Little Village's 2017 Mexican Independence Day Parade (Bridget Gamble)

On October 11, a study of twelve predominantly Latinx community areas in Chicago was published by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy (IRRPP) and the Great Cities Institute, research centers affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). “The Latino Neighborhoods Report” examines income levels, employment opportunities, homeownership rates, and health insurance coverage in each of the twelve community areas; most notably, it finds that education rates among Chicago’s Latinx communities lag well behind their Black and white counterparts.

The report’s subject matter is a familiar one for its author, José Miguel Acosta-Córdova, a second-year master’s student of urban planning and policy at UIC. Acosta-Córdova was born in in Little Italy, where his family settled after emigrating from Mexico in the early 1950s. But in the sixties, the UIC campus where he now attends school was constructed. His family experienced firsthand the negative impact of urban planning on a local community when they, like many other families in their neighborhood, were forced further west. With this report, and also through the student organization he helped found, Acosta-Córdova shows how urban planners might begin to solve some of the same problems their discipline often creates.

In January 2016, during his senior year at UIC, Acosta-Córdova cofounded a group for promoting the matriculation of Latinx urban planning majors. The group dubbed itself LPODER—Latino Planning Organization for Development, Education, and Regeneration—pronounced “el poder,” or “the power” in Spanish. Around the same time, an organization for Black urban planning students, the Society of Black Urban Planners (SBUP), also formed; the organizations’ joint purpose was to encourage minority students in a profession that often doesn’t reflect the demographics of the communities it works in. Nationally, eighty-one percent of professional urban planners are white, and Acosta-Córdova explained that the motivation behind creating the student organizations was to empower residents from the communities and ensure that communities in the future would benefit from “having [planners] that are from the neighborhoods and from these areas, or at least can relate much better.”

In addition to recruiting Latinx students to the field of urban planning, LPODER aims to educate fellow urban planning majors on planning topics related to the Latinx population. Over its first two years, LPODER has organized panel discussions and film screenings on topics such as public transit and gentrification, as well as the African diaspora in Latin America.

The organization also works to encourage more Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students in districts with high percentages of Latinx students to study urban planning at UIC. One project LPODER worked on with West Town Bikes helped students in an After School Matters program use census data to determine the best locations in their community to propose new bike lanes. “When you’re planning, you’re planning for everybody,” Acosta-Córdova said. “Everybody in the city, everybody in the region… Sometimes understanding the big picture also helps different organizations or different groups that are fighting for a similar cause be able to collaborate.”

LPODER’s work with CPS students overlaps with a trend from the report that Acosta-Córdova found particularly striking: the discrepancy in educational attainment between Latinx and other populations. Overall, almost a third of Latinx Chicagoans over the age of twenty-five lack high school diplomas, compared to five percent for white and fifteen percent for Black Chicagoans. The figures for bachelor’s degrees are even lower: in half the studied community areas, only four to six percent Latinx residents have bachelor’s degrees; the highest figure, in Irving Park, is fifteen percent. That’s compared to twenty-one percent of Black people and sixty-two percent of white people. “The majority of community areas in the city that have issues around educational attainment are predominantly Latino,” Acosta-Córdova said. “And it’s something that I feel like not enough people are talking about.”

The report’s authors speculate that the low levels of high school and college graduation may be related to the high percentage of Latinx residents who were born outside the U.S. But the lack of Latinx teachers in CPS may also contribute to the trend. During the 2015-2016 school year, Latinx students made up close to half of the CPS student body, but the number of Latinx teachers in CPS was only seventeen percent of the total. Students of color in particular do better in school when they have teachers of the same ethnicity, as the IRRPP reported in its State of Racial Justice report earlier this year.

The report also brings out other puzzling questions: why West Lawn has unusually high median income and homeownership rates despite average education levels, and why Little Village has one of the lowest median incomes for Latinx people despite having the second highest grossing commercial corridor in the city, just behind the Magnificent Mile. Ricardo Estrada, president and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, the nonprofit charitable organization that commissioned the report, says these are promising areas for future study.

In the report, Acosta-Córdova calls for policymakers to enact policies that promote early childhood education, high school completion, higher education, and job retraining programs for high-paying jobs in existing and emerging industries for Latinx residents. The report also recommends pursuing policies that promote home and business ownership and improving health insurance rates among Latinx residents. In many cases, this is already the work of organizations like LPODER and Metropolitan Family Services, which are connected to the report’s creation and are from within the communities they are trying to change.

For Acosta-Córdova, the most gratifying aspect of producing the report is empowering the people living in the area to understand the state of their communities within a broader context. “It’s kind of a Latino neighborhood database,” he said. “That was definitely the most important thing for me—that this is accessible to the community. I don’t want this to bounce around academia. It’s important that the organizations out there that are doing the important work and the work that needs to be done have access to this resource.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Acosta-Córdova grew up in the Little Italy neighborhood. He was born there, but did not grow up there.

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