‘I’m still scared’
As 7-year-old girl who saw her father killed struggles to process shooting that hurt her too, family fears they won’t see justice
Seven-year-old Evelyn Cisneros quietly scrolled through pictures of her father on a phone and stopped at a snapshot taken at Disneyland two years ago. She is smiling in that one.
Her ponytail still mussed from sleeping, Evelyn cuddled up on her mother’s lap. Her sisters, Lizbeth, 13, and Nicole, 2, bunched around her along with their grandparents, uncles and aunts in the Logan Square home where the family has lived since moving from Jalisco, Mexico, nearly 30 years ago.
Her father was not there.
Fermin Cisneros, 36, was shot and killed in front of Evelyn two days earlier. Evelyn was in the backseat of the family’s gray van as Cisneros was driving home from a party celebrating the opening of a relative’s day care center in Humboldt Park early in the morning of Feb. 9. He had barely pulled away when three shots were fired from a passing car. Cisneros slumped over, and his hands dropped from the steering wheel.
As his wife, Marilu Cisneros, struggled to stop the van, she heard Evelyn cry out, “It hurts, it hurts.” The little girl had been grazed in the back by one of the bullets.
“It all happened so fast,” his wife said. A tear rolled down her cheek, and she held her daughter a little tighter.
The girl was mostly silent. “I’m still scared,” Evelyn said in Spanish, without looking up.
The family had gathered to both remember Fermin Cisneros and to call for justice. “They didn’t just kill my brother, they affected and broke our whole family,” Guillermo Cisneros said. “His three daughters will never
forget seeing their father die.”
Just two years ago, Fermin Cisneros opened a small business and was renovating a building in hopes of moving his family there this summer. He took care of his parents and his sister, a single mother, and her 15-year-old daughter. Except for his sister, they were all in the van when the shots were fired.
Adding to their grief, the family fears that Cisneros’ death will go unsolved. Several relatives expressed anger that police mentioned Cisneros’ minor criminal record from more than 15 years ago.
“As if that justified the killing,” said another brother, Martin Cisneros, shaking his head. He hadn’t slept since the shooting. His wife, Maria, sat by his side and held his hand in the dining room.
“They think that just because we are Latinos, any sort of criminal record means that they deserve to die like that,” Maria Cisneros said with teary eyes.
Chicago police told the Tribune they do not have a motive for Cisneros’ shooting and have no evidence that he or anyone else in the family van was a target. Still, the department’s media affairs office has repeatedly volunteered that Cisneros “was known to police.” A spokesman later apologized to the family and said the department only meant that nothing was being ruled out as they worked to solve the case.
“We are good people,” said Cisneros’ father, Vicente Cisneros, 79. “All my sons, like myself, came here to work and take care of our families.”
‘We had so many plans’
Fermin Cisneros was the youngest of nine children. His father immigrated to the United States through the Bracero Program that imported labor from Mexico. Vicente Cisneros eventually brought all his children to live in Chicago. In 2017, Fermin Cisneros was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
He grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood at a time when street violence was more active there. After some brushes with the law when he was young, he straightened out, fell in love with a neighbor and married her.
The couple raised their three daughters in the home where he grew up. They lived in the basement apartment, one of his brothers and his family lived on the first floor, and his parents lived on the second floor.
Along with his brothers, Cisneros mostly worked in construction jobs. After years of saving up, he was able to open a small botanical shop with one of his brothers two years ago not far from his old neighborhood. He also bought a building that was being renovated for his wife, daughters and his parents.
Cisneros was known for his laid-back style and charismatic personality, his brother Guillermo Cisneros said. Friends and loved ones called him “el cocinero” (the cook) “because he would get to a family party, or any place, and go straight to the kitchen to help cook. No one would get him out,” his brother said, laughing.
On Thursdays and Sundays, Cisneros played soccer with one of his brothers. And most days he would take his girls with him to watch the games. The family remembered the time Cisneros went to see his favorite team, Las Chivas, play. There’s a photo of Cisneros smiling in a red and white striped jersey.
