At the corner of Mutter and Westmoreland streets in West Kensington on Wednesday, a middle-aged white man with two-day stubble and tousled light brown hair stops and stares at the shuttered Caribe Mini Market, a bewildered look on his face.
On the ground, against the bodega’s blue stucco exterior, nearly two dozen prayer candles flicker next to a couple of teddy bears. Pink-and-white balloon bouquets sway in the afternoon breeze. A single red rose is perched in the latch of one gray, graffiti-dappled metal grate. Over another, at eye level, photos of 29-year-old Reyna Aguirre-Alonso—pasted on white posterboard with R.I.P. messages in Spanish scrawled around them—stare back at him.
“That girl in there, she’s dead?” the man, who stands out in this predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, asks me. I tell him that Aguirre-Alonso was shot to death Monday night, that she might have been targeted because she witnessed a murder outside the store in November and was cooperating with police or because she’d repeatedly stood up to the drug dealers working the corner 24/7. He shakes his head. “That’s too bad, I used to see her in there all the time,” he says, pausing for a moment and then adding, “I’m not gonna lie, I’m here to buy drugs.”
I tell him I’m surprised he’s admitting that to me. I identify myself as a reporter. “But what if I was a cop?” I ask.
“Ehh, the cops don’t care,” he replies. “It’s all out in the open. This is a respectable block, a family block. Even though they sell drugs here, they don’t do it in front of kids. They always have block parties, they always clean the streets. There’s places right around the corner where they’ll cut your throat. But there’s not really any violence over here.”
The bullet holes lacing the siding of a nearby building tell a different story. So does the fact that he’s standing just a few feet from where Luis Chevere—a low-level dealer who lived on the block—was gunned down two months ago, allegedly by another dealer beefing with him over drug turf. A shooting Aguirre-Alonso saw from the window of her apartment over the bodega, where she’d lived for the past two years.
The man, who declines to give his name, says he’s 56, and is a retired plumber who lives in a five-bedroom house in Doylestown. He says he’s been coming to this corner for 20 years to get cocaine. Says he’s a responsible father, good husband, pays his property taxes. He points to his black BMW, parked just up the street. A little coke’s his only vice, he explains, and the wife’s out of town, so he’s here to buy a $20 bag, like he does once or twice a month. He’ll have to get it somewhere else for the time being, he says.
I ask him if he feels bad, if buying drugs here contributed to the circumstances that led to Aguirre-Alonso’s death. “Nahh,” he says before walking off. “If I stop coming here it wouldn’t matter. They’re gonna keep selling, so what difference does it make?”
Halfway down Mutter Street, music blares from a porch. First Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” then Cuban Link’s “Flowers for the Dead.” Nearby, a stocky older man with a gray goatee and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin sweatshirt applies a coat of glossy white paint to a makeshift shrine, fashioned from an old wooden coffee table, crucifix on top. Neighbors gather around to watch him work. A few children run around in the street. The sun, dangling low over the row houses on Westmoreland, sets the shrine aglow. “Look, it’s like you can see heaven at the top!” shouts Lizasuian DeJesus, pointing to the cross.
Clutching a small cardboard box with Aguirre-Alonso’s picture on it, DeJesus walks back up to the corner, waving the box at passing cars for donations. The block is trying to raise money to have Aguirre-Alonso’s body sent back to the tiny Mexican town where she was born—where her ailing mother still lives—following next Monday’s viewing. A little girl, maybe 6 years old, in a red-and-gray-striped hoodie, scampers over to DeJesus. “I want to help!” she says.
“It’s just so sad this happened,” says Gladys Martinez, 53, who stands on the corner pushing back her long blond hair and wiping away tears. She says she loved Aguirre-Alonso “like she was my daughter.”
“She left her country to go work and help her family out, and now she has to go back in a casket,” says Martinez, who’s lived on Mutter Street for more than 20 years.
Martinez says Aguirre-Alonso had no family in Philadelphia and worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week at the bodega. Martinez often cooked meals for her, and came by the store almost every day to talk to her. “That girl had no social life. She was 29, beautiful, young …” Martinez recalls, adding that Aguirre-Alonso did construction work—“like a man, she was tough”—before coming to work at the store two years ago.
The five-foot-one Aguirre-Alonso had no fear of the dealers working the corner, some of whom were her neighbors on the block. She was tired of them hanging out in front of the store, scaring customers away, and Martinez says that in recent weeks she’d been more vocal about confronting them.
“That little woman would stand there. She would put her chest out, like a man. And she had no one to back her up. No husband, no children. She was just Reyna. She was her own shield.”
In preparation for the late-afternoon vigil, the man in the Steve Austin shirt, helped by a neighbor, carries the freshly painted shrine across the street and sets it against the wall of the bodega. He hangs a photo of Aguirre-Alonso inside and prayer beads over the cross. A teenage girl in a pink coat moves the prayer candles onto the shrine. Someone places a vase of lilies on top, someone else hangs a tiny Mexican sombrero and blanket at the bottom. A red-and-white balloon arch arrives, and is hung over the shrine. People step back to take photos with their cell phones. A little girl perched on a woman’s shoulder begins to wail.
“Flowers for the Dead” starts blasting again. “Achh,” Martinez sighs, “they always play the same music whenever this happens.”
A Philadelphia Police Department van and two patrol cruisers pull up, and cops place wooden barricades on either end of Mutter Street. Martinez says that when the block had a similar vigil for Chevere in November, someone came by and fired shots at the crowd—everyone scattered, but no one was hit. This time, they’ve asked the cops to keep an eye on things.
Still, Martinez shoots a dirty look at one of the cops. She says they hauled Aguirre-Alonso in several times, against her will, to identify Chevere’s killer from a photo lineup. She says they threatened Aguirre-Alonso with deportation if she didn’t cooperate. [Update: Three days later, Martinez says that was not the case.]