "The thought of the monstrosity of the act, and then all these people coming together to share the grief."

This is Rosenberg's district, and familiar turf over his whole life. From Northern Parkway to the county line, Park Heights is home to synagogues and the Jewish families who attend them but also to a broader religious and ethnic mix. That was the recurring theme Wednesday, across a string of speakers: We are drawn together now in universal grief; to commit such an act against one family is to wound all.

"We have a saying," the Baltimore Jewish Council's Joel Simon told the crowd. "If one life is lost, it's as if an entire world has been lost. ... We've worked hard together. Despite our differences, people live side by side in remarkable harmony. We're pledging tonight that these events will not diminish our commitment to this neighborhood or this city."

Those are important words in a city with a half-century exodus to the surrounding suburbs, and important for this neighborhood whose newcomers in recent years have been Russians and African-Americans and Hispanics.

"Immigrants," said Edgardo Flores, the Mexican consul general, "are the most vulnerable people in any community."

"We're a community defined by hardship," said Gilberto de Jesus, an attorney with the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "But this leaves us gasping for air. Children are our ambassadors to the future. Last week, there were three children in the courtyard behind me. They were chasing cicadas. They were making children's sounds that we all understand. Now the sound has been silenced, and a community left grieving and thinking, 'There, but for the grace of God, goes my child.'"

Sarah Rodriguez and Curtis Allen, who had ridden the bus together and found themselves united in grief over strangers, nodded their heads.

"Our value system," Allen said. "People watch murder on TV; they're desensitized; they're capable of doing anything. All sensitivity is lost."

"All sensitivity," said Rodriguez. "Lost."

After a while, candles were lighted and prayers for the dead recited. Mayor Martin O'Malley, brushing away tears, said some comforting words. Then there was a closing hymn, "Santa Maria del Camino."

The vigil had gone on for more than an hour now, with daylight descending to darkness and rain coming and going. Around the crowd, there were children grown restless. Some were starting to whine a little, and from one corner there came a baby's high-pitched shriek.

Sometimes, such noise grates at the nerves. But, at this moment, in the shadow of the death of three children, those shrill cries were the sound of music. They were a call to the future: In spite of everything, we're still here. And we're holding onto each other.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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