Almost three weeks ago, a group of mostly single, working Latina moms decided to hold a sit-in to protest the demolition of the field house next to John Greenleaf Whittier Dual Language Elementary School in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. The group of around ten—give or take kids, neighbors and supporters—is demanding Chicago City Council and the Chicago Public Schools system answer for over a million dollars in misspent public funds.
I was among the first to cover the occupation here on Revision Street: America, and spent a week on the group’s story. And today, the Chicago Public Schools has finally responded, by turning off the gas—the heat and hot water—just as the weather turned cold. Instead of answering their questions about the completed renovations to Whittier Elementary, responding to their requests for a meeting, or building them a library.
In the meantime, the moms, in conjunction with the Chicago Underground Library and other groups around the country—and, thanks in part to this blog, the world—have started their own library. And begun renovating the field house on their own.
Lisa Angonese, a tall and stately woman with two kids, has been on the scene since the occupation began, on Wednesday, September 15th. This interview was conducted on the first Saturday of the occupation, but nothing she says below has changed—except now there is no heat in the building.
This is the field house, which they call La Casita. I’ve been here since, hmm . . . boy. I first went to the protest at the Benito Juarez High School. I believe that was Thursday. No, Wednesday. And we’re not going to move until we get this building utilized for the children.
What we want is a new library for the children. Because this school, Whittier, it’s my children’s first year here at John Greenleaf Whittier School. They’re in 6th and 7th grade, and it being their first year, I was unaware that there was no library.
I saw in the supply list that it was a prerequisite for the children have a Chicago Public Library card, and I never saw that on a supply list before. I asked my children, By the way, do you children have a library?
This was after I had spoken to Gema [Gaete] about the field house here, and that they wanted to turn it into a library. My children said, No, there is no library. I was very shocked to find that out, because the other school that my children came from had a library. They were always bringing books home to do their homework, in their book bags, books from Chase. They used to go to Chase School in Humboldt Park, and this is our first year here at Whittier. I didn’t think there was no library. I thought, What? A school without a library?
This is what really caused a lot of the parents to band together, not only because there’s too many buildings here in the Pilsen area that are being demolished. One example is the police station which is right behind here, at Damen and 23rd. It’s an abandoned building now, which is free reign for the rats, or whatever, roaming around there, and even more for vagrants or whatever to go sit in there. All that does is attract crime.
What we ask is that the building will be opened to be part of our expansion for Whittier, ‘cause one day soon there’ll be more children attending this school, which is a small inner-city school, and they’re gonna need to utilize that building. So as part of the expansion we thought it only sensible that this building would be a library.
We have some books here as you can see. The books have been donated from various other organizations. And little by little we are just hoping that there will be more books donated, brought in, that we can fill this building with books, have speakers here, workshops, tutorial help from the parents or professional tutors, perhaps from the University of Illinois—people that’ll volunteer their time to help with the kids here, because all we want to do is improve this community.
This whole idea with this field house is a great example of community involvement: we have people here young, old, senior citizens; we have babies here, toddlers, and we have everybody from the whole spectrum just rallying together to make sure that this field house does not get demolished.
Are you comfortable here in the field house?
We have hot and cold running water here, and we have food coming in, and we just have everything that we need here until we make our statement, and make our point. This is to Mr. Ron Huberman, that he not demolish this field house.
What has he done for Whittier School? This is an inner-city school—the social worker here the first night brought up to me, I believe he was from Pilsen Alliance, the word “discrimination.” And I thought about it. This is a Hispanic neighborhood, and we’re not going to settle for less here. All of these neighbors, children of a Hispanic heritage, do they think that they’re used to growing up in poverty? That we have to live in a situation where the children are going to have a soccer field here, which they had planned to be used by Cristo Rey? That the soccer field would be Christo Rey’s soccer field, on Whittier’s property? We just had the playground built over here, outside of the field house. It really does tie together. The playground was just put up, and now the field house could be a library, and it could all fit in. The pieces of the puzzle could all fit in to make this a really great proposal.