From a wall along the Bloomingdale Trail, Neftali Reyes Jr.’s eyes shine. Three artists (Sandra Antongiorgi, Andy Bellomo and Rae Wilson) brought his likeness to the space against a background of blues, yellows, pinks and oranges. Reyes Jr. holds up his baseball glove, and the sun shines from it. “It’s a breakthrough,” said his mother, Annette Flores.
Flores first envisioned this mural more than three years ago, when 19-year-old Reyes Jr. passed from a gunshot wound on December 29, 2017, while visiting home from college for winter break.
The mural will be unveiled Wednesday, July 14, at 2 p.m.
Reyes Jr. was from Humboldt Park. He was a star pitcher at Roberto Clemente Community Academy (1147 N. Western Ave.), then a college ballplayer in South Carolina. Reyes Jr. was working toward the major leagues. His mother described him as a humble, ambitious and determined young spirit. He showed incredible sportsmanship, she said. Flores emphasized that Reyes Jr. was also an amazing brother to his two sisters.
“Remembering how amazing he was, how much of an overcomer in a community [where] they’re just waiting for your failure – it couldn’t stay like that,” Flores shared. “My son was not going to just be another statistic, not just another death. My son was life.”
Photos: Erik Island
Reyes Jr.’s death was tragic and unexpected. Having experienced gun violence herself, Flores knew she could not be silent. She said it was “a little insane” that she had survived two bullet wounds to the head in her youth, yet her son had not made it. She felt she couldn’t just mourn.
Accountability is important to Flores. She said that keeping the memories alive of people who’ve died from gun violence holds the city accountable to them. In the past, Flores said, she has dealt with false claims about her son. The commander of CPD’s 14th district associated Reyes Jr. with gang activity, but “he wasn’t involved in that,” Flores said. She asked for an apology. The commander did not issue one.
Flores would love to see murals like her son’s across the city. “They’re casualties of a war that is not regarded, and we need to see their faces and say their names,” she said. “Wherever they paint these babies, bring their essence back. That’s my vision.” She noted that there is plenty of space. A glance across the viaduct where Reyes Jr.’s mural stands proves that.
However, making a mural happen is not always an easy process. Although Flores had the vision for her son’s mural from day one, moving through bureaucracy took time.
Getting Paint On The Wall
In 2018, Flores began the process of securing a mural. Originally, she planned to locate it near her mother’s house. Former 1st Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno told Flores’ family he would make the mural happen. However, he later backtracked, Flores said. She instead took her idea to 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado.
Maldonado helped Flores navigate the city, lawyers, and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. It was not easy, and Flores had to maintain her patience when fielding questions like, “What do you want this for?”
Despite her frustration at the insensitivity of some questions, Flores continued speaking her vision. Then, in July of 2020, two artists from the Chicago Public Art Prequalified List created potential mural designs.
In September 2020, Flores chose the digital design of Bellomo, an artist originally drawn to the project as a Humboldt Park resident who cares deeply about the community. Bellomo wanted to support the families’ hard work memorializing their children.
“My original concept was to create a space that visitors could walk into as a sort of memorial,” Bellomo said. “The idea was to create a place where these victims were blessed by their families. Underneath the paint are letters and notes that family members wrote to their child who passed. After they wrote the notes and letters, we covered those notes with the mural so that their blessings were sealed underneath them.”
This is where the mural got its name, “The Tunnel of Blessings.”
Flores said she was overwhelmed by the artists’ work. “Their gift, their design, everything, was just like, it was surreal … they brought him, they brought everything about him back to life,” Flores said. She had prayed that Antongiorgi, who specializes in portraits, would capture Neftali. Antongiorgi did.
Flores always imagined doing big things for Reyes Jr. when he made it to the major leagues, but instead she has his life to honor, she explained. “Neftali’s life had to overcome his death,” she said.
Leaving Love Notes
“The Tunnel of Blessings” is four-sided. Reyes Jr. is the featured image, and the painting extends from him to the ceiling, ground and opposite wall, where ceramic photo tiles will depict these 13 other Chicago individuals who lost their lives from gun violence:
Andres A. Garcia
David M. Hresil
Isaiah A. Mendez
Kevin A. Sanders
“Some of the kids on my mural died 15-plus years ago,” Flores said, adding that she is happy to be bringing them back. “We have some amazing, amazing souls in Humboldt Park.”
Artists Antongiorgi, Bellomo and Wilson began working in the fall of 2020. They laid the design out on the wall; then, Flores came to visit with Reyes Jr.’s sisters. Flores touched the wall and wrote him a love note before the paint went up, so her message would remain preserved beneath the mural. “This mural is so painful for me, but it’s a love story. It really is,” she said.
In June, the families of the other individuals honored on the mural wrote their own letters, now also preserved beneath the paint.
It poured rain both the day that Flores signed the wall and the day the other families did so.
“It was wild,” Antongiorgi said of the two days of rain. A neighbor of the mural suggested to Flores that the rain was washing away all the pain. Flores liked the idea. “It was so beautiful. It was like it was meant to be like that,” she said.
After the love notes went up, the artists began painting. They paused during the winter months and resumed in spring of 2021. Now, they are preparing to unveil the mural Wednesday.
Unveiling ‘The Tunnel of Blessings’
At the unveiling, there will be prayer, music and thank-you’s to the artists and Alderman Maldonado. Two of Neftali’s childhood friends will speak, in addition to Flores and Neftali Reyes Sr.
However, Flores said she anticipates a short ceremony. This isn’t the first unveiling happening in Reyes Jr.’s honor. He received an honorary street name (Honorary Neftali “Buzzo” Reyes, Jr. Way) in 2020 and had a dugout dedicated in his honor at his alma mater, Clemente, in 2018.
While Flores expects a reverent atmosphere during the ceremony out of respect for the lives lost, afterwards, “we could just kick it,” she said. “Embrace the moment, embrace the accomplishment. I want to embrace everything about [Neftali]. Because without him, this wouldn’t even be.”
High Hopes For Mural’s Impact
Artist Bellomo said the team hopes the mural will “create more of a dialogue about gun violence in Chicago and how it affects so many families and loved ones.”
Flores said she hopes that those who pass through “The Tunnel of Blessings” will be inspired to take on more accountability for their community.
“Justice has many faces,” she said. “In my mind, justice is the community rising up against gun violence, against the manipulation of gang culture.” She would love to see more people acting in love. “That’s justice,” she said. “And of course, [for] the individual that did this to be held accountable in front of the whole world.”
More broadly, Flores said she wants political figures to invest more into the community’s youth and employ people who are genuinely excited to work with these youth.
Photos: Paulina Fadrowska
As a case manager at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (2546 W. Division St.), Flores is one of those individuals. She would love to see more community centers, extracurricular activities and other structured opportunities for young people to spend time with each other in the area – places where young people are molded, she said.
Reyes Jr. was largely molded through baseball. Flores said he was in many leagues and would travel for games frequently with his dad. “That man did not miss a game,” Flores said of Reyes Sr. “He is a carpenter, which is heavy, hard work, and he would come out of work – dirty, tired, hungry – swallow his food, and make sure that he was at every practice and every tournament.”
Off the field, Reyes Jr. spent time at a local Boys and Girls Club (1214 N. Washtenaw Ave). Sometimes, he played basketball at Clemente Community Academy on nights when the school opened its doors. Flores said doors should be open for youth more often.
In the meantime, Flores will continue “to roar for Neftali – for his justice, for his legacy, for his ambition, all his strengths.” She will keep breathing life into his memory.
“When I had to see my son lifeless, it’s almost like, life will come from his death,” she said.
Featured Photo: Erik Island