Lizbeth, his oldest daughter, smiled as she looked at the photo. Her father took her to school every morning. “I’m going to miss him,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Cisneros and his family were getting ready to celebrate his niece’s quinceañera, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony for her 15th birthday, on Feb. 20.
The family was also planning a visit to Mexico together for the first time in decades.
“We had so many plans,” Marilu Cisneros cried, holding on to her younger daughters in the apartment decorated with images of Catholic saints and votive candles.
Fermin Cisneros’ mother, Matilde Chavez, 74, sat on a rocking chair near the window, her hand on her forehead.
‘This unfair pain’
The voice of Fermin’s 79-yearold father, Vicente Cisneros, cracked as he recounted the desperate moments inside the van when the shots rang out.
The family had been celebrating the opening of Nurturing Niche, a day care center started by one of their relatives in the 2600 block of West Division Street in Humboldt Park. The grandfather said the family stayed late because they were enjoying themselves, not leaving until shortly before 3 a.m. Fermin Cisneros had not driven two blocks when someone shot at their van from behind in the 1300 block of North Rockwell Street, according to a police report.
The girls began to cry hysterically, the grandfather recalled. Evelyn was sitting in the back seat next to him and her grandmother. Her 12-year-old sister was in the last row with her 14-year-old cousin, who was holding Evelyn’s 2-year-old sister. Cisneros’ wife was next to her husband in the front passenger seat.
“As I was trying to hold my son and telling his wife to stop the car, then we realized that Evelyn and I were covered in blood,” Vicente Cisneros said. Police arrived within 10 minutes and, shortly after, the paramedics.
“I got out of the van and took the girl with me, covered in blood. She had been hurt. We didn’t know what was going on, but police escorted us away from the scene, and took my son and my granddaughter in the ambulance,” he said. “We didn’t know how my son or Evelyn were doing until we arrived at the hospital.”
The night of the shooting, Vicente’s wife, Matilde, was admitted to Stroger Hospital for medical issues from the shock.
“He wasn’t a criminal, my son was a good man,” she cried in Spanish over and over from her hospital bed. “Why did they do this to us?”
Nearly two weeks after the shooting, Chicago police reported no leads and had released no description of the car or shooter. The police report said there may have been cameras on Rockwell that captured the shooting, but police have not released any surveillance images.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said detectives are looking at Fermin Cisceros’ background for any clues to the shooting. Cisneros was arrested four times between 2000 and 2004, when he was in his late teens and early 20s. His first two arrests were for criminal trespass, but the charges were dropped. He was arrested in 2002 for possession of burglary tools and pleaded guilty, and he was given court supervision. His last arrest was for possession of marijuana, but that charge was dropped too.
Asked what in Cisneros’ record would help detectives, Guglielmi said, “whether recent or decadesold, (a criminal history) could be a factor, and that’s often where detectives have to start the investigation.”
Guglielmi said the department did not intend to demean Cisneros. “We are the advocate for the victim, regardless of their history with police,” he said. “Many of them may or may not have it, but it doesn’t matter to the investigators as they try to solve the case.”
Still, the Cisneros family worries that Cisneros’ life is being criminalized and his death, like those of other Latino immigrants, will be forgotten.
“We have been keeping each other strong,” said Cisneros’ only sister, Remedios, sitting on the couch and caressing Evelyn’s face. Her brother, she said, was like a father to her own daughter.
“We are broken, our pain will never go away,” she said. “And this is going to keep happening to other families if the shooters aren’t found.”
Evelyn Cisneros, from left, sits with her mom, Marilu, and sisters Nicole and Lizbeth at their grandparents’ home in Chicago.
Fermin Cisneros was killed on Feb. 9 while driving with his family in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. His daughter Evelyn was wounded.
Evelyn Cisneros, 7, left, plays with her sister Nicole, 2, while sitting in their mom’s lap. Evelyn was wounded in the shooting that took her dad’s life.