Never Giving Up -- the James Lilly Story

James Lilly is a world-class wheelchair racer. He has participated in marathons and other races all over the country. He once won the grueling 245-miles or so wheel-chair race in Alaska (the world's most difficult).

Now around 35 years old, James has been in a wheelchair for some 20 years. As a Mexican youth in the streets of the Little Village barrio in Chicago, he gravitated towards gangs and drugs. Kicked out of his home and homeless, he eventually found himself in the middle of a gang-related shoot out. One of his best friends was killed that day; James became paralyzed from the waist down.

I met James through the Japanese American film maker, Izumi Tanaka. More than a year ago, Izumi came to Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural to talk to me about James and the film she was doing on his life. I was very interested. Soon I met James after he came to a talk I did on gang peace at Northwestern University's Law School in Chicago last year.

His spirit was strong, and his presence compelling. Today, he has a family with two young boys. He speaks at schools, conferences, and juvenile facilities.

Earlier this year, Izumi and James came to speak and show a short version of Izumi's film (still in production as I write this) at Tia Chucha's. I also gave them the Luis Rodriguez special tour of South Central and East LA (tours I've done for friends from Italy, Brazil, England, and other places). I showed James and Izumi some of my old stomping grounds in Watts, in Boyle Heights, South San Gabriel, and the City Terrace hills (and to a spot where you can see most of East LA and the downtown skyline).

Last week, James returned the favor. After a wonderful dinner with his wife and boys, James gave me a tour of the Little Village neighborhoods where he lived, participated in gang life, and in Pilsen (another Chicago barrio) where he was shot.

I also visited the outdoors memorial at St. Agnes Church on 27th Street and Central Park where some 90 names have been emblazoned -- names of young people under 25 years who have been killed in these streets since the year 2000.

James survived, but he did more than that. He never gave up on life, on having a wonderful family, and on impacting his community with his talks and with his amazing performances in world-class wheelchair races.

I'm honored to count James as one of my close friends.


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