Nearly two months have passed since the Park District board voted to keep a statue of Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos from being erected in Humboldt Park, but the case just won't die.
In mid-September several Puerto Rican activists filed a suit asking that the Park District be overruled. Alderman Billy Ocasio has introduced a resolution calling on the district to reverse its decision--a hearing on the resolution, opposed by Mayor Daley, will probably be held in several weeks. In addition, the debate has made enemies out of two Hispanic leaders--Ocasio and Daniel Alvarez, commissioner of the Department of Human Services--who might otherwise be allies.
For Ocasio the dispute has become the defining moment in his fledgling political career--a test of his independence from Daley, who appointed him to his post only last January. "If I had to give up my job over this, I would do so," says Ocasio. "It's a question of what's right."
Alvarez, who opposes the statue, has been the target of insults and death threats--a surprising turn of events for a man venerated after 30 years as a social worker in Humboldt Park. "They have spread lies against me; they're trying to turn the community against me," says Alvarez. "And all because I dare to disagree with them."
The imbroglio is rooted in contrasting interpretations of Campos, a man few Chicagoans had even heard of. Campos was born in 1891, just seven years before U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico. Over the next 50 years the island evolved into a commonwealth of the U.S., and Campos might easily have emerged as one of its more prominent leaders. He was a Harvard-educated lawyer who by almost all accounts was also a forceful, charismatic orator. But he wanted no role with the U.S. government. Yankee imperialism, he preached, had brainwashed his people to the point that white Puerto Ricans thought they were better than black Puerto Ricans and almost all Puerto Ricans were abysmally ignorant of their art, music, and culture. He advocated independence, by any and all means, including violence. On several occasions his backers clashed with federal troops, and he spent more than 20 years in prison on various charges of inciting to overthrow the government. He died in 1965.
In 1991, on the centennial of his birth, the city dedicated a stretch of Division Street to Campos on the recommendation of former alderman Luis Gutierrez, and activists took the first steps toward placing a statue of Campos in Humboldt Park.
Ocasio was not directly involved in the ensuing fund-raising drive, but he supported it. "To me, Campos is a role model, but not because he advocated violence," says Ocasio. "It's because of what he made of himself. He was committed. He was intelligent. He stood up for what he believed in. He was like Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela for our people."
Like Campos, Ocasio felt that he should dedicate his life to a great cause. Born and raised in Humboldt Park, Ocasio was pursuing a degree in sports medicine at the University of Illinois when one of his best friends, Ray Rivera, was killed in a fight with an off-duty police officer. "That was a turning point in my life," says Ocasio. "No charges were brought because no witnesses would testify. I felt a great injustice was done. I felt a need to get back to my community."
So Ocasio returned to Chicago, found work as a social worker, and eventually got involved in politics. When Luis Gutierrez was elected to Congress, Gutierrez asked that Daley select Ocasio to succeed him as alderman of the 26th Ward.
By January of 1993, when Ocasio was sworn in as alderman, a six-foot-tall statue of Campos had been completed and a Park District advisory committee headed by Commissioner Margaret Burroughs had reviewed the proposal to install the statue in the southeast section of Humboldt Park. Burroughs suggested that the statue be bronzed--which it was at an additional cost of $18,000--and then recommended that it be erected. "We didn't expect to get any opposition from the Park District board," says Ocasio. "We hoped to have an unveiling ceremony in the spring or early summer."
But then a curious thing happened--nothing. It wasn't until July 13 that the proposal came before the full board, and at that point it was deferred to another committee.
"At first I thought that the application had been lost in the Park District bureaucracy," says Ocasio. "But then I found out from sources in the Park District that someone was working behind the scenes against the statue."
That someone was Alvarez, who had called several Park District officials to lobby against the statue. "I was not speaking just for myself--there were many people in the Humboldt Park community who were offended by this proposal," says Alvarez. "It's one thing to erect a statue on private property--that's your right. But this was public land and this man advocated violence. In a community where violence is tragically so much a part of life, we should not honor him."
Park District officials won't say how much of the delay in processing the proposal was due to Alvarez's intervention and how much to central office clumsiness. Alvarez downplays the significance of his clout, yet he's a close Daley ally and a respected Hispanic leader. It was Alvarez, after all, who turned Casa Central, once a little-known Humboldt Park social service agency with a $27,000 budget, into a $6.5 million operation, overseeing foster care and adult education programs as well as a senior citizen housing complex.
Like Ocasio's, Alvarez's attitudes toward Campos are shaped by his own experiences, in this case as a social worker in Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power.
"I was a supporter of the Cuban revolution," says Alvarez. "I was part of the passive resistance groups. We were against the dictator Batista. But when Castro turned to the Soviet Union that was too much and I fled. In Cuba I saw what the kind of rhetoric Campos espouses leads to. I oppose the expansion of radicals. I believe in nonviolence. To say that ends justify the means to me is intolerable."
On July 21 Alvarez and Ocasio had a private meeting, but nothing was settled. By then the issue was careening out of control. The downtown dailies linked Campos to the violent acts of other Puerto Ricans--particularly a shoot-out between nationalists and guards outside a house where President Harry Truman was staying. He was compared to John Wilkes Booth, and demonized by one Sun-Times letter writer who wrote that Campos intended to "impose a Marxist society on Puerto Rico by force."
"First of all, none of this is true," says Ocasio. "Campos had nothing to do with that gunfight with Truman's guards. He was no Marxist; he was a devout Catholic. It's insulting to compare him to Booth. These writers have no knowledge of Puerto Rican history; they are only feeding off the stereotype of Puerto Rican nationalists as terrorists. Secondly, you never hear the newspapers complain about the statues on public land to controversial figures, like Balbo, who was a fascist."
Supporters of the statue sprayed venom at Alvarez. They called him