In 1990, there were 152 murders in the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston. But even though people were dying on the streets near her home, Isaura Mendes did not think about the violence much.
She assumed the men she knew were killed because they had done something wrong – maybe drugs or gang activity. People were never being murdered like that in the tight-knit Cape Verdean she had immigrated from.
Then, between 1995 and 2013, Mendes lost her two sons and four other young family members to street violence in Dorchester.
The death of her 23-year-old son Bobby in 1995 marked a change in Dorchester’s large Cape Verdean community. It was the first deadly conflict involving the neighborhood’s population of young Cape Verdean men. It also set off a violent streak that has yet to end.
Arnaldo Lopes, 30, stabbed Bobby to death on the corner of Wendover and Humphreys streets while he was trying to break up a fight between his cousin and a neighbor. His murder went unsolved until a jury convicted Lopes of manslaughter in 2007.
Mendes struggled immensely when she lost her oldest son, falling into a deep, three-year depression. When shestarted attending neighborhood meetings to tell her story, local artist Shannon Flattery took notice.
“She was only five years out from Bobby dying, and she was in extreme grief still and trying to get someone to listen to her,” said Flattery over the phone from Texas, where she now lives. “I interviewed her for about three hours; she told me the whole story. I let her talk until the tape ran out then put another tape in.”
Flattery soon befriended Mendes’ youngest son, Alex “Matthew” Mendes, who was just 13 years old when his brother died.
“Matthew was growing up and seeing what it was all turning into,” Flattery said.
Flattery had worked with other artists in London who were involved with community work. She saw a way to help that community while giving Matthew an escape. In 2006, Flattery sent Isaura and Matthew to England to speak about violence and share their experiences with at-risk youth.
The trans-Atlantic trip was Mendes’ first vacation. She and Matthew stayed for two weeks, speaking about the importance of peace at Flattery’s friends’ home in Birmingham, England. It was the first time Matthew really opened up about his brother’s death. When he returned to America, he felt ready to become more involved in his mother’s peace activism.
The original plan was for Isaura to leave Matthew in England for a few months, but he felt like he was ready to speak back in Upham’s Corner, their neighborhood in Dorchester. The tragedy struck again.
Isaura woke Matthew up in the late morning on 6 May 2006 to tell him that a neighbor’s son was killed the night before. He told his mother he worried there would be violent acts of retaliation and that he did not want to leave the house.
Eventually Matthew did leave the house, and he ended up in a group of people standing outside a house on Wendover St. That is where someone shot Matthew in the back just after 10 p.m. Doctors pronounced him dead soon after he arrived at the hospital – just one month after he returned from England.
Mendes moved to America with her six siblings in 1966 and has lived in Upham’s Corner – a local center of Cape Verdian culture – her whole life. She married Pomilio Mendes when she was 17. Together, they had four children: three boys and one girl. Now, other young men have killed two of her sons in the only neighborhood she has ever considered home.
Every morning, Mendes walks around Upham’s Corner for exercise and meditation. She takes a left on Groom St. and heads toward Wendover, where both sons died, before connecting to Dudley St. and looping back around.
“I need to face it. I live here and I love this neighborhood. I love the United States,” Mendes explained as she leaned back into her living room couch. “Running away isn’t going to help me, so I’m going to stay right here and make it better for my community.”
You can see her in her sons’ faces, which beams from a handmade button that is always pinned to the front of her shirt.
Before Bobby’s death, Mendes thought all street violence was related to drugs or gangs – a common stereotype that now hangs over her sons like a cloud.
Flattery helped Mendes through the pain of judgment when the police eyed every Cape Verdean boy with suspicion, reporters dubbed her children gang members in print and people in the community invested in the same stereotypes.
“People want to understand it, want it to be black and white. It’s proving how to be a young man, but sometimes it’s just stupidness and drunkenness and new tennis shoes,” Flattery said. “You’re dealing with people who are in war zone, which means they’ve experienced all this death and they’re functioning like soldiers.”
Mendes’ plea is simple: forgive. She believes forgiveness is the most genuine solution for peace and the end of street violence. She put her message to action when she publicly forgave Bobby’s murderer on the stand at his 2008 trial.
“The forgiveness is so I can keep living my life and for [Arnaldo Lopes] to hear, even though he took a life. I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know why this thing happened. And I’m not judging anybody. I feel like I’m an example,” Mendes said.
She continues to spread her message through community events she holds throughout the year, such as a Christmas party for children under 12 called “Christmas with Bobby” and a back-to-school barbecue for students in the neighborhood.
Perhaps Mendes’ most surprising demonstration of peace activism is her regular visits to nearby prisons, where she explains the importance of forgiveness to inmates. After Lopes’ trial in 2008, the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Norfolk asked her to speak. She decided it was the perfect test of how truly she could forgive Bobby’s murderer. She spoke to about 200 men then shook as many hands as she could.
“I was just looking at them like they were human beings,” Mendes said. “I don’t need to think about that they took a life. I don’t know what they did, but they are human beings to me.”
Mendes continues to visit MCI-Norfolk, as well as the Bridgewater Correctional Complex. Talking to men is important to her because she knows many of them will return to the neighborhood someday. It is her way of working toward breaking the cycle of violence.
Though other people in the community seemed skeptical when Mendes began volunteering with inmates at first, she recently brought a whole group of mothers to the prison. Her personal method of coping has caught on.
On July 10, 2012 – what would have been Bobby’s 40th birthday – Mendes asked if she could meet with 40 men. When she arrived, there was a sheet cake and decorations waiting for her. The next year, Mendes spoke to 41 men in honor of Bobby’s 41st birthday. Mendes had plans to continue the tradition this year for Bobby’s 42nd birthday.
It has been almost two decades since the stretch of Cape Verdean street violence began in Dorchester, but little has changed. In June, three young men between the ages of 25 and 29 fell victim to street violence in the neighborhood. No matter how many more young men die, however, Bobby and Matthew are still at the front of Mendes’ mind.
“There’s not one minute that you don’t feel like your life changed,” she said, surrounded by pictures of her family, living and dead. “There isn’t anything that you’re going to talk about that you aren’t going to match to their names. It’s like they become the center of your life.”