In this episode, we speak with Jose Rico, Senior Vice President of Community Impact at the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. Jose leads the organization’s community impact work in education, income, health and basic needs support. He also stewards its Neighborhood Network model of delivering highly coordinated and concentrated services in underserved communities.
Prior to the United Way, Jose served as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics where he planned policy, strategic initiatives, outreach, and communications for President Obama’s education agenda in the Latino community.
We learn about:
The UWMCs approach to investing in non-profits and communities
Jose’s perspective on Latino leadership
Opportunities for philanthropy to build coalition
Importance of finding passion and mastering your craft
By Isa Adney via Fox News | When José Rico emigrated from Mexico to Chicago with his family when he was seven years old, he never would have dreamed he would one day be appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as an Executive Director for an initiative focused on an incredibly important issue for Latinos and all Americans—education.
Most of my life, I’ve been searching for home. I came to Chicago with my younger brother as a young child. Both my parents had to make the journey to the US years before us, so they can put food on the table.
Most of my life, I’ve been searching for home. I came to Chicago with my younger brother as a young child. Both my parents had to make the journey to the US years before us, so they can put food on the table. They were farmers, who were not able to feed their family because their communal lands, ejidos, were being privatized. Their dislocation is how millions of campesinos came to el otro lado; my parents just happened to some to the southwest side of Chicago to work in the railroads and the Zenith factory. During this time, we lived with our Abuela where I lived with my brother, Tios and Tia. My home was just a small farm, with a tin roof in the outskirts of Mexico City and everyone had to work to contribute. I was selling safety pins in the main plaza, el Zocalo. In our colonia Nezahualcoyotl, we traded food for other items, including potable water with our neighbors. We raised chickens, roosters, bunnies, pigs, goats, herbs, and fruits. Luckily, we also had an outhouse! I learned how to grow food and tend livestock. We transported the fields of Michoacan to Nezahualcoyotl and learned that we could sustain ourselves.
But then, we became economic refugees, leaving everything and everyone we knew and loved. My family went from being able to sustain themselves, sharecroppers in their own lands, to becoming illegal aliens in a country that wants to exploit everything from us, but does not want us. This is a shared suffering, connected to a broader diaspora, with people from many countries and places that find a way to enter a hostile place to try to achieve the ‘American Dream,’ and find it’s harder to just survive. I made that journey in the trunk of a station wagon, put there by a European-American family as they hid us in dirty laundry, driving across the border from Tijuana, to San Diego.
The cold, gloomy day I arrived to Chicago was a stark contrast to my home. I became aware at a very young age that I was hunted, and dangerous and dispensable. My early years here exposed me to gang shootings on my block, INS raids that chased families from laundromats and schools which separated parents from their kids. Even as the second grade student, I saw how teachers arbitrarily kick out students from school for being “bad.”
Schooling change my life.
At that time, no one in my family had more than a 4th-grade education. I didn’t attend school in Mexico, although there was a primary school on my block. When I arrived to Chicago, my parents were eager to enroll us in school and entrusted the teachers to treat us right and teach us English. Getting una educacion justified leaving our home and making a tremendous sacrifice, so we can have a better life. What I experienced in school was a textbook example of how to whitewash and marginalize who I was and where I came from. I experienced repeated attempts to cast my language, values, customs, and traditions as inferior and to erase my home from my psyche in order to assimilate me. In the first week, I was labeled a special education student because none of my teachers were able to teach me. My espanol was an alien language. Therefore students who only knew Spanish were seen as unteachable. Those of us with this disability were separated from “regular” classes and didn’t receive the same access to programs, field trips or teachers.
My parents couldn’t communicate to my teachers, understand our report cards or felt welcomed in the school. As years and grades progressed, this level of cultural attacks started to get affect me. I attended the cities’ top selective enrollment high school and became captain of the track team, dated a cheerleader, and was accepted to every college I applied to. I was inducted to the hidden curriculum that rewarded me for how well I assimilated to a set of standards and values that were essentially foreign to me. I was being assessed on how well I acculturated to a system of meritocracy and my acceptance depended on how proficient I become in internalizing these values of individuality, competition, and middle class status. I hated school.
Since the spirit of our ancestors are powerful, I was reminded of home during my freshman year in college. I was an engineering student at U of I with a full academic scholarship (what did that tell you about my ability to assimilate?) I was studying for a mid-term and I received a call from my father that my Abuela had passed away. She was my spiritual connection to my identity, to Home, but I could not go to the funeral, see my family and say goodbye to her because I was undocumented. The shame of not being able to return home because of my undocumented status caused me great pain. It made me reassess everything I had internalized in high school about achieving the American Dream. In my first history of Mexico course that I learned that the immigration and criminalization policies of the 80’s and 90’s, were created explicitly to separate families and to cause us me that pain. I started to make the connection between my psychological colonization through schooling, the physical marginalization and attacks that were carried out in my block and the federal policy that caused me so much pain. This is how we became ghettoized, causing extreme suffering from violence, deterioration, and depression. The fact that we resist this is a testament to our resiliency. This is what the fight for DACA right now is so important. This a public policy fight to defend who we are and what we value.
So I fought back.
