This piece was originally published in the March 2008 issue of La Voz del Paseo Boricua (lavoz-prcc.org), the publication of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. Thanks to the editors and the author for permission to reproduce this piece centering on one of Chicago’s most important community institutions.
Thirty-five years ago the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center was born out the initiative of a group of concerned Chicago Puerto Ricans who acted to address the socio-economic needs of the community.
The director of the center, José E. López, was a part of this group.
López, a resident of West Town/Humboldt Park for almost 50 years, remembers the racism and neglect endured by Puerto Ricans in Chicago. The marginalization and social exclusion of the Puerto Rican community led to the Division Street Riots in June 1966. Puerto Ricans rebelled against horrible housing conditions, police brutality and substandard educational programs.
The Humboldt Park Puerto Ricans realized they couldn’t rely on the government to solve their problems.
"The cultural center is our attempt to say we need to take ownership of our own community and … formulate our own initiatives that answer some of our needs," López said.
The founders of the center looked to their own Puerto Rican history to find inspiration for a community building model. During Spain’s occupation of Puerto Rico, those that lived outside of San Juan formed a Maroon society. This Maroon society was a mixture of runaway African slaves, runaway Spaniards and indigenous people who developed their own society outside the scope of the Spanish crown, López said.
Like the Maroons, the Humboldt Park Puerto Ricans have created institutions to serve the specific needs of their community. "We attempted to create an almost urban model of what the Maroons had taught us to do," López said.
Today the Puerto Rican cultural center consists of a variety of programs for its community members. They include a library and information center, as well as health programs that address AIDS and obesity. In addition the center runs La Casita de Don Pedro, the only surviving casita in Chicago and Batey Urbano youth space. It also publishes the monthly newspaper, La Voz del Paseo Boricua, and works to raise consciousness and activism around issues of housing and displacement through the ¡Humboldt Park NO SE VENDE! campaign.
The center has recently added Barrio Arts, Cultural and Community Academy, an afterschool and summer program for teens that emphasizes the linkages between culture, technology and community-building. Along with the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School, the PRCC also supports the Lolita Lebrón Family Learning Center, which offers parenting and educational help to young mothers who have not finished high school. Moreover, it houses its own bilingual childcare facility.
The center hosts four major cultural events annually. Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) visit Paseo Boricua on January 6 and distribute 6,000 gifts to children. In June Humboldt Park celebrates the People’s Day Parade, followed by Fiesta Boricua in September. The center attempts to make Halloween relevant to community members in October with Haunted Paseo Boricua. It also boasts one of the largest community-based commemorations of International Worlds AIDS Day on December 1st.
The center has met its challenges throughout the years, mostly having to do with financing the variety of programs they offer. But in 1983, the center was raided by FBI agents who alleged that the center was linked to the Armed Forces of National Liberation or FALN. The FBI later admitted they made a mistake, however the raid resulted in thousands of dollars in damage.
The Juan Antonio Corretjer Cultural Center has played a major role in defining Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican community. Its presence has helped to fight the forces of gentrification in a big way—by resisting displacement through neighborhood cohesion and pride.
López said the survival of the center depends largely on the involvement of the youth as well as the cooperation and connection between community members.
"Our [community] wealth is not built on individual wealth … its built on collective wealth," said López. "We have to harness that social capital in order to provide our own needs." ◊