For the past few years, Byron Sigcho Lopez has been a ubiquitous fixture around Pilsen. As the director of the Pilsen Alliance for the past three years, he’s helped organize a wide range of community meetings, protests, and referendums, with a special emphasis on housing justice. Sigcho Lopez has now taken a leave of absence from the group to run for alderman in the 25th Ward, which stretches from a northeastern corner of McKinley Park, across all of Pilsen, north to parts of the West Loop and South Loop, and south to Chinatown.
Sigcho Lopez emigrated to the United States alone at the age of seventeen from Ecuador. Settling in Chicago after college at Tennessee’s Cumberland University, he began working as a researcher, teacher, and volunteer soccer coach in several Chicago public schools. It was his experience in education that led to what he calls a “political awakening”: in 2013 he became involved in the fight against what became the largest school closing in a single city in American history. That eventually led to his involvement with the Pilsen Alliance.
This isn’t Sigcho Lopez’s first time running against 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis, who’s held the office since 1996. In the 2015 municipal election, Sigcho Lopez fell about eighty votes short of forcing Solis into a runoff.
Speaking at La Catrina Cafe in Pilsen, Sigcho Lopez and I talked about the lessons he learned during the last campaign and as a community organizer, and how he plans to extend those lessons across the 25th Ward and to City Hall. Sigcho Lopez is one of three aldermanic candidates to be endorsed by the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the only one of those on the South Side.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your journey to running for alderman?
After college I moved to Chicago, in 2006, [and for] the last ten years I’ve lived in Pilsen. And that’s where I’ve made my home in terms of organizing. In 2012, when they announced the school closings, I was a teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, so I was working with a lot of parents, helping them with their GED. I was a soccer coach with a lot of kids from the community—the Pilsen Academy was one of the schools—and then we got the news that the school was on the closing list. So that’s how my involvement in organizing and politics came.
I was a member of Teachers of Social Justice, I was doing workshops talking about the privatization of these schools. [At this time] I was a GED math teacher in several schools to help parents get their GED, ESL, computer literacy. So at the time I [saw] how charter schools [said], “Oh, we’re gonna give you better bilingual education, better special education, better this, better that,” but none of that was true. I saw from [the parents] what was happening in the schools at the time. So I was involved in the grassroots education movement [and] the elected school board campaign. But it wasn’t until it really touched home [with the 2013 school closings] that I was like wow, this is an attack on public education, this is an attack on the community. I think it was—you can say a radicalization, you can say awakening. But I really felt it very personally.
When it touches you on a personal level, [it’s] like, “Wow, they’re really closing this space where I’m volunteering.” As an immigrant myself, I can see this could’ve been me. If you don’t have public education, if you start cutting these resources—[and] these are community centers. So I started to see, on a deeper level, what privatization looks like.
And that’s how I started getting involved in organizing. Pilsen Alliance was the organization at the time that was getting parents together, teachers together, because it was not only Pilsen Academy. Jungman Elementary [was] also on the closing list. So they said “hey, you work [at these schools], you should be helping us.” [It was] making phone calls, helping people, and talking to parents, talking to teachers. Learning really what community organizing was. I was a teacher, but I started seeing the importance of community organizing, bringing people together.
I think you can organize long enough, right? We organized against the coal plants, we organized to keep a metal shredder away from Benito Juarez High School. The Pilsen Alliance has taken very important steps to protect the community. But you keep hitting walls when we really talk about real change, systematic change. It’s overwhelming to hear people say, “This is not working, we don’t see changes.” So then you gotta take it from organizing to electoral politics, to the next level. Because that’s really where the decisions are made.
I’m not a career politician, I’m a teacher and an organizer, and I think that’s what’s needed now. Having people who understand what happens at the grassroots level, the pain of the people, and what we need to do to represent everyone. So that’s why I think that’s the next step, to bring it to City Council.
How would you explain the role of alderman to someone who doesn’t follow local politics? What does an alderman do now, in 2018? How does that contrast with what an alderman should do?
I think what they do right now, unfortunately, is rubber stamp for the Mayor. I mean, you could make that case for ninety-five percent of City Council, if not ninety-eight [percent]. And it’s sad when you go there to just agree with what the mayor is saying. Whatever he says goes. And that’s the reality of things right now. But I think there are real changes, real issues in the community that need to be addressed, so an alderman, ideally, has to represent every single resident, school, new resident, long term resident, small business, big business, wherever it is, and we have to represent people adequately and equally. And we don’t see that.
In our schools, we need an alderman that holds CPS accountable when there’s no resources, when adequate resources aren’t getting there. We need an alderman that holds CPD accountable when there’s cases of—like we’re seeing in the case of Laquan McDonald, or the cases we keep seeing every day—when our youth are victims of violence.
So we want an alderman who is accessible. How can we address the issues of violence at ABLA homes [a partially-demolished Chicago Housing Authority development in University Village]? How can we address the issue of displacement in Pilsen? How do we address the issue of an asphalt plant in McKinley Park? How do we address the issues of high taxes, and the Special Service Tax that was imposed on small businesses, in Chinatown? How do we address the issues in Little Italy, that are still advocating for preservation, or in the West Loop where they want to talk about community-driven zoning? Whatever those issues are, I think what is needed is to have an advocate and a real leader. Someone who’s creative and more than anything else, brings people together.
What kind of coalition are you building to support your campaign, and how do you plan to grow that coalition in an area as diverse as the 25th Ward?
