Pilsen family suffers 3 tragedies

Close-knit siblings find will to survive after Mexico catastrophe

The Casillas family

From left: Erika, Jorge, and Rogelio Casillas, sit on the coach with Rolando Santoyo, right, as they watch Noah Santoyo, 1, play with books Friday, Feb. 7 in Chicago. In early January, the Casillas family drove from Chicago to Mexico for a family vacation and were involved in a fatal accident that killed the mother of Santoyo's child and his father in-law. (Rob Hart / Chicago Tribune / February 7, 2014)

In the early afternoon of Jan. 5, a Sunday, Jorge Casillas Jr.'s cellphone rang at the family home in Pilsen.

He didn't recognize the number on the screen and when he answered, the voice was unfamiliar.

"Are you Koki?" a man asked in Spanish.

"Si," he said. Koki was his family nickname.

"Is Noah your nephew?" the man asked.

Again, yes.

Noah was his sister Mayra's baby, not quite 1 year old, on his way in the family SUV to the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Mexican village where Jorge's parents had grown up. It was Noah's first time on the trip, an inauguration into a Casillas family ritual.

This year, however, Jorge didn't go because he had to work. His younger brother, Roy, decided not to go because his friends weren't going. Their sister Erika stayed home because she had high school basketball practice.

As the SUV passed through Tennessee, on down through Texas, toward the narrow, winding roads of Mexico, the three members of the family left behind kept in touch with the travelers by text.

When the SUV crossed the border and they lost cell contact, Jorge worried, all the while telling himself not to: His family would soon be in Valle de Guadalupe, praying the rosary and enjoying the food.

The man spoke again.

Your family was in a car accident, he said.

The man went on. Your nephew is OK. Your brother-in-law is OK. Your mother is OK. Your sister is conscious. Your father is unconscious. We're taking them all to the hospital.

At home in Pilsen that day, Jorge Casillas Jr., who is 23, began to weep, just as he wept again Friday, sitting at the long dining room table on the second floor of the family's red-brick two-flat.

With him at the table were Roy, 21, and Erika, 17. From time to time, as he told the story of what happened next, Erika got up and without a word handed each of her brothers a Kleenex.

Jorge Casillas Sr. was 16 when he came to Chicago by himself from Valle de Guadalupe in the Mexican state of Michoacan. At 18, he went home, fell in love with a girl a couple of years younger and brought her to Chicago.

At least that's the way his surviving children remember him telling the story.

Jorge Sr. and Hortencia had four children in 11 years and sent them all to Catholic schools. Jorge Sr. worked his way up to a good job in shipping at Aramark uniform services; he typically left home at 3 a.m. and came back 12 hours later. Hortencia took care of her children and some other people's too.

The Casillas family shared a building with relatives, and the neighborhood was filled with friends and relations from Valle de Guadalupe. The family spoke Spanish at home, but the kids learned perfect English and when they finished high school went to college. Their parents had lectured them effectively on the hazards of the gangs that complicate life in the South Side neighborhood of Pilsen.

Jorge Jr. was still off at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles when his sister Mayra called to tell him she was pregnant. She was worried about how their parents would react and she wanted him with her when she told them.