Puerto Ricans in Chicago celebrate 40 years of struggle

CHICAGO — This city’s North Side Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center celebrated 40 years of struggle, culture and progress in the Puerto Rican community, June 12-18.

Forty years ago, on June 12, 1966, Aracelis Cruz was shot by a police officer on the corner of Damen Avenue and Division Street. The officer said Cruz was carrying a gun. It set off a series of violent confrontations between the Chicago police and the Puerto Rican community.

Eighty-one policemen with 58 squad cars were called in to respond to the riots, using tear gas and nightsticks. The National Guard was also called in, along with six K-9 units.

Jose Lopez, historian and community leader, remembered seeing policemen indiscriminately shooting Puerto Ricans. “I saw policemen sic dogs on innocent people, on women and children,” he told NBC News.

“People were bitter, people became angry,” Lopez added. “I mean, it was like immediately there was a spontaneous response to the police violence.”

Many believe the 1966 Division Street riots were a turning point for Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. For many years it, like many areas where people of color lived, suffered the oppressive effects of racism, poor housing, inadequate schools and pure neglect, grappling with poverty, lack of jobs and no political representation.

The riots were “a time of great awakening,” said Lopez. “Out of the ashes, there seemed to be a rebirth among Puerto Ricans, where they took greater responsibility for the community.”

Four decades later, this community commemorated its history, emphasizing “community-building and cultural resistance.” A weeklong series of cultural and educational events showcased the continued fight against gentrification, police brutality and economic and social inequality.

Events included a pictorial exhibition displaying 40 years of Puerto Rican Chicago, a mural project with local artist Martin Soto, a presentation of “Spark,” a youth-oriented play directed by Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera, an intergenerational poetry/spoken word performance at Batey Urbano youth center, and, on June 17, the 29th Puerto Rican Peoples’ Day Parade along Division Street.

Activities also included the second annual “Community as Intellectual Space” symposium, June 16-18, with the theme “from community-organizing to community-building,” aimed at generating discussions in panels and workshops about why community residents must work together on social, cultural and economic issues.