EXCERPT of Virus City from Big Shoulders Books
Óscar Sánchez, DIRECTOR OF YOUTH AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE PROGRAMMING
Interviewed by Anna Gerwig
Óscar Sánchez, 23, is the co-founder of the Southeast Youth Alliance (SYA) and Director of Youth and Restorative Justice Programming for Alliance of the Southeast (ASE), a coalition of churches, businesses, schools, and other community organizations. Sánchez has a history of activism, beginning with student government at Harold Washington College in Chicago, then with several other groups on the Southwest Side. He assisted in the organizing of Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches in the Southeast Side after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, and in early 2021 conducted a thirty-day hunger strike to stop General Iron⁴³ from moving to the Southeast Side. General Iron recently closed its Lincoln Park location after years of complaints about pollution and poor air quality.
The day before this interview with Sánchez in May 2021, Mayor Lori Lightfoot delayed the permit process for General Iron after the federal government expressed concerns about environmental damage.⁴⁴ On February 18th, 2022, the Chicago Department of Public Health denied the permit.
WE ARE AT A POINT where people feel like things are getting back to normal. What I tell people when they’re saying things are going back to normal is that you don’t understand how much privilege you have, because there are people’s homes being taken away at this moment. We have people being evicted even though there’s these laws that say no eviction.46 We have gentrification happening in the Southwest [Side]. Families are struggling [while] people say things are getting back to normal. If “normal” is people being oppressed, then I don’t want it.
 really shined a light on what’s always been there. [Our] community is always the first to be dying, and it’s not right, so we fight because we deserve more than this. We deserve more than to have our lives and our homes sacrificed for the rich, for profit. We are human beings.
I was hired by ASE47 in June 2020, and they asked, “What do you do [when things are hard enough to want to step away]?” Well, my grandfather did pass away in 2020 at the end of December. He died because of COVID. [He] didn’t really love me or appreciate me, so it was really hard. But seeing my father go through a traumatic experience and seeing the rest of my family…it was just… it was difficult. I said, “I need to get some time to make sure my family is OK,” because I was always prioritizing the community.
It got hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it was easy. We got through it. There’s moments that are hard, but do we give up? Sometimes it’s healthy to walk away, but what example are we setting for youth—that we give up on the community? What does it mean for them?
My parents are immigrants, and [when I was] 16 years old, my parents kind of called out my privilege. They’re like, “You’re a white Latino, you’re male, you have papers, so you have citizen status. You have a voice, right? Nobody can take away that voice. What are you going to speak up for?” It was like a challenge. They’re like, “What are you going to do with your life?” Because at that time, I was really smart, but I just hated school, so they were challenging me. What’s the point of having everything in a privileged sense, and what do you do with it?
I remember they said, “You should maybe volunteer with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos48 and maybe see if you like it,” so I volunteered to help the fundraising events. I thought it was pretty cool. Then, in college, my friend Kevin’s like, “You should start in student government because the way you talk, people listen, but you have to learn to articulate your message.”
I always [say] on social media that you start educating people with your family. My parents are very giving people. They’ve always allowed me to use what I needed, the resources that they provided. They’re devout in their religion; they really care about giving back to the community. Conversations [have] been difficult because of the way that they’ve been brought up, but we understand that other systems are possible. I’m really appreciative of [my] parents being open-minded, us having conversations about gun violence, of race and anti-Blackness in Latin America.
One thing I’ll say is—because I’m always organizing, always in the community—it does bring up tensions. I’m known for making video content and creating photos. When my grandfather passed away, and I visited my grandmother, I created a video [about her] and I put it online. I had one of my cousin’s comment saying, “You shouldn’t post this. Like, you barely visit, and this is the first thing you do after the funeral?” This is three months after my grandfather died. They said, “You shouldn’t do this. How dare you?”
And I said, “My way of grieving is different. I’ve been involved in my community. I’m putting my heart and soul into this, and I’m trying to get a connection with our grandmother. I’m trying to actually be here.” We got on a call to talk so then they understood where I was coming from. It’s always about being clear in your intention and stop having your ego get in the way of the community. Family is a part of your community. We can’t deny that.
In 2018, Luis Cabrales49 made a post on Facebook addressing that we need to challenge the negative stigma in our community, and I’m hit with a question “What do I do?” The question comes from the feeling that I didn’t feel connected as a community member in the Southeast Side. I got involved in southwest communities from college friends that lived there that asked me, “Hey, you know, we like the work you’re doing here on campus. You want to come join us in the Southwest Side to organize our folks?” Sure, cool. So I’m in the Southwest Side helping organize over there.
