Latino Political Organization in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village

Chas Sirridge Publicado 2016-04-04 06:58:15


LA Villita. Foto: José Guzmán

 

Between 1960 and 1980, Chicago experienced tremendous growth in the size of its Latino population. In this twenty year period, Chicago’s Latino population nearly quadrupled, growing from 110,000 to 423,000—from 3.1% of the city’s population in 1960 to 14.1% in 1980.[1] In 1967, Pilsen, on the city’s Lower West Side became the city’s first majority Latino (mostly Mexican) neighborhood; by 1970, Mexicans constituted 55% of the neighborhood’s population—approximately 25,000 people.[2] Despite the significant and growing number of Mexicans and other Latinos in Chicago, and the fact that they constituted a majority in at least one neighborhood, prior to the 1980s Latinos remained all but powerless in city politics. David K. Fremon explains that, “Hispanics in early 1980 had virtually zero representation: a token Cook County commissioner (Irene Hernandez), a University of Illinois trustee (Arturo Velazquez Jr.) and two Cook County Circuit Court judges.”[3] Describing their lack of representation and political power, Hank de Zutter, writing in the Chicago Reader in 1982, compared Mexican and Latino residents of Pilsen to a colonized people. “In many ways,” he told readers, “Pilsen and environs—like many Chicago neighborhoods—meet the classic definition of a colony; outside forces control not only political life but the economy as well.”[4]

Beginning in the late 1970s, however, many Latinos in Chicago—particularly Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Lower West Side neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village—began to challenge the political machine that had traditionally kept them powerless. For many, this meant making a transition from grassroots community organization and activism to the realm of electoral politics. To take on the political machine, these activists-turned-political aspirants formed independent political organizations and worked to build multiracial coalitions with like-minded African Americans. While these coalitions allowed both blacks and Latinos to achieve far greater gains than they would have been able to otherwise, the coalitions they built were often fragile and unstable, and would ultimately prove, for the most part, unsustainable.

The roots of this movement lay in the community activism in the barrios of Pilsen and Little Village on the Lower West Side that began in the late 1960s. One of the most significant activist groups of this time was the Centro de Acción Social Autónoma, Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA-HGT), an immigrants’ rights group concerned primarily with protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants, led by activist Rudy Lozano.[5] CASA defined itself as, “a political organization composed of Mexican workers dedicated to struggle for self-determination and unity with all workers in the United States.”[6] Coalition building was an explicit part of CASA’s purpose. As the organization explained, “We are especially committed to building unity of action with all the progressive forces fighting for democracy and socialism in the country. We are committed to the struggle against racism of which we as oppressed nationalities are subjected to and victims of in the United States.”[7]

In the early 1980s, many Mexican and Mexican American activists in Pilsen and Little Village began to question whether the type of grassroots community activism they in which they had been engaging was the most effective way to achieve the types of social and political gains that they were working towards. Many began to entertain the idea of getting involved in more conventional electoral politics as a way to pursue their social and political goals. After much discussion and deliberation, the members of CASA reached the decision to make the transition from grassroots community activism to electoral politics. As Jesús “Chuy” García tells it, one of the major factors that influenced this decision was the 1980 census, which revealed that Latinos made up 14% of Chicago’s population. As he explains

It was during that trip [a 1977 trip to Springfield sponsored by Midwest Coalition in Defense of Immigrants], I think and the 1980 Census that got a group of activists from Pilsen-Little Village…asking the question. At that time we were 14% of the population, according to the Census. Yet, we had no one in City Hall representing any of our communities, we had no one in the state legislature… It was the fact that we had no voice or vote in the city council and our experience in Springfield that led us to consider playing a role or getting involved in the electoral arena. When those numbers started coming out, we realized that there was potential for electing people to places like the city council and the state legislature.[8]        

The decision to enter electoral politics, however, was not an easy or an intuitive one, and it was not taken without much discussion among the members of CASA. Many of the activist members of the organizations had reservations about entering the field of politics. For many, politics was seen as inherently corrupt. Given the political environment and culture of the city and neighborhoods were these activists lived and had been raised, this was not an unreasonable or illogical view. Most of the activists who made up CASA were used to fighting against the system, not working through it, to achieve their goals. As García says,

The debate, of course, was whether we ought to, whether it was worth it, whether politics were simply corrupt, coopted, and a mechanism of self-serving interests, and whether or not it was a legitimate avenue for democratic struggle for people who were in the past discriminated against, disenfranchised, etc., shortchanged in our tax dollars…We debated this in 1980 with people like Rudy Lozano, Art Vasquez, Carlos Arango, Linda Coronado...[9]

