Chicago is a union city…

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It is a city where race matters. It is a city where everything boils down to politics. Rudy Lozano was a young, Mexican American activist who represents the essence of Chicago. As a high school student, and later in college, he organized students to demand more classes that specifically focused on Mexican history. He also advocated for more Latino representation on the faculty. His activism spanned beyond high school and college as he took up leadership roles in unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I think it is pretty much impossible to underestimate the role unions played (and still play) in Chicago. Known as “The city of the big shoulders” (see Sandburg’s 1914 poem “Chicago”), Chicago was always a blue-collar, working class city. It was a city of the people, and the unions were often the only protection the common folk had from wealthy businesspeople and politicians. Therefore, Lozano truly was “un hijo del pueblo.” He fought for representation. He fought for workers’ rights. In 1983 he even campaigned to be the alderman of the 22nd ward and would have been the first Mexican American councilman, but he was defeated. A few years later, his campaign manager, Jesús Garcia (yes, Chuy!), IMG_1108became the alderman of the same ward, launching Garcia’s political career in the city. During his campaign, Lozano also played an important role in uniting Latino support for Harold Washington’s campaign to be the first African American mayor. After Washington’s election, Lozano was a top aide until his murder on June 8th, 1983. He had been killed in his home as an alleged retaliation for his political and union activism (read more about his death here and here). It is so fitting that in the heart of Pilsen, in 1983, this library was built and now commemorates Lozano’s work.  Activism seeps from the bricks of Pilsen.

IMG_1104I lived in Pilsen for a couple of years and worked in a couple of schools in the neighborhood before that.  Pilsen has taught me more than almost any other place in Chicago, and I still find any excuse to go there. The neighborhood was originally German and Irish and later Czech and Polish, which can clearly be seen from some of the Catholic parishes like St. Paul (German), St. Procopius and Providence (Czech), St. Pius V (Irish), St. Ann (Polish), and recently closed St. Adalbert (Polish). The name, Pilsen, came from a city in what is now the Czech Republic. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican immigrants settled in Pilsen and the neighborhood became an entry point for Mexican settlers in Chicago. Many of the new residents came from Michoacán and the area developed a distinctly Ranchero culture (see Rancheros in Chicagoacán for an excellent history and analysis). Today, the neighborhood is experiencing rapid gentrification, though Mexican-American activists are fighting to retain the neighborhoods identity and access for residents. Pilsen has become the poster of gentrification in Chicago.

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The library is one of the most community-engaged branchesIMG_1097 I have been to so far. It is wide and open and clean. The big windows along the street allow much natural light to brighten up the area. It has a sala encantada where there always seems to be children and parents listening to stories as well as a homework room, which was not in use while I was there but had evidence of the Pythagorean Theorem faintly showing on the whiteboard. There is a large selection of Spanish books and much of the art reflects Mexican culture. There are also tons of children’s books! By 11am, when I finally arrived, the tables ere mostly full. Computers were being used. People were walking through the book stacks. Librarians were rushing about to help people. It was by far the most diversely used library I have seen since I started my observations. A guy sat at the table next to me reading Hoy, the daily Spanish newspaper. Another guy came up to talk and the first guy recounted the huaycos in Peru in an article entitled ‘Carcel’ de IMG_1111lodo en Peru (huayco is a Quechua word for landslide). His shocked tone indicated a form of disbelief that the situation was as bad as described in the paper. Later these guys left and another guy sat down. The new guy had just left the hospital after a brief stay and wheeled in his “E” size oxygen tank for his COPD.  He brought an entire pharmacy with him, laid out all of the drugs on the table, and set up his nebulizer. Another guy was at the computer looking for a CDL test book. He must have asked the librarian 50 questions in the first half hour I was there, but she was so patient. He finally got everything printed.

I have to say, the Lozano Branch is Chicago at it’s finest. It honors the common people, celebrates the culture and language of its patrons, and recognizes the fight for equality and justice that must continue.

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