Confrontation is not normally Jesus Garcia’s way.
At age 30 perhaps Chicago’s most successful Latino politician, the 22nd Ward alderman and committeeman, and the ranking Latino within the mayor’s inner circle of political advisers, Garcia likes to get his business done by observing proper channels.
Luis Gutierrez of the 26th Ward will stand up at a Finance Committee meeting and blast the administration for not steering some lucrative bond work to a Latino lawyer or two; Garcia will sidle up to committee chairman Tim Evans to make the same point. Gutierrez will grab the microphone at a political rally and spit sparks; Garcia doesn’t have that kind of fire in his belly.
Here’s what Gutierrez will do: A few months ago, he wrote each of the city’s department heads demanding their figures for Latino hiring. The sarcastic tone of the letter didn’t help. “That really pissed off a lot of people high up in city government,” says a non-Latino high up in city government. “Let’s just say that’s not the way some felt it’s appropriate for a friendly alderman to act.”
“I wrote to tell them that, in case they haven’t heard, the mayor said a number of things in his campaign about the inclusion of Latinos,” says Gutierrez. “I ended by saying that if they did not begin to take more seriously Latino hiring . . . then we’d have two options. One would be to act as an apologist for the administration–I remember using the word “apologist’–which I said in the letter I would not do. The other is that I could not support the administration in 1991.”
Jesus Garcia is just as frustrated by an affirmative-action hiring plan that has worked splendidly for blacks and not very well for Latinos. But he would not write that kind of letter.
Garcia does not normally go toe-to-toe. And that is why, when he started yelling at Dorothy Tillman, it was so plain that something was bothering him deeply.
This happened a while back, on the City Council floor. Tillman, a putative ally in Harold Washington’s majority coalition, wanted a word with Garcia about a couple of bills. One was to amend the stringent new ethics law that the council had just passed; those rules hadn’t gone into effect yet, and Tillman wanted them softened. The other was Garcia’s own measure to ask voters in the March 1988 primary how they feel about sending the Illinois National Guard to Central America.
Support the ethics amendment, Tillman told Garcia, or your referendum is dead meat.
This was a mistake. This was not how to treat an ally. This was not how to treat a man who recoils from the blush of impropriety, certain in his heart that political corruption has cost his community dearly. What were her motives compared to his? He was acting on principle–seeking an opportunity for the people of Chicago to make themselves heard on the matter of American policy in Central America. As for Tillman, Garcia would say later: “She’s been trying to expand her base within City Hall, and it’s my guess she got cornered, probably by a few aldermen from her region, and she got put in a box: ‘Hey, you cool or not? We just want a little room to play around. It’s going to be an election in ’88 and we just want a little flexibility, get the war chest together to carry Jesse.'”
Your insensitivity–Garcia was haranguing Tillman now–to our referendum is no different from the insensitivity to black issues you say white politicians are always showing. Give this matter the same respect you demand for divestment and South Africa. Don’t drag it into politics.
His voice quivered with anger as he spoke his last. “We don’t fuck with apartheid, so don’t you go fucking with this bill.”
Jesus Garcia’s brief, sharp lecture was, above all else, a release of festering resentments, an acting out of the tensions between blacks and Latinos inside the Washington coalition; Tillman happened to be the one who crossed his path. (For the record, Garcia voted against any change in the ethics ordinance and Tillman voted for Garcia’s referendum.)
For four years, those Latinos who believe in the inherent advantages of a black-Latino coalition and movement politics kept relatively quiet; boisterous, media-intensive criticism of the mayor would have played into the hands of the Vrdolyak faction. That was the last thing they wanted, to return city government to the likes of Ed Vrdolyak, Jane Byrne, and the rest of the machine. There were also racial implications to speaking out. Why pit black against brown at a time when many white politicians had a vested interest in keeping the two communities apart?
Besides, no Latino stumping for Washington during the 1987 mayor’s race had trouble making a strong, legitimate case for the incumbent. From the Latino community’s perspective, Harold Washington was a far better mayor than any predecessor. It wasn’t like his Latino supporters held their tongues at the cost of their souls.
Now? Well, Latinos within Washington’s coalition feel liberated. Their reasons to complain haven’t gone away but their reasons to keep quiet have. “I don’t see things that, to me, seem easy to correct changing much, so I’m puzzled by it,” Jesus Garcia says. “I was expecting things to happen faster. . . . By now I thought we’d be beyond a lot of the issues we’re still talking about.”