I was enraged that colonial practices of dehumanization, imperialism and racial violence were still being used against us. I organized against the racist and degrading Chief Illiniwek, I took over the streets to protest the gulf war, the Rodney King verdict, and occupied the University to establish the first Latina/o Studies program in the state of Illinois. This is how system relented, for a moment, and recognized that we were right on these issues. We won. When I returned to Chicago, I became a teacher because I wanted to share, from my experience, how we could disrupt the cycle of oppression. I wanted to protect children from the dehumanizing experience that schooling put me through and demonstrate that they are loved and have value. I taught in an alternative school, to teach the young people labeled dropouts, gang bangers, and unteachable. My students transformed me. Their stories and resilience showed me how together we can heal. Through teaching and organizing, I was able to understand and own my own struggle. The truth is that teaching is hard, especially for a 23 year old, also trying to figure out how to make connections with students. I became aware of how deep and wide spread the the trauma we carry for being homeless, victims of violence or not belonging. That our behaviors can oftentimes be linked to that trauma, and if we don’t heal can have terrible consequences. Nevertheless, my students were more than their trauma and labels. Healing circles, providing needed social services and participating in direct actions against root causes were all part of a powerful pedagogy that made learning into personal transformation. To this day, I get overwhelmed with joy whenever I bump into a former student and learn about their life’s journey.
I became transformed by their resiliency. I learned how a young mom who wanted to go to school, couldn’t because the school was not set up with a daycare. I discovered that many students had learning disabilities that made them geniuses in many aspects but could not sit still, read or follow mundane rules. I witnessed how an educational system was not set up to educate students and was complicit in merely pushing them away. If a kid was lucky, there was a family who was willing to shelter them, but most were thrown to the streets because they did not have the means to support them, financially, emotionally or to understand them. So I threw myself into teaching and organizing with the belief that every young person has value and a right to have a better the future in our community. It became a human right issue for me, one that I learned I had to exercise or else we would lose that right.
The system is rigged
This was the 90’s, when the city budgets were being slashed. CPS was closing programs due to bankruptcy, social services and youth programs were being eliminated in many neighborhoods, exacerbating an all-time high murder rate. These cuts were caused and justified by the biggest economic recession of the hip-hop era. The policy solutions were more incarceration (three strikes law), increased deportations (IRAIRA), and the acceleration of privatizations of government (charter school legislation), like public education. These policies were undermining the human rights of young people at the expense of growing corporate profits. I was reliving the murdering of children, separation of families and destabilizing neighborhoods and spreading of fear in many communities throughout Chicago. Their intention was and continues to be to instill fear and cause suffering; To immobilize our bodies and inject self-doubt about our self-worth, so we don’t take action or work collectively in our own power.
Although my neighborhood was considered a ghetto (a term that I first learned in high school when teachers referred to it in a pejorative way), it became my new home, mi Barrio. The streets of Pilsen and Little Village is where I experienced love, resistance and joy. One of my earliest memories that made my connection to home was during the much anticipated Mexican Independence Parades of 18th Street. In addition to the music, folkloric groups from each state, was the procession of a group called CASA that was protesting the immigration raids and promoting collective actions. Many of them were young, long haired and loud, as they handed out know your rights flyers. Their open resistance to La Migra and Mayor Daley showed me that we do not need to be afraid and that fighting back was living. It was my first example of how small groups of committed people could improve the lives of many. This was also true with the food pantry operated by the storefront evangelical church on the corner, the CYO boxing program in the church basement, my little league baseball team and the after school program my eighth grade teacher organized on his own. I can count in one hand the number of committed people that created courageous places for me and my friends so we can grow up safe and learn to count on each other. This work was done by a few individuals that hated to see the inequity of how we lived and made a personal commitment to equity and made a great sacrifice to get involved. They felt an enormous responsibility to serve others with the little that they had. Their commitment saved my life.
I am serving others because I also believe in their humanity. I would not be here if others did not carry out the principal of Ubuntu or in service to others. But what really deepened my commitment to improving my neighborhood (and made it clear what side I was on) was when I became a father. My son consumed all my energy, stretched my emotional and intellectual capabilities, but also caused me to redefine myself and the role I was going to play in his life. Tizoc was born with cerebral palsy, which means that he has had medical treatment including taking medication, attending physical or occupational therapy, have surgery, going to counseling, job training, and advocating for accommodations, etc. everyday or every week of his life. That regime has placed limits on his time, places he can go or opportunities available to him because of the barriers he confronts because of his condition or his wheelchair he confronts. It’s who he is and I love him with it and despite it.
Knowing the challenges that he would face in CPS, his mom lead a fight for over 10 years to ensure that he’d have access to a neighborhood high school with his classmates. The Madres de Mayo sacrificed their bodies and demonstrated to Chicago that the love for our children is more powerful when we act collectively. I helped designed the school using community ownership principles and focused on personalized instruction to put students at the center. We were able to create a school made possible by the hopes of its parents, the stories of it’s students, and lead by community residents and teachers.
Because of a community wide effort, I was able to create a home for black and brown students where we can learn and create a culture of resistance, healing and action. We created a place where parents, teachers and students were free to create. Where their stories mattered and they didn’t have to hide their past, and celebrate our struggle. Where we had healing circles, parent journals, student performances, student salsa bands and parent peach cobbler bake offs! I wasn’t the best principal. I constantly fought with Central Office and made rookie mistakes, but we created a community of teachers, parents and students that were willing to accept each other and believe that we could transform ourselves.
My son graduated from Little Village Lawndale High School and received a full scholarship to an elite liberal arts college. Despite our generational differences, it’s incredible how his life mirrors how I’ve navigated our world. My language and immigration status were my wheelchair and crutches. He has reminded me that everyone needs support. That he has a unique voice and struggle he has to fight for. That we need to be ready to provide unconditional love, and that we need to hold everyone accountable to ensure we can life in peace, with our basic needs met and a place we can call home. That day will come, when we work together to make it happen.
Today, I say good morning everyday to my Abuela and my heart is filled with love.
Part of being a Chicagoan and a parent of a young adult son is living with the awareness that your child could get shot. It’s a reality that you try to ensure does not happen, but a few months ago it came far too close to becoming a reality for me.