CHICAGO — “One thing about Chuy Garcia is that he will stand for what is right-and especially, he will stand for unity,” said Ronelle Mustin. “He has stuck to his belief in black-brown-progressive-white unity-and he has done it when it was not an easy thing to do.”
Mustin would know. Along with Garcia, Rudy Lozano and others, he founded the 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization in the early 1980s to build support for Harold Washington’s mayoral candidacy. Today, Mustin serves as vice president of the organization-and he still works precincts in the small African-American section of the ward.
It wasn’t easy for Latino activists to back Harold Washington when he ran for mayor in 1983, Mustin said. Then as now, allies of the incumbent mayor were busy sowing distrust between African-Americans and Latinos-a textbook case of the “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Gary Rivlin wrote that Lozano’s insistence on passing out Washington’s literature along with his own may have cost him the 22nd Ward aldermanic race that year.
Years later, when Garcia spearheaded a drive that resulted in the construction of Little Village High School, “there erupted a force within the Latino community-primarily a reactionary force-that wanted to draw the boundaries of the high school so that black kids in North Lawndale couldn’t attend,” Mustin said.
“Chuy and our alderman, Rick Munoz, said, ‘That ain’t going to happen.’ They stood up to the reactionary part of that community; they said this is a high school for everybody, and it’s best for all of us if everybody comes, because we can learn from each other, we can make a better life, a better community for all of us.
“And they had people who demonstrated against them and sent out nasty letters in the Latino community against Chuy and Rick. And they stood tall for what was right.”
Mustin says he’s been an activist since high school in the early 1960s. Influenced by teachers at Phillips High, he joined demonstrations against Chicago’s segregated schools and housing. His involvement broadened to include the anti-apartheid and labor movements. He met Lozano at a rally to support a farmworkers strike; Lozano introduced him to Garcia.
“When I met Chuy-he’s much younger than me, but he had a maturity and a funny side at the same time,” Mustin said. “And he loves people. He just loves people. He’s outgoing and easy to talk with, and he knows a lot about a lot of things, so his conversation can vary from the details of public policy to ‘let’s go get a beer,’ or ‘let’s go listen to some Coltrane.'”
The Southwest Side was a thriving working-class community at the time, with thousands of jobs in nearby factories. Demographically it was changing from largely Polish to predominantly Latino, but like the increasingly black West Side, it was still politically dominated by the old white machine.
“It just so happened that there were a whole bunch of social activists who lived in the 22nd Ward at the time,” Mustin said. In addition to Latinos, “we had a number of black folks who had been involved in activism, and there was a young Polish guy who worked with us too. So we formed a coalition.”
When the IPO was founded, “we were mainly concerned about three basic things. One was services: the black and Latino parts of the 22nd Ward were not getting adequate city services. And if you were black and went up to the ward office, they looked at you like you were from the moon, like ‘what are you doing here?’ The same thing for Latinos.
“Also, being social activists, we thought that black and brown could unite and work together. And we understood the question of the right of self-determination, that is that people had the right to determine who would represent them. And since the ward was predominantly Mexican, the Mexican community had the right to representation there.”
Mustin was campaign chair when Lozano ran for alderman in 1983 and came within 17 votes of forcing a runoff; Lozano was murdered a few months later. And Mustin was campaign manager when Garcia defeated the machine for the ward committeeman post in 1984 and alderman in 1986 and won re-election repeatedly. He notes that Ald. Garcia’s five-member ward staff included two African-Americans. Garcia also “made sure the black section of the ward got its streets resurfaced and new curbs and gutters,” he said.
“That’s why the Harold Washington concept of fairness is so important,” he said. “That’s when the city started doing infrastructure improvements in every ward. Because before that, they would use all the money in just a few areas. That’s the same commitment to fairness that Chuy has today, to fairness for everybody.”
When Washington died, “the black community fractured, and that hurt the coalition, because it opened the door for some people to run back to Daley. People like Luis Gutierrez. But Chuy stayed with the black-brown-progressive-white coalition, because that’s what he believed in, that’s his heart. And that’s where he is today.”
Mustin, who’s a route salesman for Little Debbie Snack Cakes, still walks the precincts to talk to voters and get out the vote. I asked if he hears complaints from African-Americans about Latinos being favored for jobs. “All the time,” he said. “All the time. I address it in a couple of ways.
“Number one, those people are human beings just like you and me. The Latino community, these are fathers and mothers, they’re trying to make a living to take care of their family.
“Number two, they don’t employ themselves. Somebody else is hiring them, and they’re the ones who are trying to pit you and me against each other, so that we don’t unite and demand jobs for all of us. The question is, how do we open up the path for all, as much as possible.”
He cites historical examples, like the importation of black workers from the South to break unions in the North in the 20th century. Or, in the Civil War, “how do you figure that hundreds of thousands of poor white Southerners died for a system that kept them poor. They didn’t have slaves. But they died for a system that pitted slave labor against them … .
“Because of the influence of racism, preached in such a way that made people think they were better off and would rather keep what they had, as opposed to opening the door for everybody to have something.”
He concludes, “racism has its tentacles everywhere and in everything. And even black people sometimes have a misfocus, a feeling that something is their enemy when it isn’t.”
But he’s optimistic about the election. “I’m not sure, but the buzz I’m hearing is that a lot of black folks are going to come out for Chuy. I’ve talked to people who said they voted for Emanuel the first time-just because they didn’t think he could lose, all that money, and they saw him on TV every single day-but they’re not going to this time.
“We’ve got an opportunity here: when Chuy wins we’ll have progressive government in three major cities in America-New York, L.A. and Chicago. That sets the framework. And what we need from these cities today is a pushback against this austerity program.”
Curtis Black is a blogger for The Chicago Reporter. Reprinted by permission of Chicago Reporter. Photo by William Camargo.