Not long ago, five or six or seven years at the most, the Latinos who today are most influential in Chicago politics dismissed electoral politics as irrelevant. Politics belonged to a different world, a gringo world. In 1981, when the Latino empowerment movement began in earnest, with the filing of a federal suit that alleged the 1980 legislative redistricting unfairly diluted the Latino vote, Jesus Garcia wasn’t registered to vote. Neither was Luis Gutierrez. Garcia and Gutierrez were community activists, young and barely aware of the gabacho world of City Hall. They were not exceptions. In 1983, Juan Velazquez would challenge Alderman Vito Marzullo for political control of Pilsen, the predominantly Mexican community that accounted for the biggest chunk of the 25th Ward. “I didn’t know where the 1st Ward ended and the 25th began,” Velazquez confessed a few years later. “Pilsen was Pilsen. I didn’t know from Vito Marzullo or any of them people.”
The feeling was certainly mutual; Vito Marzullo and them people barely knew from Latinos. Chicago’s barrios were politically invisible at the turn of the decade. One in seven Chicagoans was a Latino, according to the 1980 census, and there wasn’t a single Latino among Chicago’s 50 aldermen. No Latino held a prominent post in city government, even when “prominent” was generously defined. Not surprisingly–for who was there to push for such things?–Latinos barely shared in traditional economic benefits of government such as jobs and city contracts. In 1983, fewer than one city employee in 33 was a Latino. Of the $400 million or so in city business parceled out in 1982, only six-tenths of a percent of this money ended up with Latino-owned firms. And this was a year or two after Mayor Byrne began regularly boasting that she was the city’s first mayor to treat Latino Chicago with respect.
But by now a number of Latino activists had awakened to something: their disdain for local politics simply made them easier to ignore. It was an epiphany far from unique in Chicago history; black activists had grappled with more or less the same issues years earlier. In the barrios, whites lorded it over Latinos; on the west side, whites lorded it over blacks. The big difference wasn’t race, however; it was that on the west side, blacks had already scored several big victories.
Black Chicago made a critical contribution to the Latino empowerment movement, both practically and spiritually. Latinos running on hopes and dreams and seemingly little else were inspired by the black experience. Black politics was a frequently invoked point of reference, a way of explaining the movement to outsiders–as in, “We’re still in the Dawson phase.” Black independents from nearby wards, like Alderman Danny Davis and organizer Richard Barnett, served their Latino cohorts in more practical ways. In 1984, when Juan Velazquez ran against Marzullo for 25th Ward committeeman, Davis, in the midst of a tough congressional race of his own, freed a contingent of his workers to work the 25th Ward’s black precincts on Velazquez’s behalf.
Building a black-Latino political alliance was rough going. The visionary leaders in both communities who made it happen were up against a history of political collusion intended to keep those communities apart, and fierce racial tensions that may in large part have been an outgrowth of the collusion. But from the Latino point of view, the burgeoning alliance was a grand success, at least early on. If Latino candidates running in racially mixed wards had been supported nearly as well in Latino precincts as they were in the black precincts, Latino representation would have come sooner to the barrio. In 1984, in the 25th Ward’s four black precincts, Juan Velazquez’s votes outnumbered Vito Marzullo’s by nearly five to one; they about broke even in Pilsen. In several local races involving a Latino candidate, black voters have meant the difference between victory and defeat. In the neighboring 22nd Ward, for instance, Garcia was elected committeeman by 59 votes in 1984. He cleaned up in the ward’s two black precincts, in one beating the incumbent committeeman 267 votes to 33. Meanwhile, Juan Soliz was elected state representative in the same part of town by an even slimmer margin; he would surely have lost without the black precincts.
(The alliance has not been without its casualties. In 1983, the late Rudy Lozano ran for alderman–Jesus Garcia was his campaign manager–and fell 17 votes shy of a runoff against the incumbent. Lozano probably lost those votes when he asked campaign workers to hand out Harold Washington’s literature with his own, even though a simple endorsement would have sufficed. Garcia says he and Lozano realized that Washington wasn’t very popular in their community–he finished a distant third in the mayoral primary in the 22nd Ward–but “we were building towards something more important than a single election.”)
This alliance has been no less kind to black Chicago. In Washington’s victory over Bernard Epton in the 1983 general election, exit polls indicated three of four Latinos cast their vote for Washington. His margin among Latinos was roughly his overall margin of victory, give or take a few thousand votes. Three years later, when court-ordered special aldermanic elections put control of the City Council up for grabs, the black-Latino coalition again produced. Garcia’s and Gutierrez’s victories helped shift the council Washington’s way, giving the mayor a head of steam he did not lose until shortly after his inauguration for a second term.
