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‘I am here so the tears of this mother are not forgotten’: Highlandtown vigil honors 15-year-old lost to gun violence

Red roses, white lilies and yellow daisies were laid outside the corner store where Jhosy Portillo was shot, alongside handmade signs that read “end gun violence and “rest in power.”

The 15-year-old boy was killed a little before 2 p.m. Aug. 17 in the 3400 block of E. Baltimore St. A vigil brought supporters, family and friends Tuesday night to the corner of East Baltimore and South Highland Avenue for a community walk.

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There were no homicides in Highlandtown last year, but there have been four so far in 2021. Citywide, 12 youths have been homicide victims this year, compared with eight a year ago, including deaths not caused by gunfire. A week before Jhosy’s death, another 15-year-old, Ja’Nyi Weeden, was killed on the 3700 block of Gelston Drive in Edmondson Village.

“How do we get to a point where 15-year-olds are getting killed?” asked Jossie Flor Sapunar, communications director for CASA, an immigrant and Latino advocacy group, hours before Jhosy’s vigil. “That’s shameless.”

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“What came out of the meetings that we had with the family [and] with the friends is that there needs to be a greater investment in youth programs. ... The answer is not to add more police.”

CASA organized the vigil with Comité Latino de Baltimore, a nonprofit that provides resources within the Hispanic community.

Lucía Islas, president of Comité Latino de Baltimore, said that Tuesday marks the third vigil and “one of the most painful” they’ve organized for the Latino community. The last event was in April to mourn the deaths of two Latino men in Highlandtown; Marcus Wilson was stabbed and Fabian Mendez was struck and dragged by his own vehicle during a carjacking.

“We want to make sure that Baltimore City has a plan to end these deaths of young people,” Islas said. “We love this city with all of our heart, and we want to see it reach its full potential. The way to do that is through our youth.”

Jhosy’s mother, Cristina Guadalupe Argumedo, was the Tuesday vigil’s first scheduled speaker. She approached the microphone and started to cry. It was too difficult to share how she wanted her son to be remembered. A longtime friend, Gina Calva , spoke in her place.

“I’m here today so that the tears of this mother are not forgotten,” Calva said in Spanish while CASA’s Gabriela Roque interpreted to English. “I want to see that the authorities and other people with power in this city do the same to make right this situation.”

Calva described Argumedo as a hardworking single mom who struggles to make ends meet and support her children. Jhosy was an attentive son and affectionate sibling who always had a smile on his face, Calva said.

“Cristina often calls me in the middle of the night, telling me, ‘I don’t know what to do; I don’t think that I can go on,’” Calva sai. “As a mother myself, I don’t know sometimes what to tell her.

Argumedo was looking forward to her eldest child attending Digital Harbor High School this school year, but was planning a memorial service instead. Argumedo took time off from work at Amazon to grieve with her twin daughters. The mother set up a GoFundMe page, and the community contributed $12,000 to cover funeral costs.

Gina Calva, left, with friend Cristina Guadalupe Argumedo, center, during a community vigil on S. Highland Avenue where Argumedo's son, 15-year-old Jhosy Portillo, was killed earlier this month. August 31, 2021
Gina Calva, left, with friend Cristina Guadalupe Argumedo, center, during a community vigil on S. Highland Avenue where Argumedo's son, 15-year-old Jhosy Portillo, was killed earlier this month. August 31, 2021 (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

“When I sat in your son’s funeral, I thought about my own son,” said Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the Highlandtown neighborhood, during the vigil. “I thought about what it would feel like to lose my child, Elias, in one of the most horrific ways imaginable. The person who murdered your son is a coward and deserves to be brought to justice.”

Jhosy’s homicide remains under investigation. Investigators urge anyone with information to contact detectives at 410-396-2100. Those who wish to remain anonymous can call the Metro Crime Stoppers tip-line at 1-866-7LOCK-UP or text by visiting the group’s Baltimore website.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the disease of violence is the city’s most pressing issue and that a holistic response is vital.

“It’s going to take all of us, the community, the city, everyone, the state, to help Baltimore cure itself of gun violence,” Scott said. “That’s how we will in Baltimore eradicate this, so that no more young people will experience the things this family has experienced.”

A 30-second moment of silence was observed after speeches were made, and attendees closed their eyes while placing their hands on their hearts. To end the vigil, the group of about 20 people walked around the block to commemorate the boy who was killed.

Celina Centeno, Argumedo’s co-worker at Amazon, did the community walk with her 5-year-old daughter. She attended to support her friend and also the Latino community. On the same corner where the vigil was held, Centeno’s brother was stabbed six years ago. The neighborhood was dangerous, Centeno said, which is why she moved her family to Bayview.

“I told Cristina to move, and she said, ‘Yes, I’m looking for a house,’” Centeno said. “Unfortunately, it was too late, and it hurts me a lot, because she did want to get out of this area.”

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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