You would not be likely to pick Evelin Santos out of a crowd: she’d be in the back, in the shadows of the room, her long curly hair tied out of her eyes, quietly scanning the crowd to make sure everyone’s needs get met. Reasonable fleece in a mild color atop a modest shirt and conservative slacks. Nothing flashy.
In truth, it is people like Evelin Santos you want to learn to see: the collectors, the assistants, the facilitators; the women who don’t want their names plastered on everything, or a megaphone, or attention. Such people understand that real power lies not in visibility. They know that real power lies in the act of listening.
The young Ms. Santos is on the support team at Whittier Bilingual Elementary School.
I’m a community member, and I’m here helping the moms. I’ve been helping them for a while. I’m a DePaul student, and I’ve been helping them out. I’m a volunteer. I’m helping them organize and giving them the support that they need. I study psychology right now, so when it gets hard, I’m here picking them up and telling them, It’s OK. Don’t cry. We’re doing a good thing. We’re doing it for your children.
They understand that, but the police intimidate them all the time.
Can you tell me about when the police came on Friday?
The police came and they said that we were going to get arrested, and we understand that some of our moms, they have their children. They can’t be arrested. We told them, You don’t have to get arrested. You guys could walk out now.
But some of the moms, they also—they don’t have documentation, and we understand that. There were a couple of moms that said, I’m not leaving no matter what.
We had around four moms who said, I’m not leaving. And they stayed. Some moms had to go because of their children. The police were saying, If you don’t pick up your children, we’re going to arrest you for abandonment.
So we said, If you don’t have nobody to pick up your children, it’s OK for you to go. You are fighting; you have been here. They have a valid reason to leave. We have community members and volunteers that are willing to get arrested for this cause.
About how many parents left then, because of police intimidation?
It was maybe five or six of them. That’s when the community members and the parents broke through the tape [the police had put up around the building]. The police officers were guarding the whole block. There were maybe twenty or thirty police officers outside. They even had an ambulance and one of those big paddy wagon trucks out there.
I look around the clean mint-green room with violet trim stacked high with the well-organized sleeping quarters of between six and 12 families. Young people come in and watch us talking to each other for awhile, and then wander off to play in the playground outside. Most of them are shy girls—bookish. Of course. It’s their parents who feel their kids need a library.
One or two louder, older boys walk by, jacked up on—what could they have eaten too much of? There’s mostly fresh fruit on the food-and-drink table when I’m in the common area, so perhaps they’ve eaten too much papaya. Maybe they’re rowdy enough to start a game of tag—outside, of course, because they respect the cause their parents are here to support. They are the closest thing I can see to the threat of violence on this cool Saturday afternoon. So I ask Evelin, What was the ambulance for?
That’s what we said, that’s what we said.
There weren’t any arrests because that’s when all the children came out of school, and the parents came out, the community members were coming to bring us food and support us. They were out there waiting for a long time because police would not let them come through the block. So once the children came out of school, the parents said, We’re going in no matter what.
They broke through the tape, and that’s when the police left. They just left. I believe they were trying to scare people. They were trying to scare people, and they were trying to use their children in a scare tactic. It didn’t work. We got all the people back, and the moms are still here. They’ve been here since Wednesday morning, and now that it’s the weekend and more and more moms are coming with their children, they’re not scared. They’re not gonna move and they’re not gonna leave.
We want to fix up the outside. Inside, all this work that’s been done inside with the paint, this was work from the parents.
Just since Wednesday?
No, this was before. It looks really nice in here. Right now we have our stuff around so it looks kind of messy, but we hold classes here. We have ESL classes, GED classes, as well as sewing classes. This cabinet right here holds all our sewing machines. We teach our moms how to sew and how to make dresses and purses and everything. It’s something good for them to profit off of.
So how long has this building been in regular use?
We have a mom in here that’s been here for more than 50 years. She came to this school, her children came to this school, her grandkids are going to this school. She tells a really good story. She was here, and when she was a young girl, they used this for after school activities as well. They had sports in here, and during Thanksgiving they had a big feast in here. We, as well, do our Mother’s Day in here, and we have a Mother’s Day dinner.
Our gym doesn’t hold enough people, so the moms go see the performance by the kids in there, and they come over here and they have their dinner. One of our moms is in a wheelchair, and she can’t go up the building to see her child perform. So the teacher brought the whole class in here to perform for her on Mother’s Day.
If they take this space from us, where are we gonna—how are we gonna do that? They gave us a ramp for her, for the mom to go in the first floor [of the school building]—but how’s she gonna get all the way up stairs if we don’t have an elevator? How’s she going to get to see her daughter? They don’t think about that.