The black-Latino coalition perhaps never seemed more promising than during the 1987 elections. In his 1983 primary run against Byrne and Rich Daley, Washington had received only 13 percent of the Latino vote. The lion’s share went to Byrne. Washington beat out Byrne among Latinos in this year’s rematch. Exit polls placed his share of the Latino vote at around 53 percent, meaning he’d quadrupled his support. A Latino, Gloria Chevere, ran on Washington’s ticket for city clerk, the first time a Latino made a serious challenge for a citywide office. Chevere’s success among black voters, even though a black man named William Walls was running against her for clerk, was phenomenal. A reported four out of every five black voters went with Chevere. Walls received a scant 4 percent of the black vote.
“There’s no doubt the black-Latino coalition has been a remarkable success,” said Maria Torres, the city’s director of Latino affairs until this past September. She now teaches political science at DePaul. “We’re more inside [City Hall] than we’ve ever been, that’s clear. But mostly [the coalition] has been a success politically. It’s the policy side–what we’re getting, or not getting, from this administration–that’s the problem.
“We’re really not participating as full partners commensurate with our numbers,” Torres continued. “Ultimately, the political coalition will suffer if a fair agenda is not pursued.”
Washington’s reelection freed him to show what he can do in a time of relative political calm. Yet it cost him a terrific advantage: it’s no longer good enough just to do better than Jane Byrne or Mike Bilandic did. Under Washington, Latinos are getting a fairer shake than ever before: a higher percentage of city jobs, a larger chunk of city contracts, and far more Latinos in positions of power; and a more equitable share of city services from departments such as Streets and Sanitation and Sewers. Yet merely fairer is no longer fair enough. Washington’s Latino accomplishments–and just about every other aspect of his record, for that matter–are now being judged against a much tougher standard: the mayor’s own rhetoric of reform, efficiency, and equality; his pledge that Latino numbers in Chicago’s neighborhoods would be reflected in its government. Against this standard, Washington’s Latino supporters give him barely passing grades.
Most disturbing perhaps are the similarities between the old machine’s treatment of blacks and the present administration’s treatment of Latinos. It’s an imperfect comparison, Latinos who make it are quick to point out; still, said the same high non-Latino official who was quoted earlier, “some of the same prejudices and slights come into play.” Ceilings–low ceilings, as it turns out–restrict the number of Latinos permitted to hold power in city government, he said. “The idea that there should be a ceiling for any racial group is the sort of repugnant practice employed by the machine. . . . But that irony seems to escape some high-ranking people in the Washington administration.”
He does not merely sense that there are ceilings; he has heard top officials speak plainly and directly of them at high-level meetings. He told of one meeting where, he said, “an obviously qualified Latino” was being considered for an important city job. “The problem was that there was already a Latino similarly situated. An important person sitting in city government opined that if we give them two, then they’ll expect to always have two, and then we’ll never be able to consider anyone other than a Latino for that spot. That was his justification for not making a Latino appointment in this instance.
“That was a black person, and I suspect that if any white person had said that about a black appointment, they wouldn’t last long in city government without a more sophisticated sensitivity.”
This official offered another example. “A very high-level black official once said to me, ‘You know, I just don’t understand what these people want.’ I remember thinking at the time–in fact, I said it to this person–that that’s remarkable. That’s precisely the kind of thing whites used to say about the civil rights protesters: what do these people want anyway? When I suggested to this person that what they want is exactly what blacks want–an opportunity for jobs, significant power within government, a cut of the pie–his reaction was, ‘Gee, I really never thought of it that way . . .’
“You like to think that black folks, who have suffered so much, who have become experts on the receiving end of discrimination, would be more sensitive to the issue and more successful at avoiding discrimination than they have been.”
In her three and a half years as director of MACLA–the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs–Maria Torres was often jolted by deja vu–episodes that echoed the tales of black activists speaking their mind about the old machine. Some blacks inside City Hall, recalled Torres, never trusted Latinos, even those beside them in the trenches. “There was a sense that we would respond only to the needs of our own community, and not to a municipal agenda,” she said. “That somehow we couldn’t be trusted because we’d always come to an issue with a ‘Latino perspective.'” Some of the similarities were worse, said Torres: “There were instances where Latinos are treated as if we’re inferior, as if we’re incapable of performing certain contracts or certain jobs.”
Jobs are an area where the echo of times past is particularly painful. To state it bluntly, the administration’s record of hiring Latinos, compared to its record of hiring blacks, stinks.
In mid-’83, at the end of Byrne’s term, blacks held about a quarter of all city jobs, while constituting about two-fifths of the population. To correct this, blacks have been hired at a rate greater than their percentage of the population. Chicago is just over 40 percent black; in 1986, 64 percent of those hired by the city were black.
