Interviewer: Dale Rosen
Production Team: A
Interview Date: April 15, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1096
Sound Rolls: 143-144
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Garcia Jesus, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 15, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Describe the politics in Latino community under the machine, the alderman, and how they ran politics.
Well, before we elected Harold Washington, before our community came to be respected, ah, we had to put up with a lot of garbage, ah, in our own communities where we were the majority. We had machine alderman who, ah, were very insensitive, ah, who demonstrated, I believe, just disrespect. And, ah, I think a lot of contempt for the fact that the neighborhood changed. For example, ah, in this community we had an alderman who, in spite of the community being 70, 75 percent, ah, Latino, mostly Mexican, ah, didn't even bother to have a bilingual person in his ward office, ward public service office, funded by taxpayers money. And everybody here paid taxes, very hard working people. Ah, not having a Hispanic, having a bilingual person, someone who could simply communicate with people. Had machine alderman that, when you went to see him, he'd look at the poll sheet to see, not only if you were registered but if you had probably voted for him or not, you know, how bad can you get? The situation got so bad that the alderman, my predecessor here, moved out of the community, was living in suburbia, contrary to law. That was one of the things that we had to expose in our efforts to defeat him. This is a very young community. You need to have someone who is going to be visible, who is going to provide leadership, who is going to try to convey a sense of caring to such a young community that we didn't have under machine politics. In another ward, you had an alderman who just despised that the community was changing, made public comments, documented that if these people didn't like it they should go back to Mexico, that any animal--
Cut. What happened--
Tell me about the alderman--
The machine alderman in this ward would keep a list, by precinct, of all the favorable voters and the unfavorable or unreliable voters. And if you wanted to see the alderman, first of all, you had to be a voter. And if you wanted to try to get services, you had to be a favorable voter, or go there and make a commitment that you would, in the next election, vote their way. And if you didn't, if you simply went in there as a concerned citizen saying you should have these services because you're a taxpayer, you wouldn't get them because you didn't play ball. We also had an alderman in the neighboring ward that showed his despise for the changing neighborhood, for the Mexicans, for the Latinos, for the minorities, he'd made public comments that if people didn't like it here that they should go back to Mexico, that this was America, and that people had to learn to speak English because no one was going to bend over backwards to accommodate to them. They were not special. People would go, ask for their streets to be cleaned, for basic city services, those services were considered favors that the alderman would bestow upon constituents if they behaved right. It was a privilege. During the campaign of, ah, '83, he made a lot of really derogatory comments about how dirty "these people" were, about the fact that any animal, me, mean, meaning anyone who was not like him, could run for office but that animals couldn't get elected to office. So it was OK for you animals to run but you're not going anywhere because we run it here. That was the bottom line.
When did people recognize the need for independent action and independent political pressure--
I think that sense of--
We'll need to do that again.
When did people recognize the need for independent political action?
Well after the, ah, '80 election and the census, ah, as we were approaching 1982, I think people were starting to hurt from the recession, from the Reagan policies initiated, ah, by that administration and locally there seemed to be a lot of parties going on. Jane Byrne was making Chicago a party town, a festival here, a festival there. Let them eat cake, type of an attitude. And I think the people were saying, "Well this may be entertaining but we're hurting." People were concerned about jobs. People were concerned about whether or not they could make ends meet with public aid, with unemployment compensation, ah, a gubernatorial race was heating up, ah, in the State of Illinois and all forecasts were that those types of policies would probably continue. I think people started to get fed up. Latinos by this time had begun to understand that they were the fastest growing group in the city, the state, and the country. However, we didn't have any representation in City Hall, in the State Legislature, in Congress, just a few. There, there was also a theme going around that the '80s were going to be decade of the Hispanic. And I think all of these things came into play and people said, "Well, if this is going to be our decade, we better get moving here before the sun goes down."
Describe the attitudes of some of Mexican American attitudes toward Blacks, some of the racism that existed in the community prior to the campaign.
