Ear to the Ground: Michael Reyes | WBEZ
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Chicago Matters

Ear to the Ground: Michael Reyes

Chicago's Mexican community has been on the forefront of immigration reform, but what about the second largest Latino population in Chicago? Although U.S. citizens by birth, some Puerto Ricans have been adding their voice to the local pro-immigrant movement. Michael Reyes, a Mexican-American who works with Puerto Rican youth, explains how this alliance was forged over history and what challenges lie ahead.

DEVIOUS: Hey, what's up. I'm Devious from the Batay Urbano and I'm here on Division Street, 2620. My poem has a lot to do with the struggle of undocumented people and Puerto Rican people united. 

Reading his poem “March of Resistance.” 

DEVIOUS: Being Puerto Rican and young I feel I have a great responsibility to challenge myself.

Devious was one of my first poetry students while I was teaching at Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican high school. He believes like I do that both the Mexican and the Puerto Rican communities has to work together.

Often outsiders might think that because we all speak Spanish the Latino community in Chicago is all the same. But that's just not the case. We have our differences over food, music, dance styles and even linguistic pronunciation. But when it comes to serious stuff, like human rights and now the rights of immigrants, we share a common lived experience that can't be ignored. 

LOPEZ: I think that in order for us to have a really good idea of the Mexican and Puerto Rican solidarity in this city, we have to obviously look at the migration patterns. Puerto Ricans begin to migrate to Chicago in the mid-1940s and onward.

That's Jose Lopez, or J-Lo as he's known by the youth in the community.

ambi: cafe 

I met up with him at the Café Colao in the community of Humbolt Park, also known as Paseo Boricua, in the midst of customers, café con leches and rich conversation. J-Lo is executive director of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He's a charismatic community activist and a professor teaching at various universities throughout Chicago. 

LOPEZ: I remember very early my first taco was really on Halsted street in a Mexican restaurant so you have these pockets of Puerto Rican population living along side Mexicans from very early here in terms of the city.

J-Lo says during the 1940s and ‘50s, Puerto Ricans came to Chicago and started settling in Mexican neighborhoods. It was there that they found safety. And it went the other way too. Later, Mexicans started moving into Humbolt Park which by then was mostly Puerto Rican. He says they did this for protection. 

LOPEZ: There were a lot of small factories in these areas that's why Puerto rican's settled in these areas. And in these factories where there were Mexicans and Puerto Ricans working. Puerto Ricans, when the immigration services came they would would open the back door and let the Mexicans out and they couldn't stop the Puerto Ricans. We helped the Mexicans leave.

Everyone where I live, Paseo Boricua, knows that J-Lo's brother is political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. He's a figurehead of resistance for the community because he's a Puerto Rican independence fighter. They captured him in Evanston, Illinois, in 1981 and he's been in prison ever since, charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.

In the '70s Oscar met Rudy Lozano who was also into Latino rights. Emma Lozano, Rudy's sister, says the University of Illinois was the hot bed of Latino politics then. A place where Puerto Rican and Mexican students began to come together.

LOZANO: They realized how shut out Latinos were, I think, in general and how much Mexicanos and Puerto Rican youth had in common.

But this solidarity isn't just left for the history books, it's intergenerational

ambi: Devious reads poem, hip-hop music

This next track is from two youth I worked with at Batey Urbano. They really wanted to use hip hop as a way to express our community vision.

I'm a Chicano and I have been active in both the Puerto Rican and Mexican community for the last eight years as and activist and artist. Where I really saw the two communities come together was when Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican mother, decided to take sanctuary in a church located in the Puerto Rican Community of Humboldt Park.

ambi: protest outside of church

During Elvira's stay the Puerto Rican youth of Batey Urbano stood guard 24 hours a day for two weeks with a Puerto Rican Flag. Many on guard were youth I work with very closely and here's why they got involved. 

GIRL: I could remember some Puerto Ricans coming up to me and asking me why am I there? Why are we supporting Mexicans when we are U.S. citizens, why is it any of our business? And a lot of people have internalized this racism. It's almost as if they wholeheartedly believe that we benefit from being U.S. citizens. When in fact, we don't.

MAN: So holding that flag was in a sense an obligation that was like saying like you know I'm Puerto Rican and that's my identity and with that comes this history of oppression and with that comes this idea and this reality of solidarity with other oppressed people.

The Mexican and Chicano youth knew the Puerto Ricans were behind them. Jolene Lozano and Jesus Carlin are from the Mexican youth organization Zocal Urbano.

LOZANO: Well they responded very strongly, just from going to marches and coming with us to D.C. to rally for Elvira Arellano. They've been there. Whenever we need them they come out.

CARLIN: As far as like the future like I see a continuance of resistance of not allowing to be trampled, not allowing to be ignored, not allowing to be shut up.

As an activist, artist, and community organizer we must give order to what is given to us in chaos. In the future I see us joining forces to work on local issues that affect both our communities, such as gentrification, education and health care.

But also something global and much more profound. I dream that our work will challenge the idea of what it means to be an American, a Latin American. Whether our dream manifests itself as a citizenship of the Americas or Pan Latino identity.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Michael Reyes.

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