Latinos, too, suffered a lack of jobs under the machine’s rule. When Byrne left office, Latinos–around 17 percent of the city’s population–accounted for under 4 percent of the municipal work force. The Latinos’ need for an accelerated hiring plan was at least as great, if not greater. (For the record, the city’s Puerto Ricans, not its blacks, are Chicago’s poorest community.) Yet, by the Washington administration’s calculations, Latinos have been denied the consideration black job applicants enjoy. Latinos are still underhired. Eleven percent, not 17 percent, of city workers hired in 1986 were Latino. (But Alton Miller, the mayor’s press secretary, claimed Latino hiring rose to 14.7 percent for the first half of 1987.)
The official line on these statistics blames the Latinos. The city hires a disproportionately high number of blacks, the argument goes, because the pool of eligible applicants is overwhelmingly black. The problem is not a lack of concern for hiring Latinos but Latinos’ disinclination to apply for city jobs.
Torres has heard this argument–“this excuse,” in her words–countless times. In her role as head of MACLA, Torres kept tabs on the number of Latinos who applied and were deemed qualified for work with the city. “There were somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 Latinos in the hiring pool when I left,” Torres said. “The city fills between 2,000 and 3,000 new jobs each year. So, theoretically, there are enough Latinos in the eligible pool to hire only Latinos for the next ten years.”
Many finger the administrators beneath Washington, not the mayor himself, as the source of the hiring problem (and the source of many other problems that may or may not pertain to the Latino community). “There are people–[Chief of Staff Ernie] Barefield, people at that level–who don’t seem ideologically committed to translating the mayor’s words into deeds,” said Jesus Garcia.
“One thing to remember,” said the high City Hall official who’s been quoted before, “is that this is not a government only of progressives. There’s clearly a fierce internal tension between progressives, bureaucrats, nationalists, more conservative blacks. It’s safe to say that the mayor is a great deal more solidly progressive than the vast majority of people in his cabinet. No question about it.
“To a lot of folks within this administration, it’s black first and progressive second. . . .
“In some instances, the problem is nationalism, which could translate, quite frankly, into a form of racism, at least within the context of a multiracial coalition.”
There is statistical support for laying blame on the mayor’s staff. Latino hiring varies widely from department to department. Some city departments, like Economic Development, possess exceptional Latino hiring records; others, like the Law Department, seem frozen in bygone times. (Washington sat down for an extensive meeting with each department head after his reelection, in the course of which he reminded them of his commitment to a fair share for Latinos, Alton Miller said.)
But that doesn’t get Washington off the hook. The question remains: who permits the mayor’s top people to disrupt the mayor’s policy? “Would the mayor be as forgiving if half the city’s department heads fell far short of his goals for opening up city government to black-owned businesses?” the top official asked rhetorically.
The scarcity of Latinos on the upper tiers of government–where the jobs exist that Washington presumably plays a key role in filling–suggests that the mayor may be as culpable as some of the aides and department heads his Latino allies criticize. According to Torres, only 7 or 8 percent of the city’s commissioners, directors, and first deputies are Latino. “That’s not exactly fulfilling the 20 percent promise,” she said–rounding upward by 3 percent the Latino share of the population that the mayor had pledged would be reflected in city government. (A notable exception is the mayor’s appointments to the city’s boards and commissions, 20 percent of which have been Latino.)
The record is even grimmer at the apex of government. No Latino serves in any key oversight role–there are seven administrative assistants who represent clusters of city departments at weekly cabinet meetings–or heads one of the more meaningful city departments, like Budget, Law, Fire, or Police. Ben Reyes, the ranking Latino in government, was an administrative assistant until stripped of most of his responsibilities last June.
In September, Washington summoned his cabinet into special session; Ebony magazine was preparing a feature on Washington, and a photographer was there to snap pictures of a mock work meeting. Among those called was Maria Cerda, the Latino director of a small department called the Mayor’s Office for Employment and Training. “She’s been to a few cabinet meetings where employment has been the main topic, but she’s certainly not a member of Washington’s cabinet,” said the high administration official, himself an occasional participant in the weekly cabinet meetings. “But how would it look if there was all this rhetoric about a multiracial vision and no Latino in the picture?”
(The appointment of Matt Rodriguez as police chief succeeding Fred Rice certainly would have pleased the mayor’s Latino allies–but they weren’t leaders of the campaign, an intense one in the Latino media led by other Latino politicians, to have him named.
(“I think those pushing for Rodriguez are off base,” said the high official. “I agree Washington should be doing more for Latinos, but the police issue is what caused blacks to break with the machine in the first place, with Metcalfe in the early 70s. In a sense, it was police brutality against the black community that elected Washington. . . .
(“Symbolism means a lot in politics, and a black police chief is a crucial symbol.”)
Too often, debate over how well a particular group is faring is limited to figures for jobs and contracts. These are two useful but limited measures of an administration’s evenhandedness and sense of justice. There’s more to government than a share of jobs and contracts–there is policy. And here too, Latinos feel like the jilted partner.