I like to think that we have a diverse and unique community which I love. So in my opinion, what is needed is to work with leaders across different communities. We have a bad legacy of segregation. We live almost parallel lives [in] parallel neighborhoods. So I think we need to start talking about these invisible barriers between communities. We need to start bringing the communities together. We want to work with the leaders, bringing resources to the different communities. Talking about violence and displacement, supporting youth programming, supporting local schools—these are things across the board. There’s a lot of common ground, and I [believe in] respecting the leaders, working with the leaders in each community, bringing them together, to make sure that these coalitions are built based upon the leaders we are empowering. It’s important that we democratize our decision-making process in order to empower the residents to make sure they’re at the table. So if we have consistency in our government across the ward, I think people will come together.
Politics are very local, right? So it makes sense that I’m active in my own community. But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t talked and gone to other communities. I’ll give you an example: when we battled the Special Service Tax on 18th Street as Pilsen Alliance. We decided not to tell people what to do, but provided people with information. [Editors’ Note: Pilsen Alliance did oppose the tax in public statements.] So that SSA tax didn’t pass, this is in 2013.
In Chinatown now they’ve been dealing with this same issue, with a Special Service Tax. So they reached out and said, how do you do that? How do we organize so that we don’t impose another tax in our community? So they wanted to ask us questions, and we said yes. So this is what we need to do. I think as a result there was an organization formed around this [issue] in particular. So now, how do we bring [these groups] together? I think there’s real intersectionality in these things.
You’ve been an outspoken critic of current 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis. Can you briefly explain why he’s been ineffective, and how you would do a better job?
When you vote one hundred percent with the mayor, when you have not stood up to school closings, when you have not stood up to coal plants, when you have not stood up to metal shredders that were going to be built in front of a high school, when you don’t stand up to unfair taxes that are being imposed on your community, then the result is that there’s no leadership. As a result, there [aren’t] discussions. There’s no coalition building, and you have the tensions that you see today. I’ve talked to different people about the tensions between new residents and long-term residents, between the [new businesses and the old businesses]. How do we bring people together, when there’s no one who takes a stance?
At Pilsen Alliance, we have taken stances because we believe in the importance of showing leadership, not only when it’s election time, but consistently. And not only because it’s the popular thing to say —because everyone’s a “progressive” now — but to show with your own actions. I think actions speak louder than words. Where have we been on the issues? [Solis’] campaign is being heavily funded by developers, almost entirely. So I made a commitment from the start not to do that, not to follow that model. Because we know what it does to the residents, to the students, to the families, to the small businesses, to the schools. I do think it’s important that we as a collective across the ward have a leader that can unify these voices. But when we have an alderman that listens only to the developers, only to the mayor, only to the special interest groups, we see what we see today. And I think the community is being resilient. People want diversity, we want inclusion, we want progress. We all believe in that. But what does that look like? I think we hear the alderman talking about inclusion and progress, but when 10,000 residents leave the neighborhood, how can we talk about inclusion? In my opinion it is hypocritical to talk about progress twenty-two years later, when you’ve seen the displacement right in front of you. I do think people are fed up and they are ready for change.
You’ve been critical of Danny Solis’ relationship with developers, but if you’re elected alderman they aren’t just going to go away. How will you work with developers who want to build across the 25th Ward?
I [plan] to continue the work we’ve been advocating for at Pilsen Alliance, but now with the leverage of the alderman. To make sure that when developers come in with big projects that we talk about a community-driven zoning process, where we can bring people to the table. If that’s going to impact the residents they should be the first ones [to be] notified—not just with a letter with fine print that no one can understand, but with an actual invitation to participate in the process, and to actually discuss and even bargain on the things we’d like to see.
I mean [with] twenty-one percent affordable housing in big projects, it is more than possible. It’s very feasible, that’s the reason we have it as a mandate here. But if we don’t include the residents, and there are decisions that are made behind [closed] doors, you know, I don’t see any change. I strongly believe in development without displacement. I do think it’s possible. It’s possible to create affordable housing that’s built for families. I do think it’s possible to create community benefits agreements, so the contracting, the hiring also benefits local residents. I believe that those things are very tangible or possible, and we need to talk to the developers with the residents.
Beyond housing and displacement, can you tell me about other issues you’re concerned about right now, and how you would advance that agenda as alderman?
I think that an elected represented school board is critical to make sure we have better representation, better decision-making at the top. A lot of candidates talk about that, which is great. But I am very concerned about how the enrollments across the schools, not only in Pilsen but across the board, are being impacted by displacement.
I see the problems of violence and unemployment that affect the youth, especially in poor communities. I think that’s a big concern. I’ve worked in different parts of the ward where we see high unemployment, less resources for youth development. I’m concerned about how small businesses can also benefit from the changes that are coming to the community. And I’m concerned about, just in general, people actually coming together to find alternatives and find a platform that is really driven by the people, and not by special interest groups, or the same political status quo that has governed for decades.
I think we are making significant steps in organizing around these issues. And the coalition building has to be organizing around these issues on a daily basis, and I think that’s why I believe that we can, in our campaign, provide a viable but also very solid platform that will resonate with people across the board.
You’re one of at least five people already running against Solis. Are you concerned the anti-Solis vote could be split between the challengers, and you could all come up short?
I’m very optimistic. I’m convinced there will be a runoff. But our job is to keep door knocking, keep raising resources to get the message out, empowering people to vote. You may not agree with everything we say, but participating is important. This is about showing an alternative, not only being anti- something, anti-Solis. We need to show what we are for. And I think that in these [past] four years I’ve had an opportunity to work on the issues, to be out there, to lead community efforts, to organize town halls, to listen to different community residents and propose alternatives that I hope the constituents of the 25th Ward see as an important element for anybody seeking public office. I think [my] track record and experience is critical.
Quinn Myers is a contributor to the Weekly. He is an audio and print journalist living in Pilsen. Most recently, he covered the Bud Billiken parade for the Weekly.