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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Michael Loria

Brief, precious life of migrant boy who died in Chicago chronicled in family’s new GoFundMe video

Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero (GoFundMe)

By age 5, Jean Carlos “Jeremías” Martinez Rivero, a migrant child who died after falling ill at a Chicago shelter, had seen so much.

“Jeremías,” as he was called, trekked through at least seven countries with his family from tropical Venezuela, where he grew up, to the United States and eventually Chicago. He faced that arduous journey with bright smiles for his parents and a tight hold on his baby brother, Isaías.

These and other precious moments of his life can be seen in a new brief video released as part of a GoFundMe his parents and local volunteers organized to help find housing and avoid landing in the same conditions they were in when “Jeremías” fell ill and died.

The video includes shots of Jeremías celebrating Halloween — once dressed as a ghostly cowboy, another time as a firefighter alongside his pirate brother — sitting on Santa’s lap and enjoying Chicago’s downtown holiday lights.

A woman carries a child outside the migrant shelter in Pilsen, where 5-year-old Jean Carlos ‘Jeremías’ Martinez Rivero fell ill and died on Dec. 17. (Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file)

However, his time in Chicago — which included a week attending a local school — was brief. 

The Martinez Rivero family arrived on Nov. 30 and was moved to the city’s migrant shelter in Pilsen that same day. 

The shelter was then quickly growing to become the largest in the city and complaints of unsanitary and overcrowded conditions quickly arose.

Several weeks after entering the shelter, Jeremías fell ill and died on Dec. 17.

The results of his autopsy are still pending, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Since then, the family has moved between apartments and a hotel room with the help of the city and nonprofit partners, according to volunteers close to the family who set up the GoFundMe

But they expected to be returned to a shelter on Jan. 11, said Claudia Strong, one of the volunteers. 

Claudia Strong is among the volunteers helping the family of 5-year-old Jean Carlos “Jeremías” Martinez Rivero. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

That prompted the fundraising effort.

“We’re getting them into permanent housing today or tomorrow,” said Strong, a longtime Chicagoan who has been volunteering with migrants for nearly a year. “They will not go back into shelter,” Strong said. “Over my dead body.”

“We want the family to have some peace,” said Veronica Saldaña, another volunteer helping the family to organize the fundraiser. “We want them to be able to mourn their child while still raising their 2-year-old.”

A spokesman for Mayor Brandon Johnson did not respond to questions about the family and their plan for them, saying “We are going to remain respectful of the family’s privacy and healing at this time.”

In addition to Isaías, Jeremías leaves behind his parents, Orlando and Johana.

Strong spoke with the Sun-Times near the city’s designated “landing zone” for new migrant arrivals at 800 S. Desplaines St., where hundreds of migrants have been staying aboard city warming buses for days at a time

Asylum-seekers congregate outside and inside Chicago Transit Authority warming buses Monday at Chicago’s designated landing zone for new migrant arrivals at 800 S. Desplaines St. in the West Loop. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file)

Uncomfortable — and sometimes dangerous — conditions such as those at the “landing zone” and in shelters are among the many hardships migrants endure with the hopes of starting a new life after fleeing their native countries.

Strong couldn’t speak about the details of why the Martinez Rivero family left Venezuela. But she said Orlando was insistent they couldn’t return and that they planned to seek asylum.

Even the suggestion of returning was too much, Strong said.

“‘We left because we wanted a better life for our kids,’” Strong recalled Jeremías’ father saying. “‘Now to go back, empty-handed and minus one son.’”

He broke down, Strong said, telling her, “We want to make it here, to thrive. I still want to be able to provide for my family.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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