Housing is a tender topic for many politically involved Latinos. “The Housing Department tends to think of housing as a black problem,” one longtime housing activist said. “They’ve said stuff like this at meetings I’ve been at: ‘Blacks have been waiting a long, long time for changes in the city’s housing policy, and we come first.’ The problem, of course, is that everyone’s been waiting a long, long time.”
The Housing Department has a standing policy that the names on the CHA’s waiting list get first crack at low-income development projects funded in part with city dollars. Most of those on the CHA waiting list, of course, are black. “When we said to Bess Donaldson [the city’s housing commissioner] that that policy excludes Latinos, Asians, poor whites, American Indians–that it excludes everyone else–she said too bad, get your people on the CHA waiting list. Which is absurd since it’s been closed for two years. . . .
“To me, that was a real fuck-you attitude towards other minority groups.
“They’re picking the wrong fights,” the activist continued. “It’s not between poor people of different color–that’s not where the real fight lies.”
In the City Council reorganization that followed Washington’s reelection, there was a push to name Luis Gutierrez or Jesus Garcia–both were housing activists before turning to politics–chairman of the Housing Committee. The chairmanship went instead to Dorothy Tillman (Helen Shiller was named vice-chairman). “There needs to be someone who can facilitate participation by Latinos,” said Garcia. “Someone who can help define a Latino housing agenda.”
In part, that would mean redefining public housing as a poverty issue rather than a black issue. “Latinos don’t have the participation in public housing that blacks do, despite a similar need,” said Garcia. Fewer than 2 percent of CHA residents are Latino.
“Some people inside the administration have the idea that Latino progress can only come at the expense of black progress,” Garcia continued, “but I don’t buy that. . . . Some people argue that in order to pay Peter you have to rob Paul, so their attitude is that it’s tough luck on Peter.”
A few years back, Washington signed an executive order striking citizenship questions from all city applications–such as for a taxicab license–unless federal law expressly required them. The order also prohibited the city from collaborating with federal immigration investigators unless ordered to do so by a court. Since that time, Latinos called on to defend Washington’s record have invariably spoken of this executive order as testament of the mayor’s concern for the Latino community. Not surprisingly, these same people are dismayed by talk in top government circles of backing down from it. “It has repeatedly been suggested by prominent black officials that [the executive order] be watered down, if not gotten rid of altogether,” said the high official in City Hall. “Some see it as the cause of a great deal of unnecessary tension with the federal government. Others want to get rid of it because there’s a real hostility and resentment toward those they consider to be illegal and unwanted. They don’t understand why the administration would want to stand up for the rights of illegal people.”
A well-meaning effort by Washington that bred ill will between blacks and Latinos was the Gloria Chevere candidacy. In the spring of 1986, several of Washington’s Latino allies approached the mayor about endorsing a Latino for citywide office. “Washington didn’t equivocate in the least,” said one of those involved. “He immediately endorsed the idea.” Washington told the group that he’d back for city clerk whomever they selected.
After a search, they chose Chevere. Politicos inside and outside the Washington campaign believed the mayor’s offer to be a shrewd one. It also seemed reasonable and fair. Jacky Grimshaw, Washington’s deputy campaign manager, apparently felt otherwise. She disdained the Chevere candidacy, and made little effort to hide her feelings.
“She said on a number of occasions–once I was within earshot myself–that the only reason the mayor supported Gloria is because the Latino community blackmailed him into it,” said the high city official. “For someone like Grimshaw, at so high a level in the campaign and government [she is the director of the Office for Intergovernmental Affairs], to have such a destructive attitude . . .
“It’s not blackmail when Latinos demand to be a part of the ticket. Besides, as far as I know, no one told the mayor put a Latino on the ticket or we won’t back you.”
Two tales bear telling at this point. One is the well-publicized run-in between a black alderman named Allen Streeter and Jane Byrne while she was mayor. The other is a less dramatic story about MACLA–the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs. Told side by side, these tales place the Latino community’s complaints in some context. While it is not enough, in the eyes of Washington’s companeros, for the present mayor simply to do better than his predecessors did, that comparison is useful nonetheless, in the same way a glance backward at the Somoza regime’s brutal means of dealing with Nicaraguan dissidents helps place in perspective the Ortega regime’s restrictions on free speech.
Allen Streeter was a city inspector and a lowly machine precinct worker when Jane Byrne, in 1981, named him acting alderman of the predominantly black 17th Ward. The incumbent had resigned midterm; Streeter’s short incumbency would give him–and the ward machine behind him–the edge in the upcoming special election. Three months later, however, Streeter voted against two of Byrne’s appointees to the school board. Suddenly, Streeter was no longer aldermanic material in Byrne’s eyes; the ward organization dumped him.
