- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is running for alderman in Chicago’s thirty-third ward, which mostly covers Albany Park, a working-class immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has slowly begun gentrifying in recent years. She is up against Deborah Mell, who was gifted the seat by her father, longtime alderman Dick Mell, in 2013.
Rodriguez-Sanchez was born in Puerto Rico and lived there for almost thirty years until, as she explains in this interview, she was forced to leave by austerity measures that decimated the island’s public school system, where she worked as a drama teacher. Upon moving to Chicago, she has worked as a youth community-theater director and been involved in immigrant rights organizing and tenant organizing. Her rhetoric about the urgent need for socialism and winning a Chicago for the many is bold.
“I get this feeling that all of these dinosaurs who haven’t been meeting the needs of the working class, I think they’re done,” she recently told the Chicago Reader.
Rodriguez-Sanchez spoke with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht at an event in Chicago. The transcript has been edited and condensed. You can also hear the interview as a podcast on the Dig.
Let’s start with your personal story. Where are you from?
I am from a town on the east coast of Puerto Rico, Humacao. I grew up on this mountain that overlooks the sea — it’s a really beautiful place. My father was a community organizer, so I was always around people that were organizing.
I went to my first protest when I was six. We were protesting for water. We didn’t have any water in my neighborhood, both because there was a drought and because a US Navy base in a nearby town called Ceiba got access to our water. So our water was redirected to the base.
The other day I asked my dad about this story, and he reminded me that they were actually using water to fill a pool. It was not even to cover the basic needs of the soldiers.
They were swimming in the water that you should’ve been drinking?
Yeah. So, my community organized and protested. I remember making my little sign with my dad. And at the end, some of my neighbors went to the top of the hill where a pump had been put, and they found a valve that allowed the water to flow to the base. They shut it down, and then the water came back.
And it was a revelation. They took our water, we went and we took it back. Because it belonged to us. So, I learned that early: you need to fight for the things that belong to you.
I come from a community that is very well organized, and that is the way that it survived the hurricane. Currently my brother, his partner, and most of my family still live there. The only reason why my community is still there after the hurricane is because forty years ago this community started organizing itself. Now there is a mutual-aid project that is feeding people and creating structures so that if another hurricane comes, they’ll survive.
Yes, Naomi Klein did a tour around Puerto Rico where communities are highly organized and developing mutual-aid projects. She went to my neighborhood and wrote about what my community and family are doing there.
So, you grew up in Puerto Rico, went to the University of Puerto Rico, and eventually became a teacher. What was that experience like?
I worked as a teacher several times. I am a community-theater artist, so I was a drama teacher in Puerto Rico before moving to Chicago. The first year that I worked there, it was bad. Working in Puerto Rico as a teacher, especially in poor communities, is a really big struggle. Everything that you use in your classroom, you buy it with your own money.
I remember being given this sheet to list the materials I needed for my classroom. I spent a whole day putting those materials there. Months passed, and I didn’t get anything. So, one day I asked a teacher in the school, “Did you get your materials?” She’s like, “What are you talking about?” “Those materials that you put on the paper.” She said, “Oh, we don’t get that, that’s just a paper you have to fill out. They’re not gonna give us anything.”
I was a drama teacher, and I would go to the Salvation Army or the thrift store to get all of the costumes. Everything I bought on my own. Even the floor fans that were in my classroom, I brought from my house.
The second year that I was there, Law Seven, a set of austerity measures in Puerto Rico, was approved. They cut a bunch of money from education. They removed the cap on the number of students that you could have per classroom. So for the first year I was buying all of my materials, but I had an average of twenty students per class in a middle school. For my second year, when I started I had over forty seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade students in my classroom. I didn’t have chairs for all my students. It was a disaster.
I realized that the purpose of me being there was not to teach. There’s no way that you can teach under those conditions. It was just keeping students in a space. I couldn’t teach under those circumstances.
So I started looking for another job on the island. I didn’t want to leave — I loved living in Puerto Rico, all my family is there. But when Law Seven was approved, they laid off about 20,000 government employees, so it was really hard finding a job. I found an online listing for the Albany Park Theater Project in Chicago and came here in 2009.
Some of the things that you describe about teaching in Puerto Rico probably sound familiar to teachers in Chicago and around the country — teachers are often buying supplies with their own money. You experienced a more extreme version of that austerity, and that came in part because of this colonial relationship Puerto Rico has to the United States. The same is true of your first example, about how the US military was taking your water to do whatever they wanted with it.
For sure. Colonialism is something that marks you early on. Understanding that Puerto Rico was invaded by the US, that our land doesn’t belong to us, that we’re a territory of the United States, that we belong to but are not fully a part of the US. Puerto Ricans don’t have the right to vote for president. Every decision made about us, we don’t have any participation in it.
