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After one of her sons was fatally stabbed on a Dorchester street 11 years ago, she overcame her sorrow and worked to make her neighborhood safer. But then, in May, she lost another son, in the same neighborhood, to the same senseless violence. Most women would probably have given up the fight after two such deaths. Most women are not Isaura Mendes.
By Lisa Kocian | October 15, 2006
One minute, she talks in a near whisper, her voice beaten down by despair. The next, she is like a preacher behind a pulpit, shouting her message with defiance. In her tidy living room, surrounded by pictures of the dead, she looks weary telling her story. Outside her home, on the Dorchester streets that she vows to save despite how cruel they have been to her, she is alive with determination and faith. Isaura Mendes is used to this life. Sometimes soft, sometimes loud. Now laughter, then sobs. She knows that both darkness and light are necessary. In one of the dark moments, her brown eyes deaden, and her words come slowly. She stops and puts her hand over her mouth, trying to choke off the tears that will come anyway. But her story must be told, she will say over and over. She needs to tell it, and she wants you to listen. She stumbles, searching for the details even though she has talked about this so many times. But she finds the words. And when she’s finished, she does what she’s done time and again – she wipes away the tears and walks out her door to continue the fight. “I don’t want no mother to live the way I live,” she says with the accent of her Cape Verde Creole.
Isaura Mendes has learned, horribly, how to grieve.
THERE’S PERSEVERING, AND THEN THERE’S what Mendes is doing, which is living and even trying to contribute to the greater good, just a few months after losing her youngest son. And 11 years after losing her oldest.
In 1995, at the age of 23, Bobby Mendes was stabbed to death at the corner of Wendover and Humphreys streets, not far from the Mendes home in Uphams Corner. According to the family, he was trying to defend his cousin during a confrontation. Although Bobby was no model citizen (a drug possession charge had been dismissed), friends and family said later that he had turned a corner and was trying to stay out of trouble. After his death, Isaura Mendes folded inward. For three years, she rarely left her house, relying on Prozac to fight off depression. Nothing seemed to help – until she found her cause. She would rail against guns and violence and befriend politicians who might wage war alongside her. She would tell mothers and children everywhere about her pain in an effort to prevent them from experiencing it.
It was another mother, Clementina Chery, who helped pull her out of her depression and into activism. Chery is president and CEO of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, named after Chery’s 15-year-old son, who was shot to death in 1993. She tries to teach people to talk about their lost loved ones in a way that others can connect to, in a way that will inspire other people to act, and she showed Mendes how to tell her story. One of Mendes’s first forays into activism was going door to door in her community registering people to vote, believing that getting people involved is the only way to make change. She still remembers the number – 125 new voters. In 2000, Mendes began holding an annual walk for peace, and she threw, in Bobby’s memory, a Christmas party for neighborhood kids, which also has become an annual event. She began speaking to fellow survivors, parents, and young people about her experiences and in support of officials she thought could help make the streets safer. Among the politicians she has campaigned for, and whom she now considers friends, are Mayor Tom Menino, City Councilor Chuck Turner, and state Representative Marie St. Fleur.
“She’s a strong woman,” says Menino, who has known Mendes for a decade and who considers her a model in personal responsibility. “Stronger than anybody I know.”
Mendes, 55, a petite woman with black hair cropped short and a hint of gray around her temples, seems an unlikely activist. She had no training in leadership, politics, fund-raising, or public speaking when Bobby was killed. She never went to high school and is still learning to read and write in English. Born in Cape Verde, she came to the United States with her mother and six brothers and sisters when she was 14. The family was poor, and her father had died of typhoid fever when she was 9. When she moved here, it was with the hope that America would mean a better life. She went to school for a few months, then took a job sewing coats at 15 and got married at 17. She and her husband, Pompilio, who is 68 and retired from his job at a shoe factory, have been married for 38 years. They still live in the same house they bought in 1978 on Groom Street, now also called Bobby Mendes Way. Their remaining children, a daughter and a son, live nearby. The family moved there before the neighborhood was dominated by Cape Verdeans and before their community was in any way linked to violent crime. Over the years, Isaura Mendes has worked at a fish-packing plant and a shoe factory. Today, all her work comes as a volunteer.
