Revision Street: Voices from the Whittier Elementary Field House -- Araceli Gonzalez (II)

September 20, 2010

Ms. Gonzalez has been sleeping at the Whittier Elementary School field house since Thursday night—a cheerily painted location, to be sure, but not an ideal housing situation for the 46-year-old banker and single mother. But she’s been fighting to host a library in the building for seven years, and she feels ignored by the Chicago Public Schools, who instead slated the building for demolition, to make way for a new sports field. For a neighboring school.

Although CPS knew the building had been in active use for those seven years, they claimed it was structurally unsound. So the Pilsen Alliance, an organization devoted to ensuring residents in the neighborhood a voice in local development, had it inspected, by engineering firm Ingenii in Oak Park. Their findings? That the roof needs work, but that “the structure is in good condition and suitable for continued use.”

As we talk, in the brightly painted room that might be in better condition than some of the newly renovated rooms at Whittier Elementary itself, young people come in to ask Araceli questions, say hi. Other moms wave. The atmosphere is congenial. Fun, actually. And deeply caring.

There’s so much unity here. I talk to people that I’ve never seen in my life. They talk to me like they’ve known me forever in my life. They bring food, they bring water. They ask you, You OK? You need anything? Go to sleep. We got it, we’ll take care of it outside. You need to go to work.


Sign on Whittier Elementary field house

It’s a very unforgettable thing, and I hope God allows me to stay alive for a long time so I can tell my grandson, when he’s older, what his grandma did. So he can be proud of being Hispanic. There’s nothing wrong with being Hispanic, and I’m proud to be a Mexican. And we’re gonna get what we need. If I need to get arrested, I’m going all the way. I will get arrested.

How long do you think it will take to you make your point?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know, but we will be here.

Is there anything you need right now?

The support they’ve given us. Exactly what they’re doing. They’re showing up. That’s all. I mean, you don’t have to bring anything—don’t bring anything. Your support, that’s all. We’re more than grateful for what people are bringing us. If you can, fine, if you can’t—your support. That’s all we need. Support.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

No, no.

Would you do it again?

Yes. I’ve met people here. They’re from different places, different schools. I just spoke to some moms, honestly I don’t know where they’re coming from, and they’re saying—they’re actually telling me, Thank you, for doing what we’re doing.

What do you want people to know about what you’re doing here?

We want peace. Don’t treat us like this. We are peaceful people. We’re not harmful. We are people with kids. We’re regular people, low-income people, but we have peace in our lives and we are peaceful. Please, don’t believe everything—I don’t know what’s out there, what they’re saying. Come and see who we are. Come and meet us. So you see what is true and what is not true. Stay here. Meet my son. My fourteen-year-old is here. He’s my protector. He’s my only man.

My friend has my daughter, ‘cause she got really nervous, so she decided to take her today.

Was she scared after being shoved by the CPS security guard on Thursday? Were you scared, for her?

Of being pushed again? Well, I told her the next day, When you get out of school, go with Gema and Rosa, you know, either one of them.

She told me, Don’t worry Mami, go to work. Don’t worry about me, ‘cause I’m not scared anymore.

So I guess he also gave my daughter courage, by pushing her. So she got courage. She goes, I’m not afraid anymore. She’s not afraid, then I shouldn’t be afraid. And I mean it.