Humboldt Park, Gentrification & José López

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Photo: Elías Carmona

Photo: Elías Carmona

By: Vanesa Baerga

“…al Norte revuelto y brutal que los desprecia…” – José Martí, letter to Manuel Mercado

“Why should we cherish “objectivity”, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles.” – Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology

The November 2014 edition of Chicago Magazine, a monthly magazine published by the Tribune Publishing Compnay, the second largest magazine publisher in the United States, dedicated its cover article to Chicago’s Puerto Rican community and the issue of gentrification. The article, “José López’s Last Stand,” written by the magazine’s culture editor Elly Fishman, while well written and documented, is strongly ideological, following stereotypes that are perpetuated in the United States about Puerto Rican communities, and shows a visible lack of understanding of the Puerto Rico as a colony of the United States.

In the first sentence, for example, she starts her reporting noting that members of the Puerto Rican Agenda, a not-for-profit organization formed by several community leaders, are like the community’s “War Council.” She adds that among the members at the meeting of the Puerto Rican Agenda are “… shop owners, real estate developers, professors, and plenty of rabble-rousers.”

What’s more, Fishman concludes that in a meeting among Puerto Ricans, talking about revolution, colonialism and the American Dream is equivalent to “charged verbiage.” The author also emphasizes the Nationalist poems that José López heard as a child and presents as problematic that those very poems were the pedagogical equivalent López used in his Latin American history classes. It’s worth noting that nationalism is usually interpreted as ultra-right wing and offensive in the United States and the rest of the world (except in Puerto Rico, Palestine and other places without sovereignty, where nationalism is defensive). That isn’t explained in the article.

José López, brother of Oscar López Rivera, is one of the most influential community leaders in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, known for its social activism for social justice and the social inclusion of Puerto Ricans in that northamerican city, historically racially segregated, a division which still intensely persists in the dynamic of that society. López is the director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, where many initiatives on education and health focused on the needs of the Puerto Rican population, historically marginalized in that city, have emerged. He also teaches classes in history and Latin American studies and Latinos in several universities in Chicago. Illinois congressman Luis Gutiérrez is one of his former students. López has spent his life in that community, struggling for the rights of Puerto Ricans in the United States and in Puerto Rico.

Chicago’s historic Puerto Rican community is in Humboldt Park, relatively close to downtown, where, in the mid to late 20th century, people didn’t want to live, opting for the suburbs; but the resurgence of city life has started to rob those residents of their sense of community, from which they have been consistently displaced to the western part of the city.

Fishman does a good job giving voice and including in this article several people with different connections to the Puerto Rican community and with different perspectives. Among those she interviewed are University of Chicago sociologist Richard Taub; popular Chicago restaurant owner Brendan Sodikoff; the young Puerto Rican Chicago resident Julio Urrutia; and Ralph Cintrón, professor of English and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, who is also a member of the Puerto Rican Agenda.

In the article, she interviews several people about gentrification in Humboldt Park, and how they try to fight it from a community perspective, but she doesn’t understand the complexity of the Puerto Rican situation, and she leaves out the support group that works on community initiatives when she says, “gentrification is coming whether López likes it or not.”

It’s not just López; there is a group of people who make community every day in those three square miles, such as the people who work in Pedro Albizu Campos High School, Café Colao, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the Puerto Rican restaurants that for decades have shown Chicagoans how to eat jibaritos, the cultural workers. It’s not just José López, but a group of people who were able to channel their Puerto Ricanness and otherness in that city, from the initiatives they found there.

Translated from the Spanish by Jan Susler, J.D., with edits.


Vanesa Baerga is a Spanish-language editor and a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Chicago. She was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago in 2010. She has worked for the weekly newspaper Claridad and for Prensa Comunitaria and have contributed to several media outlets in Puerto Rico and Chicago, including alterNativo, El Beisman, and La Voz del Paseo Boricua. She’s also taught the college-level course “Translation for Media” at the Puerto Rico Metropolitan University, Communications Department (SUAGM). Recently she started exploring audio production through VOCALO Radio Storytelling Workshops. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their cat Vito C. 

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