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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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The standard narrative for immigrant groups knitting themselves into Chicago political fabric is a narrative of exclusion. Initially viewed with suspicion by native-born white groups, newer immigrant groups prove their worth largely by drawing strong contrasts between themselves and the one group everyone can agree to exclude — African-Americas. Eastern and Southern European immigrants, under suspicion of being somehow less than ideally white, proved their whiteness by adopting the same exclusionary attitudes towards African-Americans as earlier arrivals. It is interesting how much of the coverage of the debate over immigration reform in the Chicago media danced around this narrative, especially in gauging African-American attitudes towards the various proposals. Behind hand-wringing about competition for decent low skill jobs was the implicit question: "Why should we as African-Americans trust Mexican and other Latino immigrants?" The essential question for many African-American leaders is whether Mexican and other Latinos will be "as brown as we are black" or seek to prove their whiteness by working to continue the marginalization of African-Americans in Chicago.

African-American leaders have good reason for pessimism. The most visible Latino organization in the city of Chicago is the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), a machine organization that seeks to maximize patronage for its members while playing the game of who's in/who's out. Nevertheless, there is some reason for hope. Despite the media focus on the Hired Truck scandals and black-brown political and social tension, there exists a new generation of activists and politicians working to carry on the legacy of Rudy Lozano and other progressive Mexican leaders. This group of young, educated, mostly second- and third-generation sons and daughters of Chicago's Mexican neighborhoods have quietly built an independent political organization capable of defeating the HDO and maybe, just maybe, revitalizing the black/brown/white liberal coalition that brought Chicago its one shining moment of progressive, non-machine politics.

The Southwest Democratic Organization was nominally born out of Eddie Garza's attempt to unseat HDO-allied State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-12). In a deeper sense, Garza's campaign represents the culmination of years of mentoring and organizing. The death of Lozano in 1983, combined with the fall of the Washington coalition after his death, put progressive Mexican politics on pause. The defeat of Jesus Garcia to an HDO candidate in a state senate election in 1998 forced Garcia and others to focus on grassroots organizing and community development. The key event in the political maturation of hundreds of young Mexican-Americans was the Mother's Day Hunger Strike in 2001 for a new high school in Little Village. For days, young leaders who kept vigil at the 31st and Kostner site had their political consciousness formed by stories of Cesar Chavez and Rudy Lozano. The formative event in the ideological development of these leaders was a grassroots uprising against City Hall and its HDO allies.

Contrast that with the defining political and social events for the HDO. HDO formed to assist Richard "Buy Them Off Early and Often" Daley's first re-election and rose to prominence in 1993 with its official founding. HDO effectively unseated a number of independent Latino politicians, including Garcia. The HDO drew its initial leadership from the old Mexican-American neighborhoods of the Southeast Side, neighborhoods that were reeling from the shock of steel plant closings and demographic change (read African-Americans moving to the neighborhood). While the progressive Mexican-American leadership of the Southwest Democrats grew out of a democratic struggle that explicitly attempted to include African-American residents of North Lawndale, HDO's birth created a stereotypical, defend-the-gates, "white-ethnic" machine organization. The HDO exists because of and draws its marching orders from an administration that thrives on divisive race-baiting.

With Luis Gutierrez delaying a watershed open race for Congress, the race in the 12th Senate District becomes the epicenter of a political struggle between those independents and progressives among the Mexican-American community who would share a common with for African-Americans and other marginalized groups across Chicago and those leaders whose sole concern is winning elections, dealing out patronage and pork, and becoming acceptable to the downtown power establishment. It is no accident that in the last election Martin Sandoval trotted out a number of mothers who claimed that they had been at the hunger strike but could not send their children to the shiny new school because CPS had drawn the district to include African-American students from North Lawndale. Despite questions over the authenticity of the women's testimony, Sandoval's trick attempted to cast doubt on the crowning achievement of independent politics in the Mexican community. It effectively raised the specter of race and division. It also effectively appealed to people's innate desire to exclude and cast out the other.

It was not, however, effective as a political strategy, at least not in Chicago. Despite strong HDO presence, Garza lost the Chicago precincts by only 82 votes, although he was soundly defeated in Cicero. The success of Garza's ground operation in Chicago, largely made up of the aforementioned young, progressive activists, spurred the formation of Southwest Democrats. While these activists have spent the period before this February's primary election consolidating their political base in Chicago and retooling efforts in Cicero, Sandoval, true to HDO form, has showered pork largesse on Cicero while adopting a strange wait-and-see approach to pressing issues for Chicago's Mexican-American community.

In many ways, the 12th District senate campaign is a writer's dream. An older HDO candidate is relying on patronage and pork to consolidate his support among more conservative suburban voters while a young, 31-year-old political child of the Little Village hunger strike is relying on an organization of equally young, progressive leaders who talk the talk of independence and an end to the divisive politics of patronage and pork. It is irony of the tastiest sort that one of the Southwest Democrat's main leaders is Rudy Lozano's son, Rudy Jr.

In a desultory year for Illinois politics, the battle between Eddie Garza and the Southwest Democrats on one side and Martin Sandoval and the HDO on the other is one that offers a glimmer of hope for more constructive politics in Chicago and Springfield. Even if Garza and the Southwest Democrats never spoke of unity and multi-racial politics, the contrast with Sandoval and the HDO's subtle and not-so-subtle plays to racist fears allows for real coalition building with African-American leaders throughout Chicago. The rise of an independent Latino political organization like the Southwest Democrats, nurtured by democratic political struggle, led by leaders like Garza, is one reason for hope in Chicago.

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mike / October 4, 2007 12:38 PM

A clear account of the divisive HDO and the emerging Southwest Democrats.
It's especially important to note as Latino groups gain ground in socio-political spheres, and as whites become aware of the fact that all Latinos are not from the same country and that Latinos and African-Americans are often forced to vie for the same resources.


About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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