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Mexican standoff: What's in a street name?

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It started off as such a routine resolution. A Chicago alderman spoke in favor of renaming a local street after a war hero. Before long, it erupted into a battle of charges and countercharges so common during recent years in the City Council.

At issue was the honorary renaming of 26th Street, the major commercial street of the near southwest side's Mexican community. A veterans' group wants to designate it Manuel Perez Jr. Avenue, after a World War II winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Their proposal conflicts with an attempt to rename it Rudy Lozano Avenue, after a murdered labor and political leader.

To outside observers, it might have been seen as just another shouting match. But the conflict exemplifies the rift within Chicago's Mexican community. It's a political split between supporters and foes of Mayor Harold Washington. More important, Manuel Perez Jr. and Rudy Lozano symbolize the differences in self-perception felt by the community.

"There was really nothing to it," said Alderman Juan Soliz of the March 11 meeting. "A group of veterans asked that 26th Street be renamed Manuel Perez Street. I spoke out in favor of the proposed change, and it was referred to the Streets and Alleys Committee."

Others claimed that there was considerably more to the story. One City Hall reporter claimed, "Soliz tried to push the [Perez] name change through the council. He used the opportunity to slam [22nd Ward Alderman] Jesus Garcia. Garcia responded in kind and said that Soliz did not represent the feelings of the community. Then Ed Vrdolyak responded, which caused Luis Gutierrez to begin ranting and raving. After the meeting, the crowd of veterans at the meeting began booing Gutierrez and Garcia."

"Soliz spoke mainly of patriotism, then Garcia gave a long, dry recitation," said Gutierrez aide Dan Burke. "Then Vrdolyak spoke. He walked in at the middle of the meeting, but said, 'Rudy Lozano should be remembered. We should find a different manner to do so.'"

"I was going to stay out of the argument until Vrdolyak said we should find something else to name after Rudy," added Gutierrez. "These words were coming from someone who doesn't care, and did everything possible to obstruct the Latino community, trying to tell us who our leaders are. That's like Louis Farrakhan saying we can't name this street after a Jewish leader. I told Vrdolyak, 'The bullets that pierced Rudy Lozano's body were no less severe than those that pierced Manuel Perez. If your commitment to the Hispanic community is so deep, why don't you get your brother [alderman-elect] Victor to introduce a resolution to rename Commercial Avenue Manuel Perez Avenue?'"

Alderman Marion Volini (48th) moved to refer the resolution back to the Streets and Alleys Committee. That motion passed 23-20, along factional lines. For now, 26th Street is just 26th Street.

It's not as if they don't both deserve honors. Manuel Perez Jr., born in Oklahoma, grew up on the near west side. He fought in the Philippines at the end of World War II. As a scout, he singlehandedly destroyed 11 enemy pillboxes, killing 75 Japanese. Perez earned the Congressional Medal of Honor but did not live to receive it. A sniper's bullet killed him on March 14, 1945, 11 days after his 22nd birthday.

"Here's a guy who's been largely ignored," commented Tribune reporter Manuel Galvan. "If Manuel Perez had done exactly what he did and died as he did and been Irish, you can bet there would be an airport named after him."

"Manuel was kind of quiet. But when he was a friend, he was a good friend," recalls Vincent Barba, a longtime member of the Manuel Perez Jr. American Legion post. "He was the kind of guy who wanted to get along with everybody."

"He was always in sports, pleasant, cooperative, and very religious," adds Rubin Torres, the post treasurer. "He was a man of action who would say, 'Let's do it,' not 'Let's think it over.'"

Lozano, born in Texas, likewise grew up in Chicago. He taught at an alternative high school and served as a labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, organizing workers at tortilla factories. In February 1983, he ran for 22nd Ward alderman and missed a runoff by 17 votes. Less than four months later, Lozano was dead at the age of 32, murdered in his kitchen. Although a reputed gang member was found guilty of the killing, the details are mired in controversy.

"Rudy Lozano was a fighter, someone who cared for the community. How could we not want to have those kind of role models? I felt respect for him, even though I did not know him very well," said Marta Ayala, a staff member of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.

Garcia, Lozano's 1983 campaign manager and a close personal friend, added, "Rudy had a political and historical consciousness, an ideal that it was important to work together. He was a gifted person with the ability to organize rapidly. During this rapid process, he made a few powerful enemies from those who saw his ideas as opposition to corruption, crime, and racism."

In death, Lozano's influence was greatly felt in the Mexican community. The martyr spirit that came from the Lozano shooting provided the impetus for the 1984 election victories of Jesus Garcia for 22nd Ward Democratic committeeman and, ironically, Juan Soliz for state representative.

A few extremists have resorted to name-calling in discussing the deceased in question (one Lozano supporter, speaking of Perez, said "I don't want any Mexican Rambos as role models"; a right-wing Spanish-language newspaper claimed that "Lozano represented the advance of Communism in Chicago"). But for the most part, cooler heads have prevailed. Gutierrez argued against Soliz and Vrdolyak, but still admits, "[Perez] fought against fascism. That's heroic. I applaud that."

For the most part, Chicago streets are named for dead politicians, obscure Indians, 19th-century real estate developers, and the like. But in recent years, some streets have been given new, honorary names. The section of 43rd Street from Western to Kedzie, for example, is now Pope John Paul II Drive, in honor of the pontiff's 1979 visit to the area. The street keeps its former name (in deference to residents and businesses who would be inconvenienced by a real name change), and signs are placed beneath the official street name.