But [Cabrales] made a post saying, “Hey, for the folks leaving our communities [and] talking badly, leaving this negative stigma—look at how you’re affecting our youth. You’re causing these issues by creating this negative stigma, by creating this negative atmosphere that’s saying nothing can grow, but we’re going to prove you wrong.” I shared the thought with my mother and then she asked me to reflect— why am I [working] in the Southwest Side when I live here? What am I doing for my own community? What [does] my community mean to me?
I DM’d50 him [and we] talked on the phone the next day, [saying], “Hey, we should create an organization for youth. Let’s work on it. I have some experience.” He’s like, “I’m down,” and that’s how the Southeast Youth Alliance was born. From that point, we’ve met weekly and said, “How are you amplifying youth?”
[When] we take care of our youth, we take care of our innocence in a sense. A lot of people that are grown are still youth because they have that innocence in them.
I have mantras. One is: “Who do you want to be today?” What do you want to be doing today? Do it. You want to be a catalyst for your community? Want to be a facilitator? You want to be somebody who people look up to? Well, fine. Then come with actual work, so let’s promote the actual work and actual involvement in actual love and tender[ness].
I take the initiative, but I also take the initiative to invite other people to take over. That’s the whole point. Power isn’t individual. Power is collective, and power is meant to be distributed.
We had a lot of our folks dying. We [the Southeast Side/10th Ward] have one of the highest cases of asthma, highest cases of cancer, highest cases of respiratory issues in Chicago.51 Right now, we have some of the highest cases of COVID,52 and it’s really tragic.
Right when things are about to hit the fan, the people who feel it right away are our communities, low-income Black and brown communities because we start seeing certain items not being available in our area. We understand this and we fight against this [because] we’re not a priority for the city, because we’re low-income Black and brown individuals. You hear the news of this disease coming out and everybody’s thinking, “What’s going to happen?”
Once things hit the fan at the start of the pandemic, many southeast side organizations came together. [I] was with the [ASE] and the Southeast Youth Alliance, but there’s a bunch of organizing centers working for peace together. We53 came together and said, what is going on? And there was a shortage of resources, so first we created a space for us to vent, a space for us to talk. We had organizers crying, saying, “I’m feeling sick. I have respiratory issues. If I die, what happens to my children?”
It was really a traumatic experience. I remember thinking to myself, How will we survive if it seems like we’re losing hope so fast? Then I remember we said, “Everything’s OK. We have each other’s backs. Not all of us know each other, but we care for our community and we’re going to care for each other. [We’re] going to get through this, so what do we need?”
When we’re in these meetings, when we had mothers crying, when we had fathers crying… you see all this vulnerability. How do you not break down? You don’t internalize it in that moment. You let it fuel you for what you need. You’re like, “I need to be what this person needs me to be.”
During June , [after] the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of tension. I had left town that weekend. I called my parents, but they said, “The expressways are closed down. You can’t get back.” I remember getting to my [cousin]’s house and staying up on the phone all night and just organizing people. I didn’t get any time to enjoy being with my family. It was me and my cousin, and he was like, “You didn’t come here to come hang out. You came here to plan a protest.” Yeah. I mean, this is what I do.
We said, we need these resources, and we need to make sure we clean up. We need to make sure that we show up for the place that got looted in our area of South Chicago, and South Chicago is one of the lowest income areas on the Southeast Side. It’s almost ten to fifteen thousand less in income [than] the median income [of] the neighboring community.54 We were on the phone organizing, saying we need to make sure we come out the next day promoting peace and unity; solidarity with the Black Lives Matters Movement.
We had over one hundred people come out and just help clean up the streets. And we needed that. But that week was really tense. Every day there was gunfights. Gang members came out looking to, quote-unquote, defend the communities against looters. Then there was gunshots and fires.
Community members from Hegewisch55 created traffic stops at the entrances to the community. They said, “Unless you tell us where you live, you can’t come in.” Hegewisch is known for being a really conservative neighborhood. I remember one of my friends said the community members that made the border to do traffic stops at the entrances asked him to join, and he knew it was because he was Mexican, so they wouldn’t look racist. I told them, [people are] racist because [they’re] racist, not because they look racist.
We needed to make sure we demonstrated solidarity, so we organized this auton – omous thing in two days. We had over five hundred people show up, and you could really see people having that tender loving care and that desperate need for alliance during this time in the pandemic.
It was a really frightening experience too, because I kid you not, there were so many cops in riot gear. We felt outmatched, and they would try to tame us.
The week after that, there was another march, another one we did from the East Side, from the Tank⁵⁶ all the way to Eggers Grove.57 And then we just kept doing protest after protest, teach-in after teach-in.
