Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘We’re about to see our boys again’: Two Philly mothers visit the Gun Violence Memorial Project | Helen Ubiñas

The exhibit comprised four glass houses built of 700 bricks for the number of people killed by guns in the U.S. every week, some bricks holding mementos of these mothers' sons.

Cheryl Pedro (left) and Yullio Robbins tour the Gun Violence Memorial Project exhibit in Washington, D.C. on Friday, June 4, 2021. Pedro and Robbins are two Philly moms who lost sons to gun violence and donated to the exhibit. They visited for the first time on Friday.
Cheryl Pedro (left) and Yullio Robbins tour the Gun Violence Memorial Project exhibit in Washington, D.C. on Friday, June 4, 2021. Pedro and Robbins are two Philly moms who lost sons to gun violence and donated to the exhibit. They visited for the first time on Friday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

As Cheryl Pedro pressed her head against the train window, Yullio Robbins dabbed away tears she couldn’t hold back.

“I’m trying to stay upbeat, but I’m feeling emotional,” Robbins said, her voice muffled by her face mask.

“It feels like we’re about to see them again, you know. It feels like we’re about to see our boys again.”

I’d heard about the Gun Violence Memorial Project, conceived by MASS Design Group and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas when it opened at the Chicago Cultural Center in September 2019. I’d encouraged mothers of Philly’s murder victims to donate items that memorialized the lives lost.

But then time passed, and COVID-19 hit, and I lost track of the project until I learned it is now in D.C. through September 2022.

It turned out that four local mothers had donated personal items of their loved ones lost to gun violence. One, I couldn’t locate. Another had moved to Arizona to care for her mother.

Robbins is retired, though she never sits still. Pedro, a home health-care aide, took the day off, and so on a Friday morning that promised heavy rain, we met at 30th Street Station.

It was the first time on Amtrak for Robbins. First time in D.C., too.

I know these moms. I’ve written about them and their loss many times over the years, most recently on the fifth anniversary of the death of Robbins’ son. On Feb. 23, 2016, James Walke III, then 28, was shot 12 times on a Germantown street in the middle of the day. No one saw a thing.

Pedro’s son, Mario, 34, was killed a year earlier, buried just a day before his first daughter, Jabrayah, whom he named, was born. He also had a son, Isheem, now 13.

Over the years, these mothers and I have attended too many anti-gun violence hearings and rallies and protests and vigils.

What I somehow missed before we met at the train station is that I had scheduled our trip on National Gun Violence Awareness Day, the Friday of Wear Orange Weekend to honor people killed by gun violence.

“Fate,” Robbins, a religious and spiritual woman, declared.

To commemorate the day, and weekend, the women wore orange T-shirts under jean jackets on which they’d pinned orange ribbons. Before we boarded, Robbins pinned one on me.

Around their necks, both mothers wore memorial picture necklaces of their sons, a piece of jewelry that’s become part of the uniform for mothers of murder victims.

Robbins’ shirt was emblazoned with big white letters that read: SURVIVOR.

When will it end? Every day, a person is shot. Two. No, four. A man shot in the leg, a woman in the stomach, a teen in the head. The victim was transported to the hospital. In extremely critical condition. Pronounced on scene. Pronounced in hospital.

From D.C.’s Union Station, it’s a short taxi ride to the historic home of the National Building Museum. As we walked toward the free exhibit, Pedro suddenly took a detour to sit on a bench in front of a large fountain. Her head was bowed and her body shook as she sobbed.

“It’s not just my child,” she said. “It’s a bunch of children, a bunch of pain.”

Robbins sat by Pedro, her hand gently placed on her back.

“We all having our breaking points,” she said. “These are our babies.”

Together, the mothers walked into the room, a space that would feel almost ethereal on a sunny day, but on this day was shaded by rain clouds, lending a feel of heaviness, almost reverence.

There were four glass houses, each built of 700 bricks for the number of people killed by guns in the U.S. every week. Inside the bricks are personal items from across the country with the name, year of birth, and year of death of people being honored.

Here are Jackson Bleier’s swim goggles. He was a college student killed in Baltimore in 2016. Here is the “Book of Daily Thoughts and Prayers” for Diane Mokos Kriz, a mother of four who was shot and killed during an attempted robbery in Chicago in 1986. There’s a bowtie for JaJuan McDowell, killed by another teen in an accidental shooting with a stolen gun while visiting family in Georgia in 2016, and a dainty teacup for 5-year-old Sarah Magee, shot in Oregon alongside her mother and two sisters by their father in 1995.

Museum staff who knew we were coming directed the mothers to bricks, nearly side by side, that held the mementos they had donated. Enclosed in one was a denim wallet Pedro’s son made for her when he was in seventh grade.

“For Mother’s Day,” Pedro said.

James’ brick held a favorite brown tie.

“He looked so handsome when he wore it,” Robbins said, looking at the tie. “Lord, I miss him. I hate to have him here.”

“This is so hurtful,” Robbins said, taking in the hundreds of mementos that together created a national narrative of relentless loss. “Look at all the hurt.”

Robbins’ and Pedro’s sons were shot on the same day a year apart. Both murders are unsolved.

“Even if there is ‘justice,’ is there really justice?” Pedro said. “We’re in a glass house looking at memorials of our children that we will never see again. The only way we can keep them alive is by speaking their names.”

For a while, the mothers sat on a bench outside their sons’ glass house while a screen played video clips of loved ones talking about the ravaging effects of gun violence.

A few times they said they were ready to leave, only to linger a little longer. They searched for the brick with an item donated by Lisa Espinosa, the Philly mom who recently relocated to Arizona. It held a favorite belt worn by her son Raymond Pantoja when he was shot to death in 2016.

“Oh my God, our Angels are together,” Espinosa texted back after they sent her a picture.

Once outside, the sky finally gave way to the rain.

Later that night, Robbins texted me. When she got home, she said, she stood in front of James’ picture and did what she often does. She talked to her boy. She told him that she loved him, and that she was doing all she could, for him and his two sons, Jamie, now 15, and Jahsir, 14, who graduates from seventh grade next week.

I put my phone down, only to pick it up again a couple of hours later. There, another alert from police:

“16 y/o Black male was shot 13 times throughout the body. He was transported to Presbyterian Hospital by police and was pronounced at 8:49 p.m.”