Starting on Mother's Day, 17 members of the Little Village community, a Mexican neighborhood in southwest Chicago, drank only water and juice for 19 days. They camped out in unseasonably cold and rainy weather on a vacant strip of land across from a demolished cooking-oil factory.

The group, mostly mothers, explained that while they were hungry, their community has long been starving for decent secondary education. The only high school in the area, David G. Farragut High School, has 2,187 students, while more than 4,000 teen-agers live in the area. Not only do hundreds of students need to get up before dawn to take several buses to schools in other parts of the city, parents note, but Farragut is a career academy, meaning it teaches trades rather than preparing students for college. "They just assume our kids aren't going to college," says Teresa Yanec, one of the strikers.

In January 1998, after intense lobbying from Little Village parents, the Chicago Board

Protesters rally to support
the hunger strike.


of Education agreed to build three new schools in the city: two magnet schools--top academic schools, which serve 800 students from around the city who gain entrance based on their test scores--and a high school in Little Village. Budget plans for 1999 and 2000 show $30 million earmarked for the Little Village school. In 1999 the board acquired the land housing the old cooking oil factory at 31st and Kostner streets, and demolished the building. But last year, all progress stopped. Meanwhile, the two magnet schools, both located in wealthy areas on the north side of the city, were already open for classes.

When asked why the Little Village school is still a vacant lot, Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said that money for the school had never been allocated by the state. Parents and local elected officials disputed this, however. They claimed the failure to build the school was another example of the needs of low-income, immigrant children being ignored. "The money was there, and it was used somewhere else," says Ricardo Munoz, the local alderman.

The hunger strikers vowed not to start eating until they received a written promise that the school would be built. On May 21, the parents disrupted a press conference by visiting California Gov. Gray Davis, causing him to cut his speech short. And on May 23, protesters were kicked out of a Board of Education meeting. The next day, Board President Gery Chico unexpectedly resigned. Meanwhile, as In These Times went to press, Vallas suddenly announced his resignation after heading the public school system for six years.

On May 30, a number of the strikers went to the state capitol in Springfield, as they had numerous times before, to lobby for money for the school. The next day, the state allocated $148 million in additional funds for Chicago schools--$48 million more than expected, according to Munoz. He attributed the extra money to the hunger strikers' efforts.

The group, 11 women and six men including two teen-agers, then ended their hunger strike. But they note that the battle for the school continues. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley still has not promised that the funds will go directly to building the school.

Vallas scoffed at the community's charges of discrimination, noting that of the $2.6 billion spent on school construction in the past six years, 86 percent of the students who benefited have been students of color. He also pointed out that one of the new magnet schools, Walter Payton High School, has a large Latino enrollment.

Vallas maintained that there is still a question over whether an elementary school or high school should be built, and whether the 31st and Kostner site is the best one for a high school. The hunger strikers and their supporters say these are just more stalling tactics. "We remain more committed to this fight now than we were 19 days ago," says Carolina Perez, one of the strikers. "We have more force now than ever."


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