[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
After participating in a Story Corps interview, Lisa Angonese recounted from memory some of the questions and answers.
Q: Describe your neighborhood and community.
A: We live in a low-income neighborhood that is quickly being gentrified, with condos and family-owned business closing in. We feel ousted out of our own homes.
The rents in Pilsen have gone way up. This community is beautifully full of Mexican culture, and it is trying to stay true to its traditions even though many have had to move due to foreclosures and rising taxes.
Q: Describe what happened with the Whittier Field House three years ago.
A: Well, “La Casita” is what we named it. It means “little house” in Spanish.
Everyone in town knew it by that name. “La Casita” was a cute little building in the school lot that held a lot of memories and history. Many people in the neighborhood remember the field house from 30–35 years ago. That is when the Chicago Park District held activities in the lot. In 2010, and shortly before, moms were having sewing classes inside the building and children were being tutored. It was a springboard of learning for many parents and students.
The “wicked” alderman Danny Solis wanted to demolish La Casita three years ago to make a soccer field for the private Jesuit school Cristo Rey. The cost to demolish was $300,000, and that amount was more than enough to save La Casita and to renovate it. Our campaign at the time was to “Save La Casita.” The Whittier School was without a library. So, it then became the focal point to save La Casita and to build a library. Many public schools are still without libraries.
When the police came to close it down to enforce the demolition order, it was the children who were the first to occupy the building; then the parents followed. A strong feeling of love and unity occurred, so we stayed. We then literally ended up locking ourselves inside. It just happened like that. The police were swarming like bees. We felt that we had to do that. Most of us were mothers with our children there. We all made that decision and it “clicked.” It was as if La Casita defended itself. We were the strength holding it up. See, we always felt the building held its own resilient spirit. That it had it’s own “magic.”
Q: How did the community organize?
A: We had support from the parents, teachers, community leaders, and organizers. The mothers held nightly meetings and slept inside the building with the “no trespassing” sign, very obviously, posted on the front door. We didn’t care about that. We had our own canopy and held parties and picnics, workshops, movies, and classes. In the meantime, we were trying to work with Chicago Public Schools (CPS). They went through several CEOs during the struggle, so I feel that this alone made it very difficult.
Q: What is a memorable moment for the campaign to turn Whittier Field House into a community center?
A: The most memorable moment was the actual signing of the lease to rent the space at La Casita for one dollar a year. Ron Huberman was the CEO at CPS during that difficult period. At that time all the CPS officials signed it, but over the long period that followed, things got very complicated and we felt the expense to repair should have been the responsibility of CPS as “landlords,” shall we say, because La Casita was on CPS property. They had neglected it for so long, like a poor sick old person, they were planning on profiting from its “expiration.” Planning and plotting. I never saw La Casita in that light. Ever. I saw La Casita as a “palace.” CPS has ignored so many of the public schools in the low income areas in this same way. In this sense, we felt discriminated against. In more prominent areas like Wilmette and Winnetka, La Casita would have already been remodeled. We had no assistance.
Q: What promises were made by public officials at the time?
A: The promises made by public officials were to rebuild La Casita, due to the fact that it had some problems cited with the roof, and only to the roof at the time. We actually hired our own architects, who designed a green building, a totally “green” La Casita, as per CPS request. It was an award-winning design, but after that our requests were ignored. I don’t think they planned on us doing that, on coming up with that design. Perhaps, this was the sexist response from CPS, you know, not expecting mothers from a low-income area to be so quick, so clever like that. The money—the $200,000—we lobbied for in Springfield with State Rep. Edward Acevedo, and we were granted that money, but the CPS board members and Pilsen Alderman Danny Solis would not put up the remainder of the TIF money to rebuild. They acted like we never existed after that. They turned their backs on us.
Q: Describe La Casita.
A: La Casita was a place of culture. We promoted family literacy and Latin American Studies was being taught through a program with student tutors from Roosevelt University. We had Fandango nights with Mariachis, Mexican dance classes, Christmas parties, homemade kettles full of piping hot pozole—so good on those very cold days. Professors from major universities were offering workshops, art classes for the children, we had visiting authors in our open lending library with over three thousand books, completely and fully organized by certified librarians—parent librarians and student librarians. They were the children from Whittier. The students. Oh, yes. La Casita was the place to be.
Q: How were the parents involved in creating programming and running La Casita?
A: The parents ran the activities. We were all parents of Whittier students, at first. We were the original activist group of mothers. We created our own operational parent board and we organized activities, attended all the CPS meetings, everything that made La Casita work. We even had a held our own week-long health fair in conjunction with the clinics in the area.
Q: How did community members and allies respond to what you were trying to do?
A: My main thought was by making themselves available. That was difficult, I’m sure, because a lot of people worked. Many thanks goes out to those who worked so hard and sweat with us during the sit-ins, those who slept inside our building, or perhaps donated books and materials. It was everyone’s efforts that made it work.
Q: What is one good memory you have from being at La Casita?
A: We were already occupying the building on the Fourth of July, And it was so cool, we could see fireworks over La Casita from the playground, they were all around us! It was like we had won the revolution or something! I also did a live radio interview that night; many of our interviews were either live or Skyped inside the building. Most were in the library. We could not leave the building. I remember one, where we were literally locked in the library and our voices were nearly above a whisper. We had to be so very quiet. Also, I must mention that the electricity blew out during a major storm, and we were nearing the end of the sit-in then. We were all holding hands in a circle and our friend Katherine from the Black Star Project was praying with us in the middle of the circle. At the end of her prayer, we all lowered our hands together at once. So, suddenly, we heard the power surge back on. We saw La Casita light back up. It was like a miracle. Like it was planned, but it wasn’t.
Q: What are you most proud of from your work with La Casita?
A: I am proud of standing up in the face of danger and discrimination. Against the police. I am proud of my spirit of giving to others. I am proud of the time I spent literally putting a library together from scratch, for the first time. I am most proud of the children, who brighten our days. Everyday. They made it happen.
Q: Why was La Casita important to you? To your children?
A: La Casita was a combined struggle to stand up against some neglect of the school’s premises. It was a community effort to meet regularly on behalf of our children: to embrace our neighborhood and our culture.
Q: Bring us back to the day, when La Casita was torn down? What was it like? Did you know it was coming?
A: No, I did not know it was coming. In fact, it was terrible. I could not believe it. People slept on the side streets the night before to help keep it open. All this demolition was preplanned and we did not know. We had twenty minutes to clear out the building, and we were all threatened with arrest.
We had a full library in there. All our possession were inside. We had to run back and forth to grab our materials, whatever we could hold on to. It felt we were pressed for time. Several people—parents, teachers, and community members—were all arrested. It was ten in all. Four arrests were on Friday and six more were in front of La Casita on Saturday afternoon. I still cannot shake this from my mind. I was on the picket line with my sign, trying to thwart the construction team. The bulldozers crossed the picket line. It was a real nightmare. I still think about it. The children there were traumatized. It’s like that today in the “safe passage” zones. CPS is still traumatizing our children.
Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles to making those hopes come true?
A: The biggest obstacle we have are the political figures in our community, who we may not see eye-to-eye with, but like anyone else, we may have to work with them to ensure a better, safer environment for our children. I say this, because we are planning on rebuilding La Casita.
We have not given up, nor will we ever give up. We are fighters. We cannot let Chicago politics “demolish” our interests. For example, we cannot allow our children to live so close to big factories, constantly breathing in polluted air on a daily basis. That is called “environmental discrimination.” We found that, out, too. In Pilsen, that is still a struggle. We also have the obstacle of ourselves not wanting to stand up. To be involved. We must speak out in the face of injustice.