Interview by Kelly Garcia
Photos by Eddie Quiñones
She never liked the spotlight. At five feet tall, Vicko Alvarez could easily be overlooked in a crowded room—and she’d be perfectly fine with that. But on a brisk morning in October, Alvarez walked along a row of bungalows in Chicago Lawn, studying a map of the newly redrawn boundaries of the 15th Ward, where she’s hoping to become the next alderperson. She carried a clipboard with ballot petitions, a “Make Your Mama Proud” tote bag slung over her shoulder. Between introducing herself to residents and asking them to sign the petitions, she earnestly answered my questions.
A Texas native, Alvarez fell deeply in love with Chicago upon moving here 16 years ago, and she never looked back. Since then, she has worn multiple hats—community organizer, chief of staff to 33rd Ward alderperson Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, teaching artist—and in each, she says she was dedicated to fighting for a world in which workers are treated with dignity, families are nurtured, and communities are thriving.
But she never expected to run for office.
“I feel motivated to figure out how to uplift so much of the organizing work that’s already happening across the 15th Ward, where the only missing link is that government office,” she told me. “I’m also trying to figure out how this campaign can be not just about me, but also about how to share the skills that I’ve learned.”
Though she had already surpassed the minimum of 473 signatures needed to get on the ballot, Alvarez, no stranger to the political schemes that disqualify petitions, aims to collect far more by the November 28 deadline.
In 2006, Alvarez left the long, hot summers of Texas to pursue an undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. Her first friends were dining hall workers who, like her, spoke Spanish. At the time, U of C food service employees represented by Teamsters Local 743 were fighting for a fair union contract. Alvarez knew nothing about unions, but she offered to translate union materials into Spanish. That led to connecting with other students on campus who were similarly engaged on labor issues. Over time, she developed a passion for organizing the workplace.
But while she was finding fulfillment outside the classroom, her grades were slipping. “I almost got kicked out,” Alvarez recalls. Asked what it was like attending a predominantly white institution as a Latina, Alvarez says she didn’t love it, adding that she was far from a model minority. It was only among the workers on her campus that she found community and purpose.
After graduating, she joined United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national organization that fights for economic justice and workers’ rights. USAS focuses on the labor conditions inside factories that produce collegiate apparel. As a campaign director, Alvarez worked with college campuses nationwide to pressure university administrations into holding these factories accountable for the treatment of their workers.
She spent a couple years traveling to different places, but always felt most at home with the friends who had opened their doors to her on the southwest side. In neighborhoods like Little Village and Back of the Yards, she was able to reconnect with her Mexican roots when going back home to Texas was no longer feasible.
It was almost inevitable that Alvarez would become deeply involved in Chicago’s political scene.
During one of the regional meetings she attended as a student organizer with a midwest Chicano student group, Alvarez met Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, then a student organizer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who she says would talk her ear off about electoral politics. She didn’t take any of it very seriously until 2015, when Ramirez-Rosa successfully ran for alderperson of the 35th Ward and became the youngest and one of the first openly gay members of the City Council.
“It was like, wow, somebody within my immediate community is about to win this seat that before felt so distant from my own reality,” Alvarez said.
She quickly discovered that the skills she picked up as a union organizer, like knocking on doors and making phone calls, easily translated to political campaign work. After Ramirez-Rosa’s successful campaign, Alvarez began canvassing for other young socialist candidates eyeing seats on the City Council, like Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Rodriguez-Sanchez—candidates she felt were propped up by grassroots organizing instead of their own political ambitions.
In 2019, she became chief of staff to Rodriguez-Sanchez, whose ward encompasses Albany Park, Ravenswood Manor, Irving Park, and Avondale. In that role, she handled ward services and infrastructure needs, and assisted in policy research—all essential knowledge that she says informs her own bid for alderperson.
In July, Alvarez announced she was running to be alderperson of the 15th Ward as a Democratic Socialist in the 2023 municipal elections. The two-term incumbent, Alderperson Raymond Lopez, had announced months earlier that he would be throwing his name in the race for mayor. For residents of the south-side ward, Lopez’s departure is an opportunity to reimagine possibilities under new leadership.
As one of the more conservative members on the council, Lopez has been criticized for his stances regarding crime and policing. When 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by a Chicago police officer last year, Lopez told Fox32 that he thought the officer showed “amazing restraint” because he only shot Toledo once.
“I think that when someone like Raymond Lopez goes unchallenged, it sets a nasty precedent about our neighborhoods and what we’re willing to put up with,” Alvarez said.
Lopez has been challenged twice by candidates of the progressive field. During a runoff in 2015, Lopez beat former police officer Rafael Yañez, who told the South Side Weekly he supported reforming the department. When Lopez sought reelection in 2019, he was again forced into a runoff by Yañez and young progressive candidates such as Berto Aguayo, who described Lopez as “reactive” to community violence instead of interested in attacking the root causes of the issue.
In the 2023 election, Alvarez is running for an open seat. In contrast to Lopez, she’s been branded as the “defund-the-police” candidate. “And I have no problem with that,” she said.
Alvarez believes there’s a false assumption that residents of the south and southwest sides generally want more police because they live in “unsafe” neighborhoods. In reality, she says, those residents want to see greater investments, such as grocery stores that are within walking distance, more educational opportunities, and mental health clinics.
“I think it’s a false assumption that exists simply because it’s the poorest people, the people who are usually the most brutalized by police, who don’t always have the biggest mike to speak up on these issues,” Alvarez said. “So it feels like people impose their own assumptions onto them.”
One of her greatest challenges might be the 15th Ward’s heavily gerrymandered map.
In May, the City Council approved a new map for all 50 wards as part of the redistricting process that takes place every ten years. Historically, the 15th Ward has splayed across five different southwest-side neighborhoods: Brighton Park, Gage Park, Canaryville, West Englewood, and Back of the Yards. Critics of the redistricting process have argued that neighborhoods like Englewood—which is fractured into five different wards—are forced to compete for limited resources with other neighborhoods and don’t get fair representation in the council.
It’s also a confusing process that leaves residents wondering why their neighbors across the street are in a different ward. This year, the boundaries in the 15th Ward were changed to include Chicago Lawn. “I thought Chicago Lawn was in the 16th Ward?” one bewildered resident asked Alvarez.
“My honest opinion is that we got the leftovers,” Alvarez told the resident peeking around her door. “The best I can do is draw from my work experience in the different neighborhoods of the 15th Ward and see where we can find some common ground. It’s going to be hard. Every neighborhood has their hyperlocal issues that they have to focus on, whether libraries or streets, but the reality is that we’re in the 15th for the next ten years and we have to make the best of it.”
Without pause, the resident signed her petition.