Little Nikolette Rivera should be here with us for what would have been her third birthday on Friday. The bright-eyed baby with the big smile should be toddling around and enjoying a big slice of birthday cake.
Yes, her mother still plans to have a cake and do something special in memory of her daughter. It will start at 2 p.m. in front of the house where Nikolette lived in the 3300 block of Water Street. The theme will be Coco, a 2017 Disney animated film about a little boy who visits the land of the dead and meets his great-great-grandfather.
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“That movie is the reason why I have so much faith," Joan Ortiz, 25, told me last week. "There was a reason for that movie to be her favorite movie. It’s about the land of the dead and the land of the living. That movie has helped my son understand.”
What’s been hard for her 5-year-old son — so hard for many of us adults to understand — is that Nikolette is gone and that she had to die the way she did.
It happened nearly a year ago, on Oct. 20, 2019, after a carpet cleaner stopped by to clean a rug.
“I opened the door. I had her in my arms. He came in and told me that there was no parking in front of my house, so he wasn’t going to be able to do it,” she recalled. “I was walking to let him out of the house when shots [rang out]. I didn’t know what it was. It sounded like someone hitting something with a hammer.”
“I saw him fly across the room. … I reached down to help him, not realizing what was going on. When I bent down, I saw the bullet rip through my baby’s head," she said.
Arik Enatayev, the carpet cleaner, survived, but Nikolette was pronounced dead on the scene. Philadelphia police quickly arrested two suspects, Freddie Perez and Tayvon Thomas, who confessed, saying they had been targeting the baby’s father.
Reporters, politicians, and community members contacted Ortiz, all wanting to help. Then almost everyone moved on, leaving her to comfort her son and her 1-year-old daughter by herself. Unable to work, she sells T-shirts with her daughter’s face on her Instagram page @nikolettsworld918.
“In the beginning everybody was contacting me," Ortiz pointed out. "Once it isn’t on the news, once the story isn’t hot, people stop reaching out. So many leaders came out in the beginning but none after.”
She and I talked about that last week. Terry Starks, founder of the Express Urself Urban Crisis Response Center, put together a group call of people whose lives had been impacted by gun violence to discuss resources they needed but weren’t getting. He calls the fledgling grassroots organization the Philadelphia City Affairs Coalition.
“It’s many mothers besides Joan that’s dealing with the same issue," Starks said.
Some of the women on the call promised to attend Ortiz’s remembrance to provide emotional support. I’m glad because we need to do more to help victims of violent crimes.
I can’t imagine what she’s going through and I’m deeply concerned that in a city with as many resources for victims of crime that she’s not more connected. Granted, Ortiz hasn’t had the mental strength to optimize all of her options.
“Victim-support groups should be monitoring her to make sure that she is getting the resources that she needs, not just financially but in terms of emotional and mental health support,” said Darin Toliver, a cofounder of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work. “Who is there to help her get through these challenging times?”
Who is there, indeed?
So far, Ortiz’s answer has been “No one. "