 


Rudy Lozano and Harold Washington

 

Ultimately, the group decided to enter the field of electoral politics. They made a pledge, however, that theirs would be a different brand of politics than the corrupt, machine politics that they were used to, a type of politics which, in their neighborhoods, had overwhelmingly been dominated by white ethnic politicians who had shut out the growing Mexican American and Chicano populations of the neighborhood from having any voice or say in the governing of their neighborhoods. In contrast, they decided, theirs would be a politics of inclusion and empowerment, a vehicle for change and neighborhood change. From the beginning, they saw unity and coalition building as foundational to their brand of politics. In García’s words,

We concluded that we would get involved in politics. However, that our politics were going to be about change, that they were going to be a vehicle for empowerment and enfranchisement, that we were going to work in coalition with other groups—in our situation it was mandatory because we did not have the numbers by ourselves given the immigrant status of many people in the community, that we would work in alliance through a multi-racial approach to our politics, that we would be progressive, that that would guide us in a direction that would prevent corruption, which would prevent the coopting of our community and would ensure that we were true to the interests and to the needs of our community.”[10]

Following this decision to enter the world of conventional electoral politics, activists associated with CASA founded the Independent Political Organization of the Near West Side in 1981, electing Juan Soliz president and Rudy Lozano vice president.[11] The members of CASA and the newly formed Near West Side IPO then went about selecting a candidate to run for office. Ultimately, the members of CASA and the Near West Side IPO, in collaboration with several other Pilsen community groups, selected Juan Soliz, a 32 year old New Mexico native and relative newcomer to Chicago from Seattle, who was the director of legal services for the Legal Assistance Foundation to be their candidate to for state representative of the 20th district.[12] As Hank de Zutter explained in a March 12, 1982 article in the Chicago Reader, “with community organizations and political activists displaying a unity that is rare these days, Pilsen and Little Village groups met last December and selected Soliz as their ‘Solidaridad’ candidate.”[13] The community organization Pilsen Neighbors Community Council (PNCC), in their newsletter El Sol de Pilsen, elaborated, explaining that, “…60 residents of Pilsen and Little Village got together for the purpose of seeking Latino representation in the 20th district. At a meeting held at Centro de la Causa on December 15, representatives of different community sectors agreed to support Juan M. Soliz as a candidate for State Representative…”[14] Soliz’s career as a lawyer, his relatively clean-cut image, and his growing reputation and status in the community, many felt, made him the most viable choice for a potential candidate.[15]

Thus, Soliz was chosen to be the candidate for state representative of the 20th district. Soliz’s opponent in the race was Marco Domico. Domico was backed by longtime 25th Ward Alderman Vito Marzullo, the “dean of the city council,” a machine politician with a formidable political organization behind him, an organization that threw its full political weight into the race against Soliz. Over the course of his campaign, Marzullo’s political machine organized several attacks against Soliz. First, the Marzullo organization launched an unsuccessful attack on the signatures on Soliz’s nominating petitions, in an attempt to have him removed from the ballot. When this failed, one of Marzullo’s precinct captains challenged Soliz’s eligibility to be on the ballot once again, this time alleging that Soliz failed to update his voter registration when he moved recently. This time, the Board of Elections upheld Marzullo’s challenge and removed Soliz’s name from the ballot.

Having had his name removed from the Democratic ballot, Soliz was thus forced to run as an independent. In order to qualify to run as an independent, Soliz would have to gather an additional 3,000 signatures. Furthermore, the Chicago Tribune explained, Soliz would “…have to raise money as an independent (always hard) and from Hispanic businessmen who are terrified of reprisals from the machine.”[16]

Ultimately, Soliz’s campaign was unable to defeat Marzullo’s formidable political machine. Although Soliz was defeated by Domico, he nevertheless made an impressive showing considering the immense obstacles his campaign faced, attaining 33% of the vote.[17] Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, the Soliz campaign was nevertheless a watershed moment in independent Latino political organizing in Chicago. For those involved, most of whom had been largely unfamiliar with the political process before this campaign, the Soliz campaign served as a political education, a trial-by-fire through which these former activists learned the ropes. As Jesus “Chuy” Garcia explained, “Even though we lost, we came away from that election experienced…We came out of this thing as veterans. We learned what a poll sheet was, what a precinct was…We learned about ward boundaries, gerrymandering…”[18]

 


Jesús "Chuy" García, Harold Washington, and César Chávez.

