- Interview by
- Sarah Hurd
Byron Sigcho-Lopez is running for alderman in Chicago’s twenty-fifth ward, which includes the rapidly gentrifiying Pilsen neighborhood and parts of Chinatown, Little Italy, McKinley Park, and the West Loop.
Things have been interesting in the ward lately. Its current alderman, Danny Solis, has been the subject of an array of recent scandals including secretly recording fellow lawmakers as part of an FBI investigation and using his position to barter for sexual enhancement drugs.
While Solis himself has all but disappeared in recent weeks, his shadow looms over the upcoming election. Each of the five candidates running to fill his seat have ramped up efforts to distance themselves from his legacy of Chicago machine-style politics.
Sigcho-Lopez grew up in Quito, Ecuador, and saw the effects the 1998 Ecuadorian financial crisis had on his family and neighbors. After his mother was severely injured in a car accident, the family used the settlement money to send their then-seventeen-year-old son to the United States.
He is a math teacher and public policy researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), and worked as executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots organization promoting public education and affordable housing on Chicago’s Lower West Wide. Byron is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and is part of a slate of five city council candidates endorsed by DSA.
Sarah Hurd, a producer for the Chicago DSA’s Midwest Socialist podcast, recently interviewed Sigcho-Lopez.
What led you to settle in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood?
When I first migrated, I arrived in Tennessee, of all places. I was in a program that put you in places where people don’t speak Spanish, so you are forced to learn English. I was really terrified of going to the lunch room in high school because I was the only Latino. I actually discovered I was Latino there. In Ecuador I am “mestizo,” which is the same as the majority of the country. Here, I’m a minority.
I was valedictorian of my class, but it was really hard for me to get a job. I went three or four months without one. My host family had family in Pilsen, so I had visited back in 2001 and I saw community there. I thought, “There’s gotta be a job there I can do as someone who is bilingual.”
People often leave home when there are really no opportunities. It’s not that people don’t try. I tried everything. I mowed lawns, I worked in a restaurant, I did ACT tutoring. I did everything and couldn’t make ends meet. So I took everything I had and came here.
How did you get into activism?
I was a grad student at UIC and an adult education teacher. I was helping immigrant parents get their GED. I felt like I was helping people like me.
I was a member of Teachers for Social Justice, so I was more involved in education activism. I remember it became real when the school closings happened in Chicago in 2013. I was a volunteer soccer coach at Pilsen Academy, one of the schools that the city was threatening to close, and was on the local school council for another one called Jungman Elementary which was also on the list.
Talk about what exactly happened with these school closings.
CPS claimed the closures were about inefficiency and underutilization. Two hundred fifty thousand residents have left the city in the past twenty years, and the student population decreased. Chicago Public Schools used that fact to justify instituting the kind of neoliberal practices that have been dismantling and defunding schools across the country.
I couldn’t stomach it, so we started going to board meetings and school by school, making calls. I started speaking up more and realized nobody’s going to fight this for us.
You didn’t feel like Alderman Solis was going to help?
Solis was silent the whole time. I went to community input meetings and public hearings where the officials were on their phones while parents were testifying. I think it raised my awareness of how the system oppressed people, how corrupt it is.
The last community input meeting was held way out at the farthest corner of the ward. When everybody was looking the other way, this small organization made up of neighbors, Pilsen Alliance, got buses and said, “We are going to go there.” Hundreds of people showed up.
That day, Solis learned the power of people. When they asked him if the schools would be closed, before he could speak, people booed him. I knew from the look on his face that they could not close those schools, and they didn’t. The two schools are still open today.
What we’re talking about here is creating a people-powered movement against money-powered politicians. The Chicago system right now is completely run on money. How do we escape that?
Solis, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Alderman Ed Burke (who is another longstanding alderman under investigation for corruption) are the people who make the headlines, but the political system in Chicago is what corrupts all these individuals. We live under this kind of casino capitalism, where they literally gamble our tax dollars in risky operations, and all the expenses and all the failures of their gambles, they put on the working people. Solis represents the status quo, but it’s not just him. It’s also the contractors and developers that fund them.
When you talk to people about issues they say, “Well yeah, everyone is corrupt.” We shouldn’t accept that. We have an alderman that was exposed for trading political favors for Viagra, and he’s the one in charge of zoning decisions that affect residents directly.
As long as the aldermen think they are above the law, they will continue to do whatever they want. And in this ward, the only consistent voice against corruption was a socialist voice.
Some socialists would say, “If the system is so corrupt, what makes you think that you can do anything to change it by becoming an alderman?” Solis himself was kind of a radical in the sixties. He hung out with the Black Panthers. But then he joined city council and sold out his community.
I don’t see us battling corruption without understanding the problem at the root. The lack of democracy has imposed inequality, corruption, and despair on so many communities. A socialist becoming part of government and really serving the people creates a new norm.
Alderman Solis was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1996 because of the favors he did and the decisions that hurt his own community. Before he was alderman, he was part of the Chicago Housing Authority Board when they were dismantling public housing. He transitioned the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) into a charter school network, a predatory network that was profiting at the expense of public schools.
Can you talk a bit about UNO?
The United Neighborhood Organization started out as organization doing immigration work, housing advocacy, and community organizing in Chicago’s Mexican-American communities. Over the years, Solis helped the organization become a Latino patronage organization for then Mayor Daley. That let to him being appointed alderman when the current alderman pleaded guilty to charges of bribery. Solis then used his position to expand the network, and UNO ended up being instrumental to electing Rahm Emanuel in 2011.
These things are finally in the light of the public. We need to seize the moment and say “Look, this is a time for transformation.”
Let’s talk about lifting the statewide ban on rent control, which is a local issue that you have been involved with. One of the big arguments people make against it is that it will keep landlords and developers from making as much money as they could otherwise on housing. That’s part of what your graduate school research was on.
Everything has become about markets. Public education is now even being looked at as a market. Housing used to be seen as source of stability. But at some point, housing became seen as a great way to make a small number of people lot of money. That’s a different framework than housing as a human right.
In Pilsen the average income is $34-35,000 a year for a family. If somebody starts charging rents of $2,500 a month, that speculation creates uncertainty, because people don’t know what their rent or property taxes will be tomorrow. Plus, if the area become more “desirable,” city inspectors become more aggressive, and developers put on more pressure to build more expensive housing.
This is not an invisible hand — it’s very visible. Developers are now buying entire blocks in Pilsen because they see the trends. And the people that suffer are the people that have been here for a long time. They are forced to sell because they can’t pay their property taxes or pay for repairs, and there is someone standing by saying, “I can buy this in cash.” I’ve seen that firsthand. When you have an economy based on speculation, based on corruption, based on nickel and diming people, based on pay-to-play, who has a good lawyer, who doesn’t — there’s nothing free about that.
The bill for rent control is on the state level. It allows us to have a democratic process, to decide whether or not we want rent control. We want to create legislation at the local level where homeowners and working people in Chicago can receive tax exemptions when they keep rents affordable. Who says no to that? Developers are getting those exemptions now — we want average people to get them.
To me, being an immigrant, this is my home away from home. I’ve been displaced from one place to another. And that’s what’s happened to a lot of people. We’ve been pushed around, and people are like, “How, in economy with so many resources, do we not have access to basics?”
And that’s why I’m proud to run as a democratic socialist. I think democratic socialism is the only way to challenge the system we have with values that are based on equity and sustainability and stability and social justice.