Jose Lopez walked into the teachers’ lounge at Tuley High one day 20 years ago, hoping to relax for a few minutes between classes. One of his fellow teachers, who had been his own teacher a few years before, was napping on a cot with a sign across her body that read “Do Not Disturb, Puerto Rican at Work.”
“She was white–there were literally no Puerto Rican teachers at that time,” says Lopez. “That was a major, shocking experience. I saw a serious problem–not with the intellectual potential of the Puerto Rican students, but with a school system that was racist to the core.”
At about the same time, Lopez worked on a citywide study of Puerto Rican students, which found that almost 75 percent of those who made it to high school dropped out. And contrary to his expectations, the most motivated, aware students were the most likely to quit school. He concluded that was at least partly because there were so few Latino faculty members, “no role models to identify with who were not janitors, security guards, or cooks in the school.”
Lopez decided to create an alternative to the public schools. In 1972, in the rented basement of what was then a Presbyterian church at 2028 W. Augusta, he and a few other Latino teachers, along with 12 students from Tuley (later Roberto Clemente), started a high school that stressed bilingual, bicultural education.
The school also supported Puerto Rican independence from the United States, and in June 1983 FBI agent William Dyson Jr. led dozens of FBI agents and Chicago police officers in a raid on the center, seeking evidence to link the school with the FALN, the main Puerto Rican independence group. The agents found no evidence of any connection, but they did cause thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. Lopez says the Puerto Rican community came through with more than $3,000 in donations for repairs the same day, from little bags of change to $20 bills.
Over the years a number of projects of the Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School have been consolidated into the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which now fills an old film-processing plant at 1671 N. Claremont, in the gentrifying West Town-Wicker Park neighborhood. Murals of 14 Puerto Rican political prisoners adorn the outside walls of the center. Graffiti covers the walls of the surrounding factories: “Spanish Lords,” “La Claremont Lords,” “FALN.”
“You find graffiti everywhere around here, except on the murals,” Lopez, who’s now the center’s executive director, says with pride. “There is a tremendous sense of respect for the symbolism of the murals.”
In addition to the high school the center houses a day-care center, a library, the Editorial Coqui Publishing Company, and a coffeehouse that presents Puerto Rican cultural events. A legal clinic, a low-income-housing organization, and the VIDA/SIDA clinic for people with AIDS are also part of the center.
“Our philosophy as an educational institution is to teach students to understand, act on, and transform their world,” says Lopez. “The community becomes the classroom, the workshop. Our methodology is consistent with our philosophy. We say, ‘There is a problem. Let’s find a solution to the problem.'”
Students at the high school do take their education to the streets. At the Humboldt Park Puerto Rican parade in June they handed out 3,000 brochures titled “AIDS . . . what you need to know to live”–a vital message in a community where 10 percent of the population is estimated to have AIDS. The brochures were produced by students at the high school and included free condoms.
A recent issue of the school’s student-produced magazine, El fuego, featured articles on West Town gentrification, gangs and drugs, and women’s issues. The students regularly participate in demonstrations, make leaflets, carry picket signs. During the first week of the gulf war, a war El fuego sharply criticized, teachers and students went downtown to protest.
One Monday afternoon in mid-August Lopez, a fiery orator, spoke outside a week-long counter-terrorist conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. “People in struggle are the most creative people,” he told a lively crowd of protesters that included a few students and teachers from the high school. Inside, the FBI’s William Dyson Jr., now a supervisory special agent, presented a paper on “The Task Force Approach.”
A benefit for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center starts at 8:30 tonight at Hothouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee. Aunt Dude, Kui Lee 5, and the Groovediggers will perform, and there will be “games of chance and skill.” Admission is $5; proceeds will go toward a new boiler. Call 342-8022.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.