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
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
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.
Protesters rally to support
the hunger strike.
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
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."