I talked about not having water in my community — they used water from my community to maintain the base that they were running operations out of to bomb the island of Vieques for military practice. Nobody ever asked for permission to bomb Vieques. The military carried out these bombings across the majority of the island. The rates of cancer for those who lived there were incredibly high. Nobody ever asked them for permission to carry out these bombings.
You grow up understanding that you are from a country, that you have a culture, that you’re a nation, but actually nothing belongs to you. That is very critical in your development. You just carry it with you.
How did it feel to come here? Did you have family here, or much of a community here?
No. It was pretty traumatic. I came from Puerto Rico alone. I lived in Puerto Rico for almost thirty years. All my family was there, all my affections, all my friends were in Puerto Rico, and then I came here and was alone.
When I got to Chicago, I started working with the Albany Park Theater Project, and naturally I moved to Albany Park. Albany Park is an immigrant community. So, when I got there, I didn’t feel out of place. Even though there weren’t a lot of Puerto Ricans there, everybody there felt like they came from somewhere else. I didn’t feel foreign. I felt like I fit right in. I also came from somewhere else; I could go to the store and speak Spanish with people. That made it better.
Then I started making connections with the families of the youth that I was mentoring and directing. I started making connections with the people that I was interviewing to create our plays. The Albany Park Theater Project creates plays based on people’s real-life stories, so one of my roles was ethnographer. I would bring out teams of young actors and interview people in the community. And I started making connections and understanding all the struggles that were being waged here in Chicago. They were very familiar to me.
I attended some of your plays back then. They were based on the experiences of people in the community on issues like foreclosure, people’s undocumented status. I have a very vivid memory of sobbing at both plays that I went to.
Most of the scripts were direct quotes from the stories people told us — mostly immigrant, working-class people from the neighborhood. When we started working on the play about immigration for example, I was like, “We need to go interview the people who are fighting.” And I got involved with the DREAMer movement, the Immigrant Youth Justice League. Many of my students who were going to undocumented organizing meetings. Some of them actually went downtown to Daley Plaza and came out as undocumented in front of huge rallies. That was a really powerful thing to witness. We were creating plays, but we were also making history through movements and struggles.
So now you are running for City Council. If I were to think of the kind of person who I would assume would want to run for City Council, I would not think of you.
Oh, thank you.
Yes, I mean this as a compliment! Because you are not the kind of person who was like, “I am uniquely talented and moral and charismatic. I’m the one.”
I’ve known you for a while, and I remember people saying to you, “Rossana, you should run for City Council,” and you were like, “Oh please. Stop it.” People from the city’s social movements had to drag you into even wrapping your mind around this as a possibility. Can you just talk a little bit about that decision to run for alderman?
I definitely didn’t want to be the one. It’s a scary thing to do. I’m not somebody that has been groomed for it, I don’t have any connections.
Unlike the current alderwoman, your father wasn’t the City Council member in your ward who handed you the seat.
Definitely not. At some point, somebody that I was organizing with in 33rd Ward Working Families said, “You should run for alderman.” And I thought he was joking, and I just laughed about it. But then it seemed like other people were talking about it.
I said no for a long time. But at some point, I started thinking about the moment we’re in. I thought about how angry I have been about what I see, and this feeling of not being able to do enough. Then I asked myself, “Why are you saying no?” And then I started thinking, “It’s also not a place where I have felt invited to be, ever.” I feel welcome in spaces where I organize with people. But places that actually involve political power, an institutional space of power, I have never felt compelled or invited to be in those places.
Then I started thinking, well, we — people like me — don’t occupy those spaces enough. Maybe it is time for us to be occupying those places.
But it wasn’t actually about me. People were not telling me, “Oh you would be ideal because of your personality” or whatever. It is because I am involved in fights; because I have a connection to the community that I live in. So, then it started making sense.
An important part of the story is Tim Meegan. Tim was a rank-and-file Chicago Teachers Union member who ran for this office a few years ago taught in the ward and came very close to winning. Through his campaign, the basic infrastructure of the 33rd Ward Working Families was developed. Can you talk about his campaign and 33rd Ward Working Families?
Tim was the first to dare to do this. A lot of the young people in the theater company had been his students, so I had a connection with him through that. And Tim Meegan loved his school, he loved his community, he loved his union. He was so devoted.
I joined the Meegan campaign. We were seventeen votes away from a runoff with Deb Mell, the incumbent. That was a huge achievement for a campaign that was so grassroots. The people in that campaign had been organizers and activists for a very long time, but nobody had organized a political campaign. And we got really far. So, after the election, Tim wanted us to maintain an independent political organization and continue to fight in the neighborhood, for things like immigration defense, defending tenants from eviction, rent control. And that’s what we did, through 33rd Ward Working Families.
