Despite growing up surrounded by violence, and working as a cop
in a rough neighborhood for 10 years, Carlos Cortes has developed
an unflinching optimism toward people and his role has a
Cortes grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago
during the 1960s and '70s, where he later worked as a beat cop for
10 years. Between his childhood and his first day on the job as a
cop, Cortes says the violence and gang activity in the neighborhood
Cortes says he's managed to get past a lot of the darker things
he's seen. But it's hard.
His parents worked hard to put him through Catholic school. His
father often held three jobs and his mother owned a beauty salon.
His father was also protective and often encouraged Cortes to work
hard and keep to himself.
"My father taught me that a man's only friend is the dollar bill
in his pocket," he says. "He didn't want me to have the wrong
Family education Cortes has learned a mix of lessons from life,
his parents, his neighborhood and his work. He has tried to sift
through all the ideas for his three children-William, 16, Robert,
11, and Lauren, 7- to find a personal philosophy to help his kids
His parents taught him important lessons, especially to persist
in school, but Cortes has tried to give his children more freedom
to make mistakes.
"Working and growing up in the ghetto sets you up to do the best
for your children. It helps temper you as a parent," he says. "But
all I ever wanted was for my son to have fun; when he wanted a job,
I said, 'Just enjoy your life.'"
The Cortes family now lives in the Sauganash neighborhood on the
Northwest Side of Chicago. With its closely tucked-together
bungalows, it is populated by police officers, firemen and other
city workers. Still, it has a distinctive suburban feel.
Cortes is far from where he worked and grew up, yet he says
letting go of his time on the streets has come slowly. Sometimes he
is overly cautious about "stranger danger" and he says, the kids
"learn to be little cops."
"Being a parent and seeing what's out there on the streets can
make you overprotective," Carlos says. "Sometimes you're not
realizing how easy it is to be interrogating; it becomes part of
At the same time, he also hopes to teach his children that not
everyone is a criminal or a drug dealer, and that you can trust
more than your family.
"There are so many beautiful people, and only such a small
percentage who aren't," he says.
Finding time and prioritizing Cortes switched from being a
street cop to a chaplain and it is through that and his job as a
dad that he has learned time is the most important thing to offer
Talking to teens enrolled in drug programs, Cortes says one
quickly realizes parental involvement is critical.
"If you're there, you can be everything to them for five
minutes, because they have nothing," he says.
But finding time takes dedication from both Carlos and his wife,
Avita. Cortes spends a lot of time out on the streets during the
day but also takes calls at night. If an officer has been shot, he
says, a chaplain is always called to the scene immediately.
Avita is also a police officer. She works the night shift in the
Wrigleyview, Uptown and Lakeview neighborhoods on the North Side of
Though some would consider it a sacrifice, Avita says she is
happy with working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. She sleeps while the kids are
at school, which gives her more time to spend with her family.
"[Working the day shift] I couldn't see anything after school or
go to PTA meetings," she says. "I see them more during hours here
at home. I don't feel like I'm missing a beat."
Busy schedules aside, Carlos says he makes an effort to spend as
much time with his kids as possible, including taking his oldest
son to tutoring every week. He says going to baseball games or just
sitting down with them to watch TV or a movie can make an impact on
But he also says it's crucial to spend time with his wife.
"It's important to have time with your children and your
spouse," he says. "There are soccer moms who spend hours on end
with a sport, but you can't forget your spouse."
Cortes' wide-ranging experiences have also fostered his interest
in volunteer work. He's active in the Fatherhood Initiative, an
organization that works to emphasize the role fathers play in their
Despite his busy schedule and the time he spends helping others
through difficult times, Carlos says he doesn't have much trouble
keeping a positive outlook.
A self-described "new age guy," he says he's quick to cry at
"Lady and the Tramp" and also to always tell his kids how he
"Even my 16-year-old, I tell him I love him when I drop him off
at school," he says. "The biggest thing is love. I'm tough at
times, but even when I reprimand them, I say I love them."
In his work, and at home, Cortes says he's always tried to
emphasize the importance of family.
"More and more, society has so many ills that there's a
breakdown of the family. Family is the most important thing, no
matter what," he says, and with a smile, quotes his favorite band,
"All you need is love."
Working with a smile Cortes shifted his role from police officer
to police chaplain nearly six years ago, partly to spend more time
with his family and partly because he was tired of the Humboldt
"The neighborhood, and being there all the time, I was
frustrated; I felt like I hadn't changed anything," he recalls.
Cortes, a practicing Mormon, never doubted his commitment to his
religion. However, he had trouble envisioning the move from cop
working a rough neighborhood to spiritual guide.
"I'm just a typical policeman. I can be a gruff guy," he
However, his ability to relate to the frustrations and
challenges often faced by officers is what one friend said would
make him an ideal candidate.
"He said I should do it because I'd been there," he says.
Now, wearing a bright red Hawaiian shirt and an easygoing smile,
it's hard to imagine that Cortes was ever a beat cop arresting gang
He says he often dresses this way with a purpose. He will head
out into the field wearing a goofy tie to make himself more
Cortes' job primarily focuses on counseling police officers on
dealing with the death of a partner to coping with the loss of a
family member. Sometimes, he says, he is everything from counselor
to local priest to taxi service if someone's not feeling well and
needs a ride home.
Cortes also notes his job is strictly ecumenical. There's "no
fire and brimstone," he is quick to add.
"We don't proselytize," he says. "We're just there to give a big
smile, be a bright shining light and just to remind them that
they're not alone."
Since his duties on the streets shifted from law enforcement to
offering support to officers as they work in the field, Cortes says
the lessons he learned while growing up in Humboldt Park and as a
cop, chaplain and father have woven inextricably together.
Squaring off with gang violence, the drug trade and neighborhood
resentment of cops can make officers view civilians as enemies.
Anger and frustration on both sides can become overpowering, but
Cortes says he tries to help the cops he counsels embrace
"I try to help them know that those people they work for are
also human beings. Sometimes it's hard to understand, or to want
to, but they should try to pray for them. They are also human
beings; they are someone's child and you need to lead by
Katharine Grayson is a reporter for Wednesday Journal, a
sister publication of Chicago Parent. She is "mom" to two
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