Whittier Elementary School is a lot like other public schools in low-income areas of Chicago. Located in the Mexican immigrant neighborhood of Pilsen, it lacks many basic resources that parents and students in wealthier districts take for granted: buildings that aren’t crumbling, cafeterias rather than hallways where students can eat lunch, a library.
In other ways, Whittier stands apart from other schools in the city. Students’ parents—many of whom are undocumented—just completed a 43-day occupation of a fieldhouse on school grounds, facing down police and threats of deportation to demand that the Chicago Public Schools reverse an order for the building’s demolition and provide their children with a library. And they won.
Protecting La Casita
Whittier parents have long been engaged in their children's educations. For seven years, a group made up mostly of students’ mothers has been organizing community meetings, talking with other parents, and pressuring local politicians to give more funding and attention to the things they say their school lacks. Their hub is a small fieldhouse they call “La Casita,” the little house, on school grounds near a parking lot.
Last year the parents achieved a breakthrough when alderman Danny Solis approved $1.4 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds for the school. Whittier was still in need of major repairs, and still lacked a library, but the mothers thought they had scored a victory.
But in November 2009, as they examined an itemized budget of the TIF money they thought would improve their children’s education, they noticed that CPS had made a peculiar allotment of $356,000—to demolish La Casita and create a soccer field that would be shared with a nearby private school. The money for which the parents had fought was now being used to destroy their community center.
CPS administration claimed the building was dilapidated, too damaged to feasibly be repaired. But the parents disagreed, claiming that the money for demolition of La Casita was far more than it would take to fix it. Despite the parents’ complaints, administration officials would not budge. (Later, the parents were dismayed to learn that CPS had planned to demolish the building prior to conducting an assessment. They hired an independent assessor who said the building was fundamentally sound, in need mostly of work on the roof.)
Stymied by official channels, the parents decided there was only one way to prevent the razing of their community center: refuse to leave it.
One of those parents is Anastacia Hernandez, She is a mother of three—two Whittier alums and one current Whittier fourth grader—who has lived in the neighborhood for more than two decades. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, and has never lived anywhere other than Pilsen.
She became involved with other mothers at the school after a neighborhood activist invited her to a meeting; a few years later, she was sitting in the field house, refusing to leave unless CPS officials called off the demolition and built a library.
On September 16, Anastacia, and about ten other parents entered La Casita in defiance of CPS’s condemnation order. They said they wouldn’t leave until citywide administrators agreed to rescind the order and build them a library.
Word traveled quickly around the city—both to supportive activists in Pilsen and beyond, and to the Chicago Police Department.
“I’ll never forget when I looked out the window and we were surrounded by police,” Anastacia told me, in Spanish. “I felt like I was in a war.”
For hours, there was a tense standoff between the parents inside La Casita and the police outside. When the CPD announced that immigration authorities would be called and everyone would be arrested, half the parents occupying the building left, fearing deportation or jeopardizing their tenuous immigration status. Anastacia stayed. In the midst of the chaos, she says she paused, considering what was happening.
“I asked myself why we had to suffer so much, simply because we want a library for our children,” she recalled. She began praying.
The large crowd of supporters gathered outside realized that the numbers were on their side—and that the police would likely be hesitant to drag a group of mothers out of their community center and arrest them in front of news cameras—and began jumping the fence, rushing past the police line to join the protesters in La Casita. With no other choices, the police left.
So began a 43-day standoff at Whittier, with parents sitting tight in the field house, joined by hundreds of community members. Police would return regularly to La Casita, but did little. On October 4, CPS cut off heat to the building, only to spark a public outcry that led to a unanimous city council resolution demanding it be turned back on.
“Why can’t my kids have what other kids have?”
Anastacia told me about the sit-in as we sat around the kitchen table of another protester—Araceli Gonzalez, affectionately known as “Cheli,” a 46-year-old mother of three current and former Whittier students who has lived in Pilsen for decades. Her small, second-floor apartment is a few blocks from the school. The walls are covered with glossy 8x10s of her children and her recently born grandchild; hand-drawn pictures, along with school notices, cover the entire fridge. As her daughter Daniela, 10, and her son Ricardo, 14, played Monopoly in their room, she and Anastacia sat in front of a large bowl of leftover Halloween candy, explaining the sit-in. Cheli says she was only "moderately" involved at La Casita before she occupied it for 43 days.
"I honestly have no idea how I got so involved," she says with a grin that acknowledged the statement's slight absurdity.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Cheli moved here with her parents when she was 11. Her often late and early hours as a teller at a bank to the west of the neighborhood prevented her from being as involved as Anastacia, but she has long been outraged at the condition of her children's school. Once the sit-in began, however, her life became La Casita: she spent almost every night there, going to work on little sleep; her teenage son cooked meals for her before football practice; she kept a change of clothes in her car so she could leave directly from Whittier to work.
One day, a demolition crew showed up, and a slight scuffle ensued between the crew and the protesters. Cheli was at work, but her 10-year-old daughter Daniela was at the field house. In the confusion, Daniela was pushed.
When Cheli heard about the incident, she went into a panic.
“Daniela was crying, I was crying, I was saying I was sorry over and over,” she remembered. “I felt so guilty, like I put her there. She could’ve been at home.”
Daniela wasn’t hurt, but the incident shook Cheli up. Soon after, it enraged her. “It’s ridiculous what we have to go through for our kids. And why?” she asked. “I wasn’t born here, but I took the test. I became a citizen. I did what they wanted. Now, I pay taxes. I follow the law. Why can’t my kids have what other kids have? Is it because we’re brown? Do I have to move somewhere else and pay $2000 in rent?”
Cheli called her daughter to the kitchen from her Monopoly game. Daniela had given an impressive interview on Democracy Now! from inside the field house a few weeks earlier that would have made a press secretary proud; as she shyly walked in the kitchen, avoiding eye contact in what appeared to be Hannah Montana pajamas, she again looked like a fifth grader. When I mentioned I had seen her on TV, she blushed.
Strength and success
During the occupation, as CPS dragged their feet on coming to an agreement, the parents decided they did not want to wait any longer for a decision on the library. They would make their own, there in La Casita. Book donations quickly poured in from around the world, and before long, La Casita had an impressively stocked library.
After almost a month and a half of negotiations with CPS administrators, including CEO Ron Huberman, the mothers finally got what they had been fighting for: a commitment, in writing, that La Casita would not be torn down, and that Whittier would get a library. The mothers were—and are—wary of CPS going back on its promises, but on the 43rd day of the occupation, they declared victory. The bold action of a sit-in had forced one of the largest school districts in the country to cave on every single major demand.
Today, the mothers are still meeting with administrators, negotiating and ironing out details. Parents have begun meeting in the field house again, although CPS officials still classified the building as structurally unsound, preventing children from entering. But on the whole, the battle has been won.
Both women said their fight for La Casita had changed them profoundly.
“I realized how strong we were,” said Ana. “And now my kids know, too, that they can fight, and they can win.”
Cheli agreed. “At 46 years old, I am a completely different person. And I’m so glad.”
The women discussed how the future library would make them “the happiest people in the world.” And they thought of the other 146 schools in the city lacking libraries.
“I want parents whose kids don’t have a library to fight for one,” said Cheli. “Look at us: We won everything we wanted.”
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