Tim then went back to teaching, and the budget at Roosevelt was cut again. He was laid off. He had to move to Minnesota. We miss him very much. But Tim paved the way for us to do this now.
That was 2015. Can you talk a bit about the neighborhood now?
After I moved here, I was able to develop this little village in Albany Park. And throughout the years, as people start getting forced to move, getting displaced, I’ve lost some of them. It’s been a hard thing to watch, to see people that actually want to live there but can’t afford to anymore.
I’m raising my child in Albany Park, and he goes to the public library and the park, and he plays with children who speak a myriad of languages, children of all races and ethnicities. Nobody feels foreign there. We all feel like we belong. That is very important to preserve — for my child, for me, and for everybody in the community.
But things have changed fast in Albany Park. We have several developers like Silver Property Group that have been buying property in the community and displacing longtime residents. And we haven’t had an ally in the aldermanic office against this.
Silver Property bought a property, Sunnyside Manor. They gave the tenants a thirty-day notice to leave — people that have lived there for a decade or more, people who have families, their children go to school in the neighborhood. And all of a sudden, they are being told to just leave.
We went to Mell’s office to ask her to support the tenants, to put pressure on the developer so that it could be negotiated — they could get more time, help with relocation, finding affordable housing in the neighborhood so they could stay. She said she couldn’t help. She receives contributions from Silver Property. She has gotten thousands of dollars in contributions for her campaign. She was not going to side with the tenants.
But these tenants organized with the Autonomous Tenant Union, an organization in the neighborhood that we’ve organized with. Through pressure, through call-ins, through going to the bank that is lending money to the developer, they were able to stay a few more months.
Mell could have put pressure on the developer, but she chose not to. We had to do it. That’s an example of the ways we are on our own in the ward when it comes to protecting our neighbors from displacement.
We’ve mentioned Deb Mell, the alderwoman of the ward. Can you talk about her? I mentioned that you are not the daughter of the former alderman — that’s not true for her.
Deborah Mell is part of a Chicago Democratic machine family. Her father was Richard Mell. He was in the seat for thirty-eight years, and in his last term, he retired in the middle, in 2013, and gave the seat to his daughter.
The funny thing is, that happens in Puerto Rico, and when I moved here I thought that didn’t happen. I was like, really? Mayors in Puerto Rico do the same thing.
So do royal monarchs.
Exactly. So, she’s been the alderman since then. She represents the Mayor and the neoliberal agenda that the Mayor has pushed for Chicago. She sides with developers.
There was a profile of you in the Chicago Reader. Ryan Smith, the reporter, called Mell for a comment, and she said, “I don’t think I ever had the chance to meet Rossana, and I can’t remember her ever coming to one of the many community meetings or events I’ve held in the ward.” She gave you the Mariah Carey treatment — “I don’t know her.”
The next day, your campaign put up a photo of you in Mell’s office during an action. You were like four feet from her.
Yeah. My child is looking at her in the picture. That was actually one of the times that we went to her office to try to get support for the Sunnyside tenants.
Maybe she blocked out that memory of you confronting her in her office.
Talk about the other big issues in the ward.
Affordable housing is a big one, as I already mentioned. 33rd Ward Working Families is part of the Lift the Ban campaign, which would remove the statewide ban on rent control in Illinois, allowing us to pass it in Chicago. We were able to get it on the ballot in the referendum in March. It was a nonbinding referendum, but we got 70 percent of the vote in favor of lifting the ban in the precincts it was voted on. We did that by canvassing — knocking on doors and talking to people. That is one way we can deal with the affordable-housing crisis.
Regarding schools, the ward has lost about $3 million for public schools in the ward since Mell has been in office. Those cuts didn’t come directly from her, but I don’t think that she’s fighting so that we can have the schools that we need and deserve.
There’s this $95 million cop academy that we don’t need. That is money that we could spend in so many other things for our communities, and to meet the needs of everybody in the city. Instead it’s being given to a police academy. We went to Mell’s office and tried to get her to vote against it, but she ignored us again and voted for it.
Even if you win this election, there will be a pretty extreme minority of socialists and independent progressive alderman on the City Council. There are fifty alderman on Chicago’s City Council; one, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, is a socialist. There is a Progressive Caucus on the council, but they’re a bit iffy and still quite small, even if everybody who’s part of that caucus wins reelection and everybody who’s endorsed by United Working Families (the political arm of the progressive wing of labor and community-organizing groups in Chicago) wins.
You’ll still be a small minority on the City Council. So, what is the progressive vision for the city that you’re pushing despite being in a small minority?
You said we’ll be a small minority — aren’t we always? But somehow, we achieve a lot.