Streeter decided he’d run anyway. He got enough votes to force a runoff. That was more than Byrne could stand. Shortly before election day she phoned reporters to say she had learned the U.S. Attorney’s Office was investigating allegations that Streeter had taken bribes while a city employee. One week later, U.S. Attorney Dan Webb took the unusual step of announcing that there was no such investigation.
What had Streeter done to earn such wrath? He had placed the interests of the black community before the interests of Jane Byrne. The mayor wanted to replace two black members of the school board with two whites active in the antibusing movement. The appointments–which easily passed the council despite Streeter–shifted the board’s balance from black to white. But to oppose the mayor, whatever the feelings of constituents, was not the machine way. The deal was power and its perks in exchange for loyalty at any price.
It would be an overstatement to say that, by comparison, MACLA was a sovereign state within the city bureaucracy. Maria Torres, her staff, and the MACLA board couldn’t say or do anything they wanted. Still, they regularly placed themselves at odds with the Washington party line. Every six months or so, MACLA grades the city’s performance from a Latino perspective, printing the results in a newsletter. After a midterm shakeup of high-level managers had left 26 slots open in City Hall, and only one was filled with a Latino, Washington received a “D” for the first half of 1985. The MACLA newsletter has regularly criticized city departments with poor Latino hiring records, irritating to no end the department heads who consistently received “D”s and “F”s. This past May, when the administration was hopping mad about a controversial study by Pierre De Vise critical of Washington for failing to hire a “fair” number of whites, Asians, and Latinos, MACLA had this to say: “Results for addressing black underrepresentation have been excellent; for Latinos the results have lagged far behind what was expected and what is considered equitable.”
In light of what happened to Allen Streeter, imagine the fate of any black on Jane Byrne’s payroll who criticized that mayor publicly. The MACLA newsletter is paid for by city dollars controlled by the man who got the “D.”
In a sense, Washington created MACLA to function in much the same fashion as an outspoken, independent-minded Latino alderman would have, had there been one on the council prior to 1986. Most of the Latinos named to the 15-person MACLA board have been of a type previous administrations would have shunned: they were outspoken community activists whose reputations were based on their eagerness to open their mouths whenever they spotted injustice.
“MACLA doesn’t always get their way, but Washington protects the institutions that he’s created, such as MACLA,” the high City Hall official said. “In general, the mayor respects the structures that allow for internal debate. Any other administration would at this point toss MACLA over the side–I mean, we’re having a budget crisis, right, so he can find ample excuses. And the truth be told, MACLA doesn’t really do much except advocate. That’s what they’re there for, but it’s meant a lot of grief for him. They’re playing real hardball right now.”
Legitimate parallels can be drawn between the machine’s treatment of blacks and the Washington administration’s treatment of Latinos. Yet the differences are equally striking. Latinos are treated with a greater respect than the machine ever showed black Chicago.
A Latino in city government groused about a “condescending attitude toward Latinos I sense pervades this administration.” But this official couldn’t provide specifics. Do city officials demand you defend the mayor’s record, even when it leaves a lot to be desired?–is that what you mean by condescending? The official seemed insulted by the question. “They’d never ask us to do that,” this person snapped. “We don’t instigate, but we don’t defend something that’s indefensible. The administration knows that.”
Torres resigned from MACLA a couple of months after the 1987 election. Here was a golden opportunity for the mayor to declaw MACLA by bringing in a flunky. Yet he left the decision about a new director to a dozen or so of the city’s more politically active, progressive Latinos. Naturally, they looked for someone more suited to organizing the Latino community than representing Washington at the Pilsen Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner. Washington’s only request was that they present him with two names to choose from.
“You’ve got to look at Washington the man,” one black activist said. “He’s sensitive to what our community’s been through, and I can’t imagine him intentionally putting that on another community. I can’t imagine that. So if there’s a problem, if someone says they’re being shortchanged, I don’t imagine that that’s an attempt to damage that community or to keep it in check.”
Some of the resentment at play among Latino activists, Jesus Garcia believes, is due to envy, not black insensitivity. “Some of our frustrations stem from the fact that . . . we’re not yet as effective in the political arena as blacks are,” said Garcia. “We’re still a neophyte community in some ways. We want to move ahead as fast as the black community is, but we haven’t been involved as long. One thing that means is that blacks have far more actors active in political and economic circles. So naturally they’re going to be more effective.
“We need to keep that in mind. That’s not to say we should stop pushing, but we also have to look closer at the challenges we as a community have to overcome in order to be more effective. We as a community need to develop a municipal Latino agenda so that we can articulate our desires beyond more jobs or more contracts.”
