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Political Activists Celebrate Pilsen and Little Village Civil Rights History

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Image by micmol  via Flickr

Pilsen and Little Village residents gathered last month to hear a series of panel discussions “Oral Histories of Activism in Mexican Chicago,” which focused on political participation and civil rights within the Chicago neighborhoods.

Maria Eugenia De La Torre, Northeastern Illinois University assistant professor, directed the 3-part forum held at Casa Aztlán in Pilsen on April 22.

The goal of these forums was to document the history of the community, and most importantly, to inform the younger generation said De La Torre.

The panel consisted of accomplished neighborhood leaders Juan Andres Mora, Jesus Garcia and Virginia Martinez.

“Carlos Arango, executive director of Casa Aztlán, and I decided to organize these events in order to document the history of the Mexican community of Pilsen and Little Village,” said De La Torre.

“Also, to share this history with the general public, especially with the new generations.”

Virginia Martinez grew up on Chicago’s West Side. She earned her law degree and became one of the first two Latinas in the area to practice law in Illinois.

Her involvement with the community of Pilsen started when she worked as a part-time legal secretary. As a legal secretary, Martinez witnessed the mistreatment Mexican families received after buying houses without contracts, she said.

Families would lose their houses because they failed to pay them, and without a contract they would lose them, said Martinez.

“The way our community was treated is what made me go to law school,” she said.

Her first success came when the people in the community challenged the division of wards, Martinez said. The community was split in a way that no Latino alderman could ever get enough votes to win, Martinez said.

“We sued them, and we won,” said Martinez.

Jesus Garcia served as a State Senator in 1992 and was the first Mexican-American elected to do so. In 2009 he also ran for Cook County Commissioner for the 7th District and won.

Garcia grew up in Pilsen and Little Village, and his parents sent him to a Catholic high school.

“Even in a Catholic high school it became pretty apparent pretty quickly that there were problems relating to race and ethnicity,” said Garcia.

During his sophomore year in high school, Garcia and a few others tried to organize a new Latino club in the school, but the school called them racist for it.  That discouragement from the school marked Garcia’s first involvement as an activist, he said.

“The people in the Mexican community in particular are having difficulty finding relevance in politics for good reason,” said Garcia.

Juan Andres Mora writes for several media outlets in the region and is working on a collection of biographies of the leaders of diverse Mexican social movements in the Midwest, said De La Torre.

“It is frequently said that politics is something dirty and complicated. The problem is that politics surrounds us. It is part of our lives and we can’t escape it,” said Mora.

“Your idea may be accepted or not, but if it is accepted by larger and larger sectors and groups in the society, then it may become a movement, and finally you may make a change.”

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