CCHD grantee is strengthening community ties in Pilsen

By Julio Rangel | Católico
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Mural on Paulina and 18th Place in Pilsen. The Pilsen Neighbors Community Council works to preserve the heritage of the neighborhood’s Mexican population. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

In June, when Forbes magazine named Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as “one of the 12 coolest neighborhoods in the world,” the news was not well received by some residents.

Teresa Fraga remembers her son-in-law’s reaction: “My God, my rent just went up $300 a month.”

Fraga is a member of the board for Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, a community group created in 1954 that receives funds from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. They have been working to offer educational, medical and housing resources to people in Pilsen.

The annual collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development takes place in parishes the weekend of Nov. 17-18. Started in 1969, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. CCHD awards grants to local and national organizations each year that work to end the cycle of poverty.

Fraga, a parishioner of St. Procopius/Providence of God, 1641 S. Allport St., has been part of Pilsen Neighbors Community Council since 1975, but arrived in Pilsen with her family in 1966. During those years, European immigrants were leaving the neighborhood and there were many abandoned homes.

“The inspectors came very often looking for violations,” Fraga said, “because everyone was ready to demolish those buildings.”

Fraga said many of the buildings’ owners had moved to the suburbs and they only came to the neighborhood to collect rent.

“We started to feel that our dignity was being violated,” Fraga said.

The neighbors began to organize among themselves and to demand services, like garbage collection to prevent rats and, with time, to promote the idea of buying houses and buildings among the neighbors.

From its beginnings, PNCC had two basic areas of work: education and housing. Among other things, PNCC was crucial in the creation of the Benito Juárez High School and Alivio Medical Center. 

“Education was our first fight,” said Fraga, who remembers that the community needed a high school because the neighborhood public high school, at the intersection of California and Cermak, was far away and children had to cross gang territories to get there.

The group expanded its focus on helping to make college attainable for Latino young people.

Although PNCC board member Rita Aguilar was born in Chicago, she was committed to the fight to grant undocumented college students in-state tuition benefits.

“Usually you don’t realize the need of an undocumented person, how hard it is to pay for the education and continue studying,” Aguilar said. “In many cases, the parents don’t have much education and the children are the first generation to go to college.”

Illinois began charging in-state tuition to undocumented residents in 2003.

An act that united and consolidated the work of PNCC was the urban renewal proposal Chicago Plan 21, which was created in 1973 by executives from several companies interested in restoring buildings and abandoned lots in the South Loop area, which affected Pilsen.

PNCC opposed this project.

“Plan 21 was going to displace us,” Fraga said.

In 1976, PNCC was able to negotiate an alternative plan with the city of Chicago that would let them stay in the neighborhood. The alternative plan was not implemented and bought them some time.

Next they tried to get people who lived in the neighborhood to buy properties there.

“The banks were not giving mortgages to buy properties in Pilsen anymore,” Fraga said. “Back then, no one from the community had a mortgage and we had a campaign in the church.”

They conducted a survey in the neighborhood churches in which they asked people, “If you could buy a house, would you do it?”

Fraga believes this is one of the reasons why Pilsen has been one community that has resisted gentrification, because in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many Mexican families began to buy houses and take root in the neighborhood, as opposed to going back to Mexico after a certain period, as many had done in the past.

“With the movement, people gained confidence and courage, they began to say, ‘I am not alone, my brother-in-law is going to buy as well, and my neighbor and fellow parishioner is going to buy,’” Fraga said. “In 1979, we bought our building and we are still here.”

Aguilar believes strengthening the sense of community is very important, in both her parish, St. Paul, and in the rest of Pilsen.

Today we see the struggle with immigration, the separation of families, the raids, the deportations,” she said. “It is necessary that our community understands that we have some power, we have rights, even if we do not have our documents.”

PNCC used CCHD money to help pay for youth activities, including hiring a youth organizer. Working with the next generation of Latinos has been a priority, and part of the group’s efforts have expanded beyond Pilsen.

“We go farther south, to neighborhoods like Back of the Yards and Brighton Park,” Aguilar said, “because here in Pilsen we already have organizations working in different things, but over there, there is a shortage of organizations.”


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