 

Following Soliz’s loss, the members of the Near West Side IPO soldiered on in their struggle to unseat the old-timer white ethnic machine politicians who controlled the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods and achieve independent, progressive Latino representation for their communities. A year after Soliz’s defeat in the race for 20th district state representative, in 1983, former CASA president and vice president of the Near West Side IPO Rudy Lozano ran for Alderman of the 22nd Ward (the 22nd Ward, as David K. Fremon explains in his book Chicago Politics Ward by Ward, corresponds almost precisely with the neighborhood of Little Village).[19] Lozano’s opponent in this race was Frank Stemberk, an old-school white-ethnic machine politician who would become part of the anti-Harold Washington block of the city council and who, it was rumored, did not actually live in the ward he represented as alderman, or even, for that matter in the city of Chicago, but in the western suburb of Riverside.[20] Ultimately, Lozano came 17 votes short of forcing a runoff election. Not long after the election, Lozano was murdered in his home, allegedly in an act of gang violence.[21] For many of Lozano’s friends and supporters, this explanation seemed unlikely and suspicious. Lozano’s friend and colleagues insisted that Lozano’s murder was not an act of gang violence, but a political assassination.[22] At the same time, in the 25th Ward, Juan Velazquez mounted an unsuccessful challenge to longtime Alderman Vito Marzullo.

Thus, like in Soliz’s earlier campaign for State Representative, in the 1983 aldermanic elections, despite impressive showings, Mexican and Mexican American independent progressives were once again defeated by the political machine, with Lozano and Velazquez losing to Frank Stemberk and Vito Marzullo in the 22nd and 25th Wards, respectively. Despite these shortcomings, however, the 1983 election was nevertheless a watershed moment for independent progressives, whether black or Latino, as the coalitions they had been working to build for several years helped elect Harold Washington mayor. Organizations like the Near West Side IPO, which endorsed Washington in 1982, and the 22nd and 25th Ward IPOs played a major role in building support for Washington among the Mexican populations of the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. As Teresa Cordova explains in “Harold Washington and the Rise of Latino Electoral Politics in Chicago, 1982-1987, “According to Board of Elections figures, in the primary on February 22, 1983, the Near West Side IPO pulled in 24 percent of the Twenty-Fifth Ward votes and 20 percent of the Twenty-Second Ward votes for Harold Washington.”[23] The members of the 22nd Ward similarly felt that their work had played a major role in Washington’s success. As a program from their first annual convention explained, “Mayor Washington carried the 22nd Ward mainly because of the dedicated work of the members of the IPO. The 22nd Ward has the lowest percentage of Black voters of any ward that Mayor Washington won. This shows that the IPO worked in all the neighborhoods in our ward.”[24]

Washington’s first term was characterized by what came to known as the “council wars.” A faction of twenty-nine alderman, led by “the Eddies”—Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke—united to block every action taken by Washington and his allies. In 1986, however, a court ordered redrawing of the city’s ward boundaries and resulting special elections would shift the balance of power in city hall greatly. The 1986 court ordered redistricting created several black and Latino “supermajority” wards, significantly aiding Latino activists in their struggle for political self-determination. Following this redistricting, Jesús “Chuy” García was elected alderman of the 22nd Ward with 55 percent of the vote. Frank Stemberk, the absentee alderman who had avoided a runoff election with Rudy Lozano by 17 votes three years earlier, declined to run for another term.[25]

Shortly after, not long into his second term in 1987, Mayor Harold Washington died of a heart attack at his desk. With Washington’s death, the black-Latino coalition which had been built over the past decade or so more or less fell apart. While the door had been opened for Latinos to serve on Chicago’s city council, the era of the independent progressive black-Latino challenge to the political machine was, for the most part, over.

In 1989, Richard M. Daley, son of legendary former mayor Richard J. Daley, who would go on to surpass his father’s tenure by serving as mayor for 22 years, was elected mayor. Following his election, Daley went about the task of reorganizing, rebuilding, and strengthening the political machine that the Harold Washington coalition had, for a brief moment, defeated and of gradually defeating and disassembling the multiracial independent progressive coalition that had been built over the last decade or so. To accomplish this, Daley created a political action committee, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, or HDO. Through patronage and the doling out of city jobs, services, and perks in exchange for political loyalty, the HDO supported Latino candidates who were loyal to the Daley machine and fought to unseat independent progressive Latinos, like García. A Chicago Tribune article published in 2008, shortly after the organization was shut down following a federal organization explained that, “HDO first rose to prominence in the 1990s, helping elect Daley-endorsed candidates for City Council, the Illinois General Assembly and Congress. Although City Hall had agreed to restrict patronage hiring for most city jobs, HDO leaders amassed a huge roster of campaign workers by promising jobs and promotions in the Daley administration.”[26] Another Tribune article, published just under a year later elaborated; discussing a fundraising letter from 1993 that was entered into evidence as part of a federal investigation of HDO, the authors of the article allege that, “The Hispanic Democratic Organization’s ‘main purpose’ was giving political support to Mayor Richard Daley… Even as Daley has lauded HDO for empowering Latinos, the letter suggests that the main beneficiary of the group’s creation was the mayor.”[27]

