As the Chicago mayoral race rolls through its last week, young people from Chicago’s South and West side neighborhoods are rallying behind Rahm Emanuel’s challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Far away from the city’s affluent neighborhoods, youth of color in Chicago see sides of this city that conflict with the “world class” image the mayor is so preoccupied with projecting. Gang violence, school crowding and closures, and unemployment disproportionally affect the youth.
On Saturday, March 28 dozens of young voters gathered in front of the Chicago Board of Elections to early vote for Chuy Garcia. Some were voting for the very first time.
Berto Aguayo, 20, who grew up in the Back of the Yards and is now a junior at Dominican University, says that his neighborhood and others like it have been “politically abandoned.” He told the crowd that “young people in the city of Chicago are not naïve about the problems our city faces. We know there’s tough choices to be made. But we’d rather have a mayor making those decisions that really deeply understands the struggles that the ordinary Chicagoan faces on a daily basis.”
Between the ages of 13 and 17, Aguayo says he was deeply involved with a gang. “The reason I was involved was because there was no other outlet for me to do anything productive. Opportunities are really lacking in my neighborhood.” He has three younger sisters and his mom, who raised them alone, makes less than $15,000 per year. Jobs were almost impossible to find, especially without a car to get downtown or to the North Side where there are more opportunities. He says a lot of his friends and neighbors feel “stuck.”
“I found Chuy’s work at Enlace really inspiring,” says Aguayo, speaking of the candidate’s leadership of the prominent community development corporation in Little Village. Garcia improved youth employment through Enlace and Aguayo thinks Chicago needs many more such organizations. He also says Garcia has a much better understanding of public safety issues than Emanuel.
“Chuy has a better understanding of what it takes to build trust between police and the community. There’s this notion that there’s a ‘no snitching’ policy, that the reason why crimes happen and the reason why Chicago is so violent is because there’s nobody willing to speak up.” Aguayo disagrees. “It’s just the fact that there’s no trust between the police and the everyday people in the city. How are you going to expect somebody that’s living in the community who witnessed a crime to tell a complete stranger what happened? I think that’s a very unrealistic expectation, and I think Chuy realizes that. The steps that he’s laid out with respect to community policing are trying to address that.”
Aguayo has been canvassing for Chuy since the fall and has seen enthusiasm for this candidate among Black and Latino youth all over the city. Carmen Yang, 19 and a freshman at University of Wisconsin Madison, helped organize the rally on Saturday and has similarly been ringing doorbells for Chuy in Chinatown. In all her time canvassing she says she hasn’t met any young people who planned to vote for Emanuel.
Yang echoes many of Aguayo’s concerns. She saw the consequences of Emanuel’s drastic education cuts as a student at Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park, a majority Latino and Asian school where most students are also low-income.
“Many teachers were laid off, and I remember some of the classrooms in my high school contained as much as forty students. Some classes were so crowded that some students had to stand during class because there weren’t enough chairs.”
Yang is also concerned about the increase in standardized testing across Chicago’s public schools. “It’s just an ineffective way to help students’ growth. Rather than teach students actual skills, students are taught how to take tests basically. Chuy fights to lower the stakes of standardized testing.”
She is also drawn by Garcia’s neighborhood credentials. “He listens to people and he actually cares about everyone not just the one percent.” As for Emanuel, she says “he’s not really oriented with working class people at all, he doesn’t understand the struggle, based on his attention on the downtown area and neglect for working class neighborhoods.”
In many ways the issues dividing Chicago today are generational as well as racial. The older, white voters in the city are overwhelmingly concerned with the pension crisis. Garcia has been slammed for not providing concrete details about how he will handle the city’s precarious finances.
Many young people, however, must survive gang violence, and get through a school day with a seat in a classroom before they start thinking about retirement. For them, Garcia, who is endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Unions, SEIU, and other working class organizations, is a hopeful alternative to a mayor they feel has no interest in them.
Maya Dukmasova is a writer and photographer based in Chicago. She writes about issues affecting low-income communities and people of color. Her work has appeared in Jacobin, the Chicago Reader, Harper's, and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @mdoukmas.
Image credit: Missy Rosa