Chicago -- A City I'll Always Love

I come to Chicago frequently -- using my visits to my old hometown to see my son Ramiro in an Illinois prison facility, two of my grandchildren when I can, and many friends, comrades, and fellow poets and activists.

I lived in Chicago for 15 years, in Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, and Logan Square. Chicago was the birtplace of Tia Chucha Press, which has grown into a bookstore, cafe, performance space, art gallery, and workshop center in LA. It's also where I helped found the Guild Complex, one of the Midwest's leading literary and art institutions, and Youth Struggling for Survival, a youth-adult mentoring/community building organization that is still very active (as a result I have ties and years of work in Pilsen, Little Village, Uptown, Rogers Park, Aurora, and other communities in and around the city). In this capacity, I also helped create the Humboldt Park Teen Reach program in collaboration with BUILD and other youth intervention and prevention organizations.

From October 1-7, I did talks at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Chicago State University (including to students from Hubbard High School), and an all day training at the Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove (that involved many youth workers, teachers, counselors, probation officers, and police).

I also had a wonderful visit with Ramiro, who's now at one of the Pontiac prison facilities (an hour and a half outside of Chicago). He's seems healthy, strong, and determined to do well after finishing ten years of his 28 year prison sentence (he can get out in half the time, 14 years, which is his goal).

One important visit was with YSS members and leaders, including Frank Blazquez, his wife Lou, and their children Tanee and Frankie. I was also glad to see YSS members Chris Dino, Chek-it, Mathilda, Alma, and others. Alma is now running the Urban Roots program for the Social Justice School of the new Little Village High School on 31st and Kostner in the Little Village barrio of Chicago (the largest Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, a thriving, active, and vibrant place despite its relative poverty and long-standing gang culture).

The Little Village High School was created two years ago at a cost of $68 million, apparently the costliest school in Chicago history. It resulted from a 19-day hunger strike that Alma and many parents, youth, and leaders carried out in demand of a new school, a new educational process, and real social change.

The school is a marvel to witness. Most of the students are Mexican, although a significant number are African American (about 20 percent). It is divided into four distinct schools. Each school area is divided by a park-like area with small earthen pyramids as homage to the Mexican Aztec and Mayan structures. They have two gyms, a swimming pool (I understand this is the only one in the Chicago school system), dance studios, a full theater, art & technological centers, a growing library, and more. Alma, who has been doing Aztec dance for years, is also conducting the danza classes at the school. There is also an amazing structure in the middle of the school that is built like an old indigenous sun dial, with 19 seconds of every day held in silence in commemoration of the 19 day hunger strike.

I was honored to be given a tour of the school and to know that YSS and some of the leaders I helped mentor were at the heart of the struggle to build the school, and to help sustain its innovative and visionary structure and educational process. It's an example of self-determination, self-realization, and true community responsibility to better the environment -- as unjust and inadequate as it can be -- for everyone in that community. We can all learn from this vital struggle, particularly as a concrete correction to the current sterile school environments that are choking the spirit and educational capacity of teachers and students in many of our schools today.

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