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Brown: Comedy producer turns to tragedy to get kids to face reality

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:37AM

Comedy show producer Mike Oquendo was sitting in his Logan Square living room Friday telling me that “Latino men are momma’s boys.”

On another day, Oquendo, creator of the Latino-oriented Mikey O Comedy Show, could no doubt riff on this subject at length — playing it for laughs all the way with his insights into the favored status of males in Latino culture.

But for this occasion, Oquendo is serious as death.

Oquendo has made a short documentary film, “For the Love of Mom,” and there’s nothing funny about it.

It’s about what happens to a mother when her child has been murdered.

Oquendo, who makes a living by getting people to laugh until they cry, goes straight for the tears in this gut-wrenching portrait of Myrna Roman and Diana Aguilar, who each lost a child to Chicago’s street violence.

Oquendo made the film in hopes of steering young Chicagoans away from the killing cycle by appealing to their hidden soft spot: Mom.

Toward that end, he’s asking teachers, principals, police, community organizations—anybody who works with kids—to show them his movie.

Having watched the 27-minute film a couple times now myself, I fully endorse the effort.

There’s no money angle. Oquendo is giving away DVDs for free to anybody who promises to put it in front of a youth audience.

“Keep your money,” Oquendo tells the city leaders he has approached. “Help us by using your power to get the movie into schools.”

Oquendo, who had never made a film previously, came up with the idea after being part of a panel discussion on violence at a Chicago high school that followed the usual scared straight approach.

The 700 students who filed into the school auditorium that day paid no attention to their visitors—“texting, Facebooking, Twittering” instead, said Oquendo.

When it was over, Oquendo started asking himself what he could do to get students to listen.

“Kids don’t respond to fear,” he said.

Oquendo decided he would focus instead on “what happens beyond the bullet coming out of the gun” and what it does to the families.

The result is a very simple, pain-filled account rotating between interviews with Roman and Aguilar. There’s no political angle, no call to action. Just two moms and lots of tears.

Roman is the mother of Manuel “Manny” Roman, who was 23 on Halloween night 2009 when a gang member shot through the window of the car in which he was riding. The bullet lodged in his spine, and five weeks later, his mother made the decision to take him off life support.

Aguilar is the mother of 6-year-old Aliyah Shell, who was killed on her family’s front porch on a sunny March 2012 afternoon when a gunman missed his intended target and shot her twice.

While their stories are different, the impact was the same. Their shared loss puts Roman and Aguilar in an ever-growing group of Chicago moms of murder victims.

“We’re a family now,” Aguilar observes in the film, “and it’s crazy because our family just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

Will a street punk who thinks nothing of shooting into a crowd think twice because of what it could do to his or somebody else’s mother?

I don’t know, but Roman, whose story I had reported previously, thinks it’s worth a try.

She said she’s seen young men strutting disrespectfully into an auditorium to watch the film, then sit in rapt silence throughout.

“Honestly, when it was over, they would just look down and look away,” she said.

Now that he has their attention, Oquendo is looking to have a conversation.

He arranged for a therapist to prepare a discussion guide that he also distributes with the film in hopes of helping audiences deal with the emotions it can dredge up.

“It’s getting people to talk,” he said.

Some have declined to show the film because it is too intense, Oquendo said. But he argues that young people already are exposed to a much harsher reality on the street.

In connection with his comedy work, Oquendo hosts a monthly Community Partners Night in which comedians voluntarily perform on behalf of non-profit groups. That’s what led him into the violence discussion in the first place.

As the class clown who only later found a constructive outlet for his talents, Oquendo usually advocates for arts education in the schools.

For now, though, Oquendo is still concentrating on his goal of getting “For the Love of Mom” into as many schools as possible.

If you think you can help, he can be contacted by email at

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