All that time that she was talking or lobbying or campaigning, she was doing it for other mothers. She would give up pieces of herself, but at least she would see the good that came from it, at least she would see a difference. That was the deal. And then the rest of the world broke it.
WHEN ALEX MENDES was little, his mom gave him the nickname Matthew, after a character on an American soap opera she liked, and the name stuck. Growing up, he looked up to his big brother Bobby, who, Isaura says, “was everything to Matthew.” Bobby would play with him and help with his homework. There was an 11-year age difference, and Matthew wanted to be like his brother in so many ways. But later, he also feared he would be like him. He told his mother he was afraid he would die one day on Wendover Street, just as Bobby had.
Matthew and his mom had always been close, but they had grown even closer recently as Matthew took more interest in her antiviolence work. It was Matthew who told his mother to describe herself as a peace activist. The two had just returned from a trip to Birmingham, England, a community that was starting to have a crime problem similar to Boston’s. There, they both spoke to people about the high cost of violence. The trip energized him, and for the first time he got “the calling,” say family friends. He wanted to follow in his mother’s determined footsteps.
Matthew Mendes, 24, worked as a security guard at a neighborhood bank but talked about going into real estate. He was worried about his mom’s nutrition. Someday he would have a highpaying career, he said. “I’ll have enough money for you to eat right,” he told her.
On Saturday, May 6, Isaura Mendes went to visit the family of a Dorchester man, also Cape Verdean, who had been slain the night before, a somber duty she had performed dozens of times. When she came home in the late morning, she told Matthew about the crime, and he reacted with sadness – and worry that someone would retaliate against the victim’s killer. “He told me, Mommy, we really have to stay home today because it’s probably revenge,’ ” Mendes recalls.
Later that day, Matthew sat on the front porch of the chalkboard-green triple-decker where he lived with his parents, talking on the phone. He told friends he wasn’t going anywhere that night, according to Isaura Mendes. That evening, she went to a church event held by a Mattapan woman who had lost her son years before. The last time Mendes talked to her son, as she was leaving the house, he told her to relax, everything would be fine.
But at some point that night, Matthew did go out. At 10:23 p.m., the police were called to a house on Wendover Street, near the Mendes home. Matthew had been shot in the back while standing among a group of people outside that house. Mendes says she had just gotten home when her daughter-in-law, who was not with Matthew, came over, crying, and told her about her son. “I was screaming,” Mendes says, describing the devastating snapshots in her head and her efforts to try to bring them into focus. She didn’t know what to do. She ran to Wendover Street, where Matthew was lying in the front of the house. She tried to get close to him but says police and other people kept pushing her away. She’s still bitter that authorities wouldn’t let ride with her son in the ambulance. Soon after arrived at the hospital, she says, he was dead.
Mendes didn’t want to go home. She headed back to Wendover Street, to see the police. Where had they been when Matthew was shot? She wanted to know, but there were no answers. After that, she couldn’t sit still, so she walked around the neighborhood with a few friends, including Hal Cohen, the president of Upham’s Corner Main Street Inc., a community revitalization group. She led her friends to the corner of Wendover and Humphreys streets and laid the ground where her oldest son had been killed so many years before. She was weak and angry but too shocked to cry. She stayed there for about half an hour, Cohen recalls. “She was saying, going to be strong.'”
Matthew Mendes had had a minor record traffic infractions and a 2002 charge of marijuana possession that had been dismissed. “I don’t say never did anything wrong, because he was a young man, he was a human being,” his mother says. ” he was a good kid.” Cohen says it was impossible for Matthew to be completely uninvolved in street life given his address but describes him as a “happy-go-lucky kid” who was “very dedicated to his family”.