Just about anyone can have a street named for him. Campbell Street near the WGN TV studio is named Frazier Thomas Place, in honor of the late children's show host. A portion of 43rd Street in front of the Checkerboard Lounge blues club is Muddy Waters Drive, to commemorate the late, beloved bluesman. West-side community activist Nancy Jefferson is honored with a street, a portion of Warren Boulevard between Ashland and Homan. The section of Lake Shore Drive that replaced the S curve was renamed George Halas Drive, after the late Bears owner. A portion of 15th Place in front of Mount Sinai Hospital has been renamed Ruth M. Rothstein Avenue, to celebrate the hospital's much-honored administrator.

Even streets in the 22nd Ward have received honorary designation. A block in front of Gerard Delgado Kanoon magnet school has been titled Avenida Delgado Kanoon, to celebrate the late local educator who also gave his name to the school. Former alderman Frank Stemberk arranged for a portion of 31st Street to be named Home Run Inn Avenue, after a nearby business that distributes, frozen pizzas throughout the city (and whose owner was a major Stemberk ally).

This isn't the first flap over renaming 26th Street. Former mayor Jane Byrne led a move to rename 26th Street Avenida Mexico in early 1983. It was not a universally popular move. "No one asked the business sector about the proposed name change. The business sector did not want a change," says 26th Street insurance agent Anita Villarreal.

Barba, at that time director of a Little Village community group, adds, "We were against Avenida Mexico. We didn't like pinning the street down to one nationality."

"Avenida Mexico" died after Jane Byrne's term. However, months later the street unofficially got that unwanted designation, as midnight vandals plastered local buildings with "Avenida Mexico" signs without permission.

Allies of Lozano collected more than 10,000 petition signatures in late 1983 to name the street after their hero. This change had little chance of passage in the council, with Lozano foe Stemberk serving as alderman. Instead, Stemberk proposed another name, "Avenida de la Villita" (Little Village Avenue), for 26th Street.

The name Avenida de la Villita passed out of committee and passed the City Council in late 1984, according to Garcia. "They announced it, but never put up any signs."

Both Garcia and Gutierrez charge that the latest move to change the street name to Manuel Perez Jr. Avenue, or at least the politcal backing of such a move, is due more to politics than patriotism. "This latest proposal, for 26th Street to be renamed Manuel Perez Street, emerged in late 1986," he continued. "It seems to have emerged from the Manuel Perez American Legion post. Augie Sallas and Dante Plata [two of Garcia's aldermanic opponents in 1987] tried to run on the issue."

"Naming a street is generally considered an aldermanic prerogative," notes Gutierrez. "And 26th Street is basically part of Jesus Garcia's ward. The 22nd Ward includes most of 26th Street, and just about all of the business sector.

"Mr. Soliz is taking up the renaming of the street as a political issue, even though most of it isn't in his ward," Gutierrez continues. "Besides, it showed very poor taste to bring up this proposal at this time. To use a war hero for political aims is deplorable. Why bring up the issue just three weeks before an election?"

Soliz denies any inappropriate political timing. "I wanted to help honor a man who gave his life for his country. What's wrong with that?" he says.

Manuel Perez Jr. and Rudy Lozano are more than the subjects of a game of political football. They represent the differing self-views of Chicago's Mexicans -- whether they perceive themselves as another ethnic group, or as a disadvantaged minority.

"Mexicans-as-ethnics tend to be older, third- or fourth- generation Americans," according to one city official. "They worked in the steel mills of South Chicago with Poles and Bohemians, and sometimes married their daughters. This older group is very patriotic, perhaps because they were often questioned as to their American loyalty. Mexicans have more Congressional Medal of Honor winners than any other ethnic group. The older generation loves to flaunt that."

"The older generation made no political waves," notes the City Hall reporter. "They gladly accepted whatever crumbs Mayor Daley threw them, appointments to Streets and Sanitation jobs or whatever. And they came from a time when you recognized war heroes, like Manuel Perez Jr."

"Leadership was there, but not in a political context," says Pilsen attorney Virginia Martinez, a recent aldermanic candidate. "Much of the energy was placed into fraternal groups, such as the Azteca Lions or the Saint Francis Wildcats. Because of their patriotism, many formed veterans' groups such as the American GI Forum or the Manuel Perez Legion post."

Barba best sums up the point of view of those Mexicans-as-ethnics who are fighting for Manuel Perez Jr. Avenue. "As an American citizen and GI hero, Manuel Perez Jr. would relate to all American groups and ethnic groups," he claims.

Mexicans-as-minorities, on the other hand, are for the most part younger people who have shown a basic distrust of the system, and an unwillingness to follow the mainstream unquestioningly. Those with this philosophy "have seen the continuing problems of immigration and third world liberation movements," according to Garcia.

Many "grew up in a time filled with activity," according to Board of Education member Linda Coronado. "Our generation witnessed and took part in the civil rights movement, antiwar protests, the grape boycott."

This group "wasn't satisfied at all with what Daley gave," says the City Hall reporter. "They tend to be younger and affiliated with Washington for coalitions to solve what has to be done."

The Mexicans-as-minorities are the constituency that sees Rudy Lozano as a hero, according to Lozano supporter Roland Espinoza. "We grew up out of the working community, and saw that the only way to make things better was from the political end. Rudy was serious about making changes. I wish he were alive today; he'd be happy with the changes," Espinoza says.

Garcia acknowledges the differences in the points of view, and claims efforts to bridge the communication gap. "To be anti-Manuel Perez or anti-Rudy Lozano is to not understand the Mexican-American experience," he says.

"We have had the votes for months to make the name change to Rudy Lozano Avenue," Garcia acknowledges. "But we did not want to railroad a change through without community input.

"I am not opposed to honoring Manuel Perez Jr. We shouldn't ignore our heroes," he continues. "I met later with some of the Legion post members, and it was very helpful. People I thought were out to screw me weren't -- they just had a different idea of showing pride."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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