A major victory for the HDO and Daley machine and loss for independent progressive coalition politics came in 1998, when Jesús “Chuy” García was defeated in his bid for reelection to the Illinois Senate by HDO supported Antonio Muñoz. A 1998 article in the Chicago Reader discussed the significance of García’s defeat for both the independent progressive movement and for HDO and the Daley machine respectively. The authors of this article explain that, “For Daley and his Latino allies it was perhaps the biggest, sweetest victory since Daley’s first win.”[28] The authors quote García’s press secretary, Larry Gonzalez, who says that, “‘I’m sure they’re [members of the HDO and Daley machine] hailing the end of the independent progressive movement.’”[29] Garcia’s 1998 loss was a major defeat for the independent progressive movement and a major victory for the HDO, Daley, and the regular Democratic Party political machine. García’s 1998 defeat can perhaps be interpreted as symbolizing the final nail in the coffin for the black-Latino independent progressive coalition of the Harold Washington era.

Following García’s 1998 defeat, many gave him up for dead, all but writing him off. Others, however, felt that García’s loss in 1998 would prove to be merely a temporary setback. Alton Miller, former press secretary to and biographer of Harold Washington, told the Chicago Reader after García’s defeat in 1998, for example, that, “I really think that García is in the classic position of somebody who is down but not out…He’s in the classic comeback position. It’s almost a story made in heaven.”[30]

 


Jesús "Chuy" García. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

 

García’s comeback would indeed come, although not for more than fifteen years when, in 2015, Chicago Teachers’ Union President Karen Lewis, considered by many to be the most viable progressive challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, drafted García to run in her place following her diagnosis with a brain tumor. García went on to force Emanuel, despite his enormous fundraising and organizational advantage, into a runoff election, the first runoff election in Chicago history.

One of the major themes and factors of this election was race. With García receiving the support of the vast majority of the city’s Latinos and the majority of the city’s white residents supporting Emanuel, the outcome of the election, to a large extent, rested in the hands of the city’s African American residents. Thus, one of the primary questions of the 2015 mayoral election was whether Garcia could “get the band back together”—whether he could rebuild the Black-Latino coalition which had helped elect Harold Washington and had ushered in a new era of independent progressive politics in the city more than three decades earlier. Ultimately, García was unable to recreate the conditions that had led to victory in the early 1980s, losing the election to Emanuel, who attained 57% of the vote in the city’s predominantly black wards.[31]

Prior to the 1980s, Latinos in Chicago had virtually no political representation. The vast majority of Latinos in Chicago lived in neighborhoods that were represented by white ethnic machine politicians who were entirely unresponsive to the needs of their growing Latino constituents. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, inspired in part by the 1980 Census which revealed the significant and growing Latino population in the city, a group of community activists began to take action to try to correct their lack of political representation and empowerment. These activists decided to make the transition from community activism to more traditional and conventional political activity. Due to their still relatively small numbers, these Latino activists were unlikely to achieve their goals on their own; thus, to pursue their political goals, they built coalitions with like-minded African American activists and politicians. The height of black and Latino independent political empowerment came with the election of Harold Washington as mayor in 1983, and the special elections of 1986 which gave Washington a majority on the city council following three years of “council wars.” The era of black and Latino independent political empowerment was, however, short-lived, as following Washington’s death, Mayor Richard M. Daley, through his political action committee called the Hispanic Democratic Organization, all but ended the era of independent progressive Latino political power. Although there was a brief period in 2015 where it seemed that Jesús “Chuy” García might be able to rebuild the black-Latino coalition through his challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, this ultimately did not prove to be the case, dashing the hopes of many independent progressives both in Chicago and nationwide.