Luis Gutierrez can provide an example of this. Community groups invited Washington out to Gutierrez’s ward to discuss the problem of infant mortality among Latinos. “He came ready to tell them he had more money,” Gutierrez said, “but he never got a chance to deliver this message.” The audience showered Washington with boos and insults. “They began yelling at him that he was as bad as Byrne. It got really ugly. They never let him speak.”
The irony in this, Gutierrez observed, is that infant mortality wasn’t an issue in the Latino community until “the black community, in essence, made infant mortality an issue for us. A year ago, no one was organizing around infant mortality. Then the Health Department came and said, ‘Here, guys, here’s $350,000 for infant mortality.’ Now people are saying the mayor does not care about infant mortality in our community.”
Another factor underpinning Latino resentments is the racial chauvinism evident among a few prominent black leaders unsympathetic to the black-Latino coalition. One element in the black community believes Washington has done too much for Latinos. Nathaniel Clay, editor of the black weekly Chicago Metro News, is among a small group of leading blacks who publicly profess this point of view. “A lot of blacks,” Clay told the Chicago Reporter a few months back, “cannot help but feel that we’ve been fighting hard for a long time, and that as soon as we got our foot in the door here comes the Hispanics, pushing that door open and trying to run in ahead of us.”
Lu Palmer, head of the Black Independent Political Organization (BIPO), doesn’t mince words on the subject. Palmer was not pleased when the mayor offered the city clerk’s spot to the Latino community although a black man, William Walls, had already indicated his intention to seek the post. “Our communities are in competition for political advancement,” Palmer said plainly in a radio interview. “We both want to make up for past abuses. You have to make up your mind who comes first.” In Palmer’s mind blacks come first.
Latinos truly interested in coalition politics, Nathaniel Clay wrote in the Chicago Metro News, should have deferred to Walls because he was already in the race. “They didn’t do this because their real goal is to maximize Hispanic political clout . . . ,” Clay wrote. “The problem is, this can only be done at the expense of blacks; coalition politics in this instance is simply a convenient cloak for ethnic ambitions.”
This line of argument strains the patience of at least some Latinos. The Walls candidacy took its toll on the coalition. Adding to the insult to Latinos represented by Walls’s rival campaign was his prior reputation inside City Hall. William Walls stories were one of the amusements of Harold Washington’s first term. In the early days of the administration, when Walls’s job was to draw up the mayor’s schedule, it’s said he once told several colleagues gathered at a work meeting that he was toying with the idea of running for mayor himself in 1987. It’s also said he habitually inflated himself at meetings into the mayor’s spokesman. Walls was a favorite of “Inc.” in those days, where his image was that of buffoon. “Given the degree of scrutiny this administration was under,” said the top administration official, “he in a sense betrayed his race. And a lot of people with influence within the black community were pretty forgiving of Bill, and unforgiving of Latinos whose crime has been only to push for a bigger chunk of the pie.”
“Our concern,” the Latino official said, “is that the Latino community sees and hears a strong black nationalism from the black community. They hear when Lu Palmer and other nationalists speak out about the Walls candidacy and about hiring statistics.”
This official sees a relatively simple solution to the problem: “The mayor needs to speak out. Otherwise, people like Palmer blow our credibility within the Latino community and we’re seen as traitors within the black community for speaking out against the mayor.”
A black official in City Hall who doesn’t want “to get my name messed up in all of this” heard in the above remarks echoes of the old machine mentality. “It’s the old line about expecting our community to speak with one voice,” he said. “Like we’re this homogenous community that speaks with one voice. . . .
“The Lu Palmers have a base of support in the community and arguably a legitimate point of view. It’s not the mayor’s point of view, at least in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean [Washington] should get up there and say, ‘Lu Palmer, you’re a jerk.'”
Actually, Washington has done almost that. Washington responded to pressures placed on him this year by Palmer’s Black Independent Political Organization by insulting it: “BIPO-schmipo” he said on the radio during the campaign. He never wavered in his support of Gloria Chevere, nor did any blacks within his inner circle of political advisers. Washington and Palmer are allies only inasmuch as they place the black community’s interests before their differences of opinion. When it came time for Washington and Palmer to shake hands onstage during a major preelection rally, they clasped hands but failed to look at each other.
Yet black chauvinism is not a force isolated outside the Washington government. “Many people high in government believe that when the goodies are going to be distributed, then how people voted is the key factor that should be taken into consideration,” said Jesus Garcia. “I hear this argument regularly: Latinos account for only 7 percent of the registered voters and only half voted for the mayor, so anything we get beyond 4 percent is more than we have earned.”
“I see white bureaucrats who want to appease the mayor so they hire a lot of blacks,” Luis Gutierrez said. “I see black bureaucrats who don’t appreciate the importance of the coalition and don’t understand the importance of the coalition because they weren’t in the trenches.”
