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Brentwood's Evelyn Rodriguez, anti-gang activist, remembered as 'warrior'

Politicians from both sides of the aisle eulogized Rodriguez at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood. 

Friends, family and Brentwood community members gathered at St. Anne's Church for the funeral of Evelyn Rodriguez.  (Credit: Raychel Brightman, Shelby Knowles, News 12)

Evelyn Rodriguez was remembered Friday as a tireless and relentless warrior who "turned pain into passion" when she lost her teenage daughter to gang violence, making her Brentwood community a better place to live.

The pews at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood filled with more than 200 people who joined the family in mourning at an early morning funeral Mass.

Rodriguez, 50, was fatally struck by an SUV in Brentwood Sept. 14l before a scheduled vigil to mark the two-year anniversary of the discovery of the body of her daughter Kayla Cuevas, 16. Authorities have said Cuevas was the victim of a brutal attack in September 2016 by the MS-13 criminal gang on her and friend Nisa Mickens, 15. The double murder shook the community and brought renewed national focus on the gang.

Freddy Cuevas, Rodriguez's partner and Kayla's father, entered the church alongside the wooden casket, followed by dozens of relatives who sat across from elected officials and representatives of law enforcement agencies who came to know Rodriguez through her advocacy.

He spoke through halting silences, saying he drew strength from her.

In his eulogy, Cuevas called Rodriguez “my warrior, my queen, my rock, my everything” and vowed to continue the work she started. "Evelyn Rodriguez's fight will never be in vain" because he and others will speak up until "gang violence has stopped in all of our schools," he said.

Barbara Medina, a crime victims' advocate who became Rodriguez's friend, said those who knew her understood that she would not want the voices of those hurt by gangs to go unheard -- and that work would be her legacy.

"She turned pain into passion, and became a warrior for her community, and we can't take that from her," Medina said.

A range of politicians, Democrats and Republicans, also eulogized Rodriguez, praising her ability to push for change in the face of such grief. 

“She was tough; she was committed," Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said in his eulogy. "She was driven, focused."

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her eulogy, sent a message to MS-13.

"You will be stopped," Hochul said. "Your evil will be thwarted at every step, because you have lit a fire under this community. That will be the enduring legacy of what Evelyn accomplished in the name of Kayla and other victims of gang violence."

Rodriguez rooted her advocacy in her experience of sorrow. Her daughter had not been buried yet when Rodriguez first spoke up at a Brentwood forum, emerging as a voice for a community terrorized by gangs.

She pressed her Brentwood school district to target bullying and make the schools safer. She called for justice for her daughter and other victims. She backed law enforcement’s efforts to identify, arrest and prosecute gang members. She advocated for funding for gang-prevention programs.

And she took her message from her hamlet to representatives of Congress and to President Donald Trump, who last January invited the two grieving families to the State of the Union address and met them again about four months ago at a Bethpage forum.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), in his eulogy, called Rodriguez a friend and noted that she never showed any self-pity after her daughter’s death.

“She was a powerful and articulate voice,” King said.

Before the funeral, King said Rodriguez "was the first person to put a human face” on the MS-13 fight “and the job was to focus public and national attention on MS-13. She didn’t want any other parent to endure what she had gone through."

Among those also in attendance were Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, Suffolk County Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), Suffolk County Legis. Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) and Liuba Grechen Shirley, King’s Democratic challenger.

The Rev. Stanislaw Wadowski, the church's pastor, elevated prayers to God "on behalf of your servant Evelyn" and he expressed shock at the loss of a parishioner he had seen receiving communion.

"Evelyn laid her life not only for her own children, but for all children and youth, seeking for them safety and more opportunities for positive growth and learning," Wadowski said in his homily.

Her death, Wadowski said, "shouldn't have happened."

 A week earlier Rodriguez was near a sidewalk memorial for her daughter on Ray Court — exactly two years after the teenager's body was found a few yards away — when she was fatally struck by an SUV.

The SUV driver, whom police have not named, was identified as a relative of a Ray Court resident. Police said Rodriguez was involved in a dispute with the driver over the placement of the memorial and was struck as the driver attempted to leave the scene. No charges have been filed.  

Hart on Friday declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

Debbie Fuentes, a cousin who spoke for the family at the funeral, said though the praise for Evelyn seemed “somewhat redundant” it is the truth: She was the powerful woman they described.

“My cousin Evelyn, the crusader, the warrior, the fighter...” who stood up for her daughter and other victims “chased, hunted and butchered by a gang we now all know too well.”

While celebrating and continuing Rodriguez’s legacy is important, Fuentes added, “we also want justice to be served because our warrior was taken away from us and it was much too soon.”

Friends of Evelyn Rodriguez said they felt anguish and anger after her funeral Friday. They said they will call for justice Sunday at a 7 p.m. protest on Ray Court.  

“We want those who claimed they loved her to do right by her,” said Liz Cordero, 56, of Bay Shore, who added the driver should be arrested. 

Seated on a bench outside the church not long before the funeral, Lourdes Seda of Bay Shore remembered her longtime friend Rodriguez as a fighter.

“Strong is not a powerful enough word for her,” she said. “We’ve seen a difference because of her. Her memory will stay forever in my heart.”

Rodriguez was laid to rest at Queen of All Saints Cemetery in Central Islip, alongside her daughter.

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