The broader vision is to build people power. If every person in our group of progressive aldermen gets elected to City Council, and we are able to build people power in our wards, in the way that we are doing with 33rd Ward Working Families and Carlos is doing in the 35th Ward, we can achieve a lot.
The most important thing is to listen to the people on the ground that are organizing, and that already have an agenda of things that we need and that we can fight for and are very concrete. So definitely police accountability, no cop academy, Fight For $15 and a union — there are active movements around all those demands.
You mentioned the “No Cop Academy” campaign. Public safety is going to be a major issue in this election. Many people think, for example, the reason that Rahm Emanuel is not running for a third term is because of what he knew would come out of the Laquan McDonald trial — he was worried that he would not be able to win a third term. How should Left candidates approach public safety and police violence in the city?
When we talk about safety, it’s always as “safety equals police.” But when I think about what makes me feel safe, I think about a community where I know that I can knock on my neighbor’s door, because we organize together. I think about having schools with all the services that our young people need — social workers and counselors, nurses, after-school programming.
When I think about safety, I think about mental health clinics. Why have we closed all the public mental health clinics? We need those mental health clinics in order to feel safe. When people need those services, they should have them. We need access to health care. These are the things that make me feel safe.
But as a woman of color in the city, as somebody that has worked with youth of color in the city, I don’t feel safe around the police. So I don’t understand why we continue to give 40 percent of the city’s operational budget to the police. We need more social workers and less cops.
We need to strengthen the public services that are actually going to keep us safe. That should be our approach to safety.
Can you talk about the “Erase the Database” campaign?
Chicago is a “sanctuary city,” but it has some big loopholes. And the gang database is one of these. Chicago has a database that anybody can be put on for any reason by the Chicago police. It is one of the ways undocumented people can be picked up and put into deportation proceedings. It actually allows collaboration between the police and ICE, even though that’s something that is not supposed to happen in a sanctuary city.
But it’s not just undocumented people, a lot of people of color end up in this database, and that can make your life really miserable. It criminalizes mostly people of color in this city. So we need to do away with it.
I’ve heard you say before that we already know how to make the world we want. What does that mean?
When I came from Puerto Rico, after not having any materials in my classroom, I get to the Albany Park Theater Project, and they give me resources to get any materials I needed for my workshops. We had tutors that came twice a week to work with young people after the theater workshops. We had a college guidance-counseling program that ensured that the majority of the young people in Albany Park Theater Project would go to college and graduate by the age of twenty-five.
We had a fully stocked kitchen, so I knew that the students were not going to bed hungry. We had behavioral health specialists that would come whenever we needed to address a crisis with a student, and we would refer students to people that we trusted to have therapy. It was a comprehensive project. It was a holistic project that took care of the whole individual.
I don’t understand why we can’t just do that. We know that when we make resources available for people, they succeed. They get what they need.
We know how to do this. I think that people are actually pretending that they don’t know how to do it. Because why are you giving the money to the police if you can actually have these services and prevent young people from having to be out in the streets. I don’t understand, I really don’t.
Well, why would you give the water to the US military pool when Puerto Ricans need to drink it?
Exactly. These are our resources. We need to own them, we need to claim them. They belong to us, just like the water in my neighborhood in Puerto Rico. We need to claim these resources if we want to build a society that is worth living in.
So, speaking of that kind of society, you are a socialist and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Why do you claim “socialism,” and what does it mean to you?
Remember the story about finding the valve and the water? The people who found that valve were the socialists in my neighborhood.
The word “socialism” was around since I was very little. The socialists were the people that organized in the community so that we could have things like schools and a basketball court and a festival in the neighborhood.
I was in college in Puerto Rico and an activist fighting privatization, and the socialists were always the ones that were at the head of the movements for those things. When I moved here, I continued to call myself a socialist. I don’t call myself a “progressive,” because lots of people call themselves progressive, but they aren’t ready to push for policies that are actually going to get us transformation and will actually mean progress for the working class.
Because we are humans, we have the right to a good life. We have a right to the resources that we create. We work. The majority of us are working-class or poor people. We create the wealth — we create everything that we have. And yet we don’t have access to those things. That doesn’t make any sense. So, to me, being a socialist means fighting so we can benefit from what we create.
It also means building power. Because in the system we live under now, we’re often too broken to fight or too scared. Building people-power so we can access the resources that belong to us is at the core of what socialism is.
I am endorsed by DSA, and I am a proud member of DSA. To me, that means a lot. Because being a socialist always used to mean you had to hide. Being a socialist has been a bad word. Not for me — I’ve always thought that being a socialist is great. But that’s how it was perceived. And all of a sudden, we have this historic opportunity to come out and say, “We are socialists, and this is what we stand for.”