Every nonblack person interviewed for this article agreed with Garcia and Gutierrez’s assessment. Yet even the black activist quoted above, though he certainly would be counted among those pushing for a black-Latino coalition, disagreed: “I’ve heard people talk about how the Hispanic are getting too much and all that. But these folks aren’t the ones that’ve got impact on policy. I’m not hearing it there, and they’re the only ones that really count.”
Perhaps he’s not paying close attention. Even blacks who believe in the coalition, even the black activist himself, will at times run down their Latino allies. The activist, who has found himself involved in many joint political ventures with Latinos in recent years, questioned his Latino colleagues’ commitment: “It’s like in a relationship: if you don’t really have faith in somebody, then it’s easy to shake. . . . I’m not sure if the Latino [faction] is really committed to the mayor. I’m talking about being committed to the mayor the man, not just someone that they could work with and he gets his and I get mine.”
In the same conversation, he spoke of frictions between blacks and Latinos during the 1987 mayor’s race. The whole thing was blown out of proportion, he believes. “Any perceived slight, a little simple misunderstanding, and it just fed on the mistrust and the suspicion and it blew up into something big.” Could he provide specific examples? He fumbled around for one but apparently couldn’t retrieve it. So he said this: “I’m just responding to your questions. But this stuff isn’t on my head. For me, none of this is really a consideration for me.”
“He’s been an ally of ours, a friend of our community, so the question is, at what point do you call it quits?” said Luis Gutierrez. “I’m not there yet, I’m not there yet. He’s shown too much good faith, and besides, where do we go from here? Who do you seek out alliances with?” This was a point of view expressed by every Latino interviewed for this article. No one is ready to give up on Washington. “The same issues that drew our two communities together,” Maria Torres said, “keep us together.”
Strains in black-Latino relations are neither new nor suprising in Chicago. Innumerable studies have shown Chicago to be the country’s most segregated metropolis. This social isolation breeds a parochialism that greatly handicaps any multiracial agenda. “There is very little opportunity for blacks and Hispanics to live together,” Maria Torres said. “In Houston, where blacks and Hispanics make up 30 percent of the population, it’s been absolutely necessary for blacks and Hispanics to join hands. Chicago hasn’t had that. There isn’t a long history of natural, organic relationship facilitating meaningful contact between blacks and Latinos. This includes someone like the mayor, who has lived in the city for 65 years.”
It’s more than geography, though; parochial political interests have played their own debilitating role. The era of the Chicago machine was full of moments when black was pitted against brown to the ultimate benefit of white. Black and Latino activists still recall the time in the early 70s when the machine opened a health clinic to serve the Pilsen-Little Village area and placed a black who spoke no Spanish in charge. And more recent examples abound. History has taught that pitting one minority’s ambitions against another’s is a tried-and-true method for keeping them at odds; history has also taught that there’s usually a minority politician around to assume the white man’s burden.
First during the 1986 court-ordered special elections, and then during the 1987 aldermanic races, several Vrdolyak-aligned Latino candidates spoke of how well Latinos had fared under Byrne and how poorly they now fared under a mayor interested only in the south and west sides. These were gross misstatements aimed at keeping the races apart.
“While some among both groups might understand the wisdom of the two working together, there’s still a whole mind-set that needs to be torn down and rebuilt,” the black activist said. “So occasionally you’re going to see some collisions, some hurt feelings.”
“For all the tension, for all the hostility, for all the unfair treatment, for all this–the thing that is most worthy of note is that there is a black-Latino coalition at all,” said the high city official. “There’s no historic reasons for it to happen in Chicago. Arguably, there are plenty of reasons that it shouldn’t happen.”
So there’s one thing that keeps the two groups together–a sense of progress. Torres met with Washington twice in her last few weeks in office. He boasts that he has done more than his predecessors, she reported, but “he doesn’t entirely defend his record. He recognizes that there is more that needs to be done.”
While Latinos don’t seem to be on the verge of leaving Washington’s coalition, some Latino leaders nonetheless feel an urgency about adjusting it. “We’ve been doing our part,” said the Latino in city government. “For four years, we’ve been beating the drum for the necessity of the black-Latino coalition” only to be slighted in return.
“Our credibility is being questioned,” this Latino continued. “Are we being used? Are we not defending the interests of the Latino community? They see a strong black nationalism within the administration, and these sort of statistics [a lack of jobs, a lack of top officials] confirm that view. We’ve been telling them otherwise, that this is a partnership, a coalition, we’re brothers in this, we’re sisters. And the vote totals say that most of them believed that and trusted us.”
This point was punctuated with a warning. “If things don’t change, it’s going to be very difficult for any Latino person to get their people involved with the black community politically.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.