A 15-year-old boy’s winning design for the 2012-13 Chicago city sticker is being thrown out on the chance that it may contain elements that could be “misconstrued” as gang signs.
Each year, Chicago high school students are invited to submit designs for the City of Chicago Vehicle Sticker. This year’s theme was “Chicago’s Heroes,” and Herbert Pulgar’s winning design was voted for by about 18,000 Chicagoans late last year—an achievement that gave him both hope for his future, as well as a $1,000 savings bond.
Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza made the decision, which has spurred a good deal of controversy, and greatly upset the boy and his mother, Jessica Loor. Loor spoke out during Wednesday’s press conference where the change was announced by the city, calling the ruling “mean and cruel.” Mendoza said the issue for her was not about the individual, but that it’s an issue of the perception that’s now out in the city of Chicago, and, frankly, nationally, that some experts believe may provide symbolism related to gangs.”
Pulgar, in what the Chicago Sun-Times calls a “tearful interview,” told a local news station that he was just trying to honor the police, firefighters, and paramedics who saved his life when his shirt caught on fire and burned a significant portion of his body when he was just four years old. He says he was trying to turn his life around, showing his mother he could do well in school (Pulgar attends Lawrence Hall Youth Services, a school aiming to help troubled youth). Now, because of all the allegations, he says, “Now other gang members think that I’m a gang member and my life is in jeopardy.”
Pulgar’s winning design features the Chicago skyline inside a heart, with the sky serving as the Chicago municipal flag. Four hands reach out in the direction of images of a police officer’s hat, firefighter’s hat and the paramedic emblem. The issues with the design—which Mendoza publicly praised just a week prior and called Pulgar a “rock star”—arose when a popular police blog pointed out that the sticker seemed to feature elements paying tribute to a street gang called the Maniac Latin Disciples (MLD), the Sun-Times reports.
The blog pointed out that the main emblem of the gang was a heart, as well as horns. It went on to say that the hands in Pulgar’s design are placed atop the heart like horns, and are also in the shape of the “pitchfork,” which serves as the gang’s hand sign. At the news conference, Pulgar’s art teacher brought out some handouts that she said she’d given to her student to help him draw the hands, showing that they’re almost identical and have no association with gang signs.
What isn’t helping Pulgar’s case is that there was a picture on Pulgar’s Facebook page showing kids—possibly friends, and it’s unclear whether he was among them—throwing up what appeared to be the “pitchfork” hand sign of the MLD gang. A commenter on the picture wrote, “what r u doing throwing up the fork ha what are u a gangbanger.”
Former police superintendent Jody Weis, who consulted on the ruling, acknowledged during the conference that these kids were probably just trying to sound tough. However, she said “The problem is, this is a good lesson that sometimes social media will get you in trouble. You’ve got to be careful what you post on there.”
Mendoza awarded the first place award to the original second place winner, Caitlin Henehan, a senior at Resurrection High School. In an official statement, Mendoza said she has reached out to Pulgar and hopes to meet with him. She will be awarding the $1,000 savings bond to Henehan as it was stated in the contest rules. However, Mendoza also writes: “I feel terrible about what he’s going through and the media storm he’s had to deal with. While he has admittedly had problems in his youth, I do believe that he is trying to turn his life around. That is why I am going to give him a $1000 savings bond to use for his education coming from me personally.”
However, Pulgar’s family has hired an attorney and may pursue legal action against the city.