On a sunny Saturday morning last month, as Anahí Perez walked through Chicago’s La Villita Park, she thought of her nephew. Juan “Juanito” Medina Jr. was born when she was still in high school, an age gap small enough that she felt like they had grown up together. He was 14 years old when he was killed in the Chicago Lawn late last year, the victim of a shooting that also took his grandfather’s life. Perez was in the park that day to honor Juanito by participating in the fourth annual Carrera Por La Paz, or Race For Peace. 

As she walked, Perez reflected on a slew of emotions: the devastation of losing her nephew. Her anger over how preventable his death was. The way she constantly replayed his death in her mind and wondered what she could’ve done to protect him. The incomprehensible fact that the person in police custody for the shooting is also a child.  

“Today’s hard,” Perez said through tears. “These are kids. Another child killing another child. You expect kids to be in school working on themselves as young adults, not out here killing one another.” 

So far this year, at least 45 people have been shot in Little Village, the neighborhood that’s home to La Villita Park. Carrera Por La Paz, a 5K run/walk, is meant to promote peace, positivity, and anti-violence messaging; it’s also a fundraiser for organizations that provide youth programming. And for Perez, part of her reason for participating in the race was to correct the record on Little Village.

“People’s first perception of Little Village — or just communities around Chicago in general — is just violence, but that’s a really big misunderstanding,” Perez said. “When you look at Little Village you see a sense of culture, you see a sense of community, and it’s a shame that a small group of people [who perpetrate violence] cause that to be minimized.”

Len Dominguez, the creator of Carrera Por La Paz, has long felt that sense of community. A lifelong educator from the West Side, Dominguez previously taught in Little Village and served as interim principal of Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen. He joined the Little Village Rotary Club in 2016. When he became the club’s president in 2020, Dominguez had the chance to develop a community service project for the group to work on. He knew immediately that he wanted to focus on gun violence in Little Village and the surrounding communities. 

“Having been a teacher, having been a principal, I knew that there was still violence in the neighborhood, there were still gangs — even in Pilsen,” Dominguez said. “Gang names that are so obscure you don’t even know some of them anymore, but they’re still there.” 

Participants in Carrera Por La Paz. Justin Agrelo for The Trace

Dominguez says the idea for the race came to him like most of his best ideas — in the middle of the night. At around 3 in the morning, back in 2020, Dominguez sat up in bed, woke up his wife, and said he wanted to host a race to promote peace in Little Village. 

“Have you ever run a race?” his wife, Patricia, asked.

“No,” he responded. 

“Go back to bed,” she said. 

Undeterred, Dominguez ran with the idea, and the universe seemed to be on his side. He served an extra year as president of the Rotary Club, giving him more time to plan the race. Chicago Police suggested he host the race at La Villita Park, which he hadn’t heard of before. A former high school classmate who coached track at DePaul University helped him measure a potential route and get it registered with the USA Track and Field, so the race could become an official 5K. 

Another friend helped him create a fundraising model, and the group was able to raise $20,000 that first year. By 2021, Carrera Por La Paz was no longer a late-night pipe dream, but a reality. And this year, the race raised $35,000 for six local organizations offering youth programming; each will receive about $5,000.

“My hope is that we just keep on growing, little by little, and can increase our sponsorships so we’re able to support more programs,” Dominguez said. “You can’t make a dent on violence as a one-shot deal. It doesn’t just go away. You have to keep it up.”

Dominguez emphasized that goal in his opening remarks before the runners took off in May, noting the importance of events that spread positivity and anti-violence messaging in Little Village.

As participants ran laps around La Villita Park, loved ones and supporters cheered from the sidelines. A DJ beneath a yellow pergola played Banda and Reggaetón hits as people danced, laughed, and took selfies. Some tossed cornhole bags, and others held out their hands to high-five runners as they passed by. The energy in the space was filled with joy and excitement. It was the Little Village that community members like Perez experience, on full display.

“Chicago’s crazy,” Perez said, “but it’s also beautiful.”