We were the folks doing marches on the weekends, and then we were doing food pantries during the week. It lifted all the youth’s spirits because a lot of the youth [are] always shut down, because this is a police-state community. A lot of these community members believe in [having a larger police presence]. They believe in cops. They believe that if you work hard enough, you’ll be uplifted, but a lot of times for minority groups, it isn’t a glass ceiling. It’s a concrete ceiling.
After this happened, we all talked about a local polluter in July . General Iron is moving in from the North Side from a white, rich neighborhood to a Black and brown community.58
We weren’t getting enough response from our local alderwoman [Susan Sadlowski Garza] about General Iron, about the permitting. We had all this built-up rage. We were like, “No, this [General Iron’s move to the South Side] is environmental racism. You do not let this happen. Your local representatives are not speaking up for us.” We59 marched to [Alderwoman] Garza’s house. We held her accountable.60
From there, we built this coalition. We said we would need to have a chair at the table, so we put another coalition specifically tackling environmental racism.
My parents were against me going on [the] hunger strike. [But] afterwards, when I visited my grandmother, we talked, and she asked me what I do. She knew about the hunger strike, and [even though] she has dementia, she still remembered. She’s telling me in Spanish, “Oh, yeah, I know you’re fighting that polluter.” I’m like, “Yeah, how’d you know?” She said, “Ah, I remember watching it on TV,” and my mom said, “Yeah, I put it on while I took care of her.”
My grandma was like, “Do you like what you do?” I’m like, “Yes,” and she’s like, “Then I’m happy. You keep doing what makes you happy and that makes me happy.” That was one of the first times I heard a family member say that.
During this hunger strike,61 I learned how powerful community is. It’s how we take care of each other’s health. It’s learning that just taking a step back, really taking a step back and letting people being uplifted. I really learned to not take [on] too much, learning about meeting people where they are and understanding topics and conversations.
The most important piece I’ve learned is that we do this work with love, wanting the best for one another [and] wanting to make sure we’re taken care of. When we do that, you don’t get tired, or you feel constantly restored by letters of encouragement from high school students, from the youth you work with, from your coworkers or friends. You keep going. Together.
43 General Iron Industries Inc. owned and operated a metal shredding and recycling operation at 1909 N. Clifton Ave., Chicago, and was cited for violations of the Clean Air Act. Source: https://www.epa.gov/il/ general-iron.
44 Source: https://abc7chicago.com/general-iron-news-chicago-move/10609679/
45 Source: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-scrap-shredder-chicago-permit-southeast-side-general-iron-20220218-tcqs2xvpinadpehvtlkk5zzr3a-story.html.
46 Illinois’ eviction moratorium ended in early October 2021. Source: https://abc7chicago.com/evictionmoratorium-illinois-rent-chicago-rental-assistance-end-date/11078484/
47 Alliance of the Southeast
48 CTU is a workers’-rights organization on Chicago’s East Side. Source: https://centrodetrabajadoresunidos.org/
49 Cabrales is an organizer with the Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps. Source: https://www.nrdc. org/stories/meet-chicagoan-determined-break-down-barriers-outdoor-inclusion-latino-people-him
50 Direct messaging, a person-to-person communication available on social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
51 Source: https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2020/19_0265.htm
52 Source: https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/sites/covid-19/home/latest-data/2020-05-03.html
53 The Southeast Environmental Task Force, Alliance of the Southeast, and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos
54 Source: 2008-2012 Census Data: https://data.cityofchicago.org/Health-Human-Services/CensusData-Selected-socioeconomic-indicators-in-C/kn9c-c2s2/data; 2015: http://www.pbchicago.org/ uploads/1/3/5/3/13535542/10th_ward_data_sheet.pdf
55 A neighborhood on the far South Side of Chicago, bordering Indiana. Source: https://www.chicagomag. com/city-life/a-trip-to-hegewisch-chicagos-most-remote-neighborhood/
56 “The Tank” is the East Side memorial that honors US veterans of the 10th Ward.
57 Eggers Grove is a Cook County forest preserve site along the Illinois-Indiana border. Source: https:// openlands.org/places/eggers-grove-2/
58 Source: https://blockclubchicago.org/2020/06/25/state-environment-regulators-approve-generalirons-move-to-east-side/
59 The Southeast Youth Alliance, The United Neighbors of Tenth Ward, and Bridges // Puentes.
60 Source: https://rampantmag.com/2020/11/we-are-not-the-citys-garbage-can/
61 Nine people participated in the thirty-day hunger strike, which ended on March 4, 2021. Source: https:// www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/07/chicago-hunger-strike-against-recycling-plant-ends
The interview above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the above cover for more info!
BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · November 2022
Header image— Electron Microscopic Image of a Coronavirus: Original Image Source— U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases
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