The family believes Matthew was the victim of a random drive-by-shooting. Mendes remains unconvinced the police are doing everything they can to solve the killing. Still, she emphasizes that crime in Dorchester can’t be curtailed by the police alone – it takes parents and children and politicians and teachers. Boston police are saying little about the case, which is still under investigation. “at this point” police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll says, “it is unclear whether he was specifically the target.” As for Bobby’s slaying, police say that Nardo Lopes, a neighbor at the time, is the killer; there is a warrant out for his arrest, but he remains at large.
Mendes and her two sisters, who also live in Dorchester, have now lost four sons among them, with a fifth, Chris Carvalho, 27, lying in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down after a shooting in 2003. His mother Domingas Carvalho, takes care of him every day at Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. She wants the whole family to move, but recognizes that her sister is making a stand in Dorchester. “She wants to do whatever she can to help people.” Carvalho says.
No one could have blamed Mendes if she had given up her cause, if Matthew’s death had strangled her passion for peacemaking. No one would have been surprised if she experienced a crisis of faith, in her community and in her God. But this time, Mendes refused to be crippled by grief. There would be many moments, and many days, when the saddness and the rage would overwhem her. But she wouldn’t withdraw. She was an antiviolence activist. This is what God has chosen for her, and it’s what Matthew would have wanted. “It’s not everybody who can be a peace worker, but [God] picked me to do it” she says.
Mendes spoke at Matthew’s funeral, telling mourners about her son’s last day and begging the young people there to stay away from guns. And since then, she has scarcely slowed down, continuing work for her annual walk, speaking to groups, helping plan part of a new community center.
Support for her work can be made through a fund for Mattew (at Citizen’s Bank in Uphams Corner) and The Bobby Mendes Peace Legacy (through Touchable Stories at 319 A Street in Boston). “She’s really using this tragedy to propel herself,” says Shannon Flattery, the founder of Touchable Stories, a Boston-based nonprofit that planned Isaura and Matthew’s trip to England. “I’m really glad because she’s so valuable to the community.”
Shortly after Matthew died, Mendes decided to finish his work, which right now means going back to the homeland she hasn’t seen in more than 40 years. Matthew had visited Cape Verde once at 14, the same age Mendes had been when she left. As Matthew got older, he felt guilty he hadn’t given away his clothes and shoes to less fortunate people there, even though he had been asked for them many times during his visit. He wanted to return this fall to donate some of his clothes and Bobby’s.
So, on a late summer afternoon, Mendes has gathered about a dozen friends and family members to help her pack five waist-high drums. Her nephews take turns climbing into the cylinders to pack the T-shirts and shorts. Mendes is wearing a short-sleeved top and flowing skirt on her small frame. She’s particularly proud of her shoes, purple clogs that match so many of the ribbons and flowers on her front porch – purple, she says, because it’s the color of peace. She’s also wearing gold hoop earrings, one of which bears a charm in the shape of a clenched fist.
Jose Rosa, one of her nephews, has a tattoo on his right biceps that reads: “In memory of Bizz and Lizz,” referring to his cousins Bobby Mendes and Larry Andrade. Larry was the cousin Bobby was with the night he died; he was shot to death in 1996 at 23. “She’s doing a great job,” Rosa says about his aunt. “She’s doing a lot for other mothers, too.”
Mendes says she hopes to make it to Cape Verde this fall, depending on how fund-raising goes to send her and to ship the clothes. And she vows she will continue the work she started, the same work Matthew encouraged her to do. “I’ll never stop talking – my son told me to keep talking,” she says. “I feel what I have is big.” Later, she adds: “I’ll do anything. It has to stop.”
She holds out a photo of one of her granddaughters, who’s 6, dressed for Christmas in red plaid and black-patent shoes, smiling her grandmother’s same broad smile. The little girl, she says, is terrified of losing her father, Steve, Isaura Mendes’s only remaining son.
Lisa Kocian is a member of the Globe staff. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.