 

__________________________

[1] Maria de Los Angeles Torres, “In Search of Meaningful Voice and Place : the IPO and Latino Community Empowerment in Chicago,” in La Causa: Civil Rights Social justice, and the Struggle for Equality in the Midwest, ed. Gilberto Cardenas (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2004), 85; Teresa Cordova, “Harold Washington and the rise of Latino electoral politics in Chicago, 1982-1987,” in Chicano Politics and Society in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. David Montejano (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 42.

[2] Juan Mora-Torres, “Pilsen and Mexican Chicago,” El Beisman, December 30, 2013, accessed February 18, 2016, http://www.elbeisman.com/article.php?action=read&id=16, 2; 6.

[3] David K. Fremon, “Chicago’s Spanish-American Politics in the ‘80s,” Illinois Periodicals Online, January 18, 1990, accessed March 1, 2016, http://www.lib.niu.edu/1990/Ii900116.html.

[4] Hank de Zutter, “Put Down in Pilsen: Latinos get Reamed by Vito’s Machine,” March 12, 1982, Rudy Lozano Papers, UIC Special Collections, Chicago, IL.

[5] Torres, “In Search of Meaningful Voice and Place,” 89.

[6] CASA document, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 2, Folder 19, Richard J. Daley Special Collections, UIC.

[7] CASA document, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 2, Folder 19, Richard J. Daley Special Collections, UIC.

[8] Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, interviewed by John J. Betancur and Doug Gills, August 4, 1995, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 1, Series 3, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC.

[9] Jesus “Chuy” García, interviewed by John J. Betancur and Doug Gills, August 4, 1995, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 1, Series 3, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC.

[10] Jesús “Chuy” García, interviewed by John J. Betancur and Doug Gills, August 4, 1995, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 1, Series 3, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC.

[11] Torres, “In Search of Meaningful Voice and Place,” 87, 91.

[12] Jorge Caruso and Ben Joravsky, “Party of Juan,” Chicago Reader, April 23, 1987, accessed March 1, 2016, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/party-of-juan/Content?oid=870567.

[13] de Zutter, “Put Down in Pilsen.”

[14] Pilsen Neighbors, “Juan Soliz Announces Candidacy” El Sol de Pilsen Vol. 1, No. 4, Jan. 1982, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 1 Series 1, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC.

[15] Caruso and Joravsky, “Party of Juan.”

[16] Lyon, “‘Machine’ Chew up Soliz.”

[17] Torres, “In Search of Meaningful Voice and Place,” 91.

[18] Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, interviewed by John J. Betancur and Doug Gills, August 4, 1995, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 1, Series 3, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC.

[19] Jesús “Chuy” García, interviewed by John J. Betancur and Doug Gills, August 4, 1995, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 1, Series 3, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC; David K. Fremon, Chicago Politics Ward by Ward (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 146.

[20] “Locating Mr. Stemberk,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1985, accessed March 3, 2016, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune; Robert Davis, James Strong, and Ray Gibson, “Alderman’s Residency Investigated,” Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1985, accessed March 3, 2016, ProQuest Historical Newspaper: Chicago Tribune.

[21] “Lozano Slaying Linked to Street Gang Rivalry,” Chicago Tribune, Jul 7, 1983, accessed March 4, 2016, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune, A4.

[22] Manuel Galvan, “Friends Claim Politics behind Lozano Killing,” Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1983, accessed March 4, 2016, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune, B4.

[23] Cordova, “Latino Electoral Politics,” 40.

[24] 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization First Annual Convention Program, Rudy Lozano Papers, Box 8 Series 8, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, UIC.

[25] Fremon, Chicago Politics Ward by Ward, 151.

[26] Dan Mihalopoulos and Todd Lighty, “Once Powerful Hispanic Political Organization Gone: Patronage Army was Scandal-Marred,” Chicago Tribune, July 3, 2008, accessed March 8, 2016, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune.

[27] Jeff Coen and Dan Mihalapoulos, “HDO’s ‘Main’ Aim was to Back Daley,” Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2009, Accessed March 8, 2016, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune.

[28] Linda Lutton, “War on Independents,” Chicago Reader, September 3, 1998, accessed March 9, 2016, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/war-on-independents/Content?oid=897166.

[29] Lutton, “War on Independents.”

[30] Lutton, “War on Independents.”

[31] Natalie Moore, “Black Vote Proves Key in Chicago Mayoral Race,” WBEZ News. April 8, 2015, accessed March 29, 2016. https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-news/black-vote-proves-key-in-chicago-mayoral-race/89d5ec62-5c44-45d8-b7d8-82e25850631e.

 

Chas Sirridge is a senior at DePaul University. He is interested in urban planning, politics, history, and all things Chicago.

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