The relationships between Latinos and Blacks in the city had never been very good. There really weren't any relations. Relationships basically, ah, ah, ah, were born when Latinos would hear that a, a Black person robbed this Latino woman, that Mexican, some Mexican guys went and beat up a couple of Black guys, ah, for no reason. There was racial polarization about the use of a park in the community. These were the types of relationships that existed. The Harold Washington campaign focused in on the economics of things. People be, began to realize that working people all over the country were hurting, Blacks, Latinos, Whites, all working people were losing jobs, were all concerned about the future. And it was the sense that we had to fight to better the conditions of all people. I think that was the most important message that Harold Washington was sending out that managed to cut through the racism because everyone was concerned about making ends meet, about survival, about living in communities that were healthy economically in terms of health care, ah, in terms of, ah, jobs in terms of dealing with the social problems, gangs, drugs, ah, dirty streets. And Harold Washington was talking about decency. He was talking about fairness. He was talking about reform and re-prioritizing the needs of the city so that the neighborhoods could become better places for everyone.
Tell me about that one particular person, her transformation.
The '83 campaign changed a lot of people, a lot of us. It took people from where they were at and it elevated them to become leaders who had to look inside themselves because they were going to be leading people, a movement and one example that just makes me, just feels so good about how far we've come as a result of the Harold Washington campaign and movement, there was a woman in, in our, in our ranks who, really didn't know Black people, ah, knew a little bit about the music because, you know, at the parties and that. But had not really known Black people and was fearful, had some racist, prejudicial attitudes, ah, toward Blacks and after getting involved with the Washington campaign, after meeting Harold Washington, it just totally changed her reality because, I think he touched her as a, what a great human being, what a great Black human being, hell, what a human being. So, let's leave the Black out and just deal with that. And she went from being, I think, fearful of Black people to understanding why she had been fearful because she didn't know them, getting to know not only him and feeling good about knowing him but also wanting to extend that to them, to the people.
Tell me about your personal transformation from going to be an activist to being involved in electoral politics.
Well, it was quite an experience. 1980 we were sitting around, we were very active in, in the community but we saw ourselves as militant and very pure and we struggled and we were committed and, ah, you know we made sacrifices. And we kind of felt at that time that electoral politics was kind of establishment, selling out, compromising perhaps principles, on and on. And when we recognized that if we wanted to empower our people we had to find some practical ways of doing it and discovered that the right to vote had been something that people died for, people struggled for. It was a continuation of the movement to get rid of slavery. Came to appreciate that I think because, although our numbers were, were there, there was no power there. We were weak. So, as a result of realizing those things, we had to figure out how do we become players in this game and keep our principles. Well, you discover that once you become a player in that arena you have to do some things. You have to make some adjustments in your life. We had to cut our hair a little bit more. Ah, shave in certain parts of the face that we weren't accustomed to. Perhaps shaving during that time. And, we had to start buying different types of clothing and attire. So we went through some of these changes. We were transforming ourselves not just on the outside but on the inside too and sorting out all of these things and trying to keep one thing in mind, that was to have a clear perspective about what we were doing. We didn't just want to be politicians or political activists in the electoral arena. We were trying to figure out how we became electoral but kept our principles and our morals intact and I think these changes that you saw on the outside were also going on on the inside. We really wanted to be able to feel decent about ourselves.
So what happened to you during that crises?
Well, I went through another change, another big transformation. Ah, I was a guy in the neighborhood who considered himself kind of popular, knew a lot of people, ah, was kind of a hip guy, I was, you know, in to it. Could talk about anything that people wanted to talk about, serious or music or style and fashion. And, ah, I had to go through some big changes. I always used to tell people after I became a candidate for office that some of the biggest sacrifices that I had to make were right up here. Used to have some mean sideburns, all the way down here and pointy like boots and I had a little goatee that I'd never shaved since it first came out. That was, that was my pride and joy. And in 1983 I had to shave it off. I remember, took the family out, we went, ah, out for about on a week-end and I told my wife, you know, this really means a lot to me. So, we went out so that I could shave it and not have to worry about having a, a White spot there, so I could get sun on it and put suntan, ah, lotion, because I'm kind of light skinned. So we did that and we had to go and get some sport coats and ties. As a matter of fact we checked out a couple of second hand places because we didn't have money to buy regular, you know, suits and sport coats. So, ah, there were a lot of changes that people went through. We were really transformed.
How did the other candidates appeal to Latinos? You talked somewhat about how Harold Washington did. How did the other candidates when they came to the community?
Well in the '83 election I guess they came with their traditional approach. Ah, the most traditional was the, the Daley approach. Ah, they set up an "Amigos for Daley" campaign. And he came and they had the mariachi band and the traditional approach ah, that had been, ah, carried out by machine politicians in Chicago. Ah, Byrne came in with here Fiestas, OK, she was a little more progressive. She was beyond the amigos, she was Hispanics. I want to help the Hispanics out. And she was throwing her mini festival.
Tell me how Byrne and Daley would come into the community and try and make an appeal for votes.
In the '83 campaign we saw Daley come into the community, ah, kind of like, hey let's go to amigo land and have the cameras rolling, the lights burning and we'll make the spiel, put on the hat, have the mariachis play and say, "Vote for me because I am your amigo and when I get in I will help my amigos." Goodbye. Jane Byrne did a little more differently. She was into festivals and you know Chicago is a great city. We party here. We have ChicagoFest and we have the Neighborhood Fest. So, she came in and a little more sophisticated--she might have the mariachi band here but then she'd have the salsa band here, and she would go up there and be, you know, just hipper than, than, than, Richie, and would say, "My Hispanic friends," you know, "this is the decade of the Hispanic and when I get in I'm going to help you. We're going to have some great parties here because the Hispanics are really going to come of age under my administration." Harold's approach was different. Harold came into the community, not making the grand entrances not with a mariachi band. He came here and he came to talk about respect. He came and reminded us that, while he was a State legislator and then a congressman, he was defending bilingual education. He was defending immigrant's rights and fighting and, and stopping discriminatory immigration, ah, legislation in Congress and in Springfield. And Harold was saying, you need to have your own representatives. You need to have your own agenda. I want to take that agenda and implement it when I'm elected mayor. But in order to do that we've got to clean up City Hall so that everyone can be represented. We need to fight for the interests of working people everywhere. That was not a traditional approach.
Can you describe the, ah, reception that Harold got when he came to the community, that one you were telling me about.
We had opened up an office for Harold in the ward and, ah, it was kind of a humble setting, it was kind of small. It used to be a beauty shop I think. And he came on a Sunday afternoon. It was kind of cloudy out. And people had started to sense that this thing is really building up. People were starting to sense that even if we didn't win the election, we're winning here. There's a sense of victory. We, we've already won and man if we pull it off, like, we have really won. Harold came. It was kind of cloudy and drizzling a little bit. We had our posters out there. There were children and little babies out there and we had our el sol sale, the sun rises for the Latino and then Harold Washington and the sun. He looked like a bee, bee, ah, with the, with the yellow and Black. It was a great poster and he came out of there, there was a mob there. We don't know where all these people came from. We expected 50, 75 people there. It just grew and grew. He went inside, did his little ribbon cutting. It was so packed he couldn't cut a ribbon. You know, we had the kids there with their buttons on and they were going wild. So, we had to take him out of the office. We paraded him for about a block and a half and the crowd just kept getting bigger and bigger. We don't know where all, huge signs were there and people were just ecstatic about it. We knew that we were on to something then. I mean people just went and worked the rest of that week until victory day.
How has some--how did the campaign change the Latino community?
I think the most important thing about the campaign--
How did the campaign change the Latino community in Chicago?
I think Latinos felt that for the first time they were seen as important people, as people who were going to be involved in shaping the future. And I think that gave people a sense of belonging. It made people want to come out and people started thinking about planning and getting ready to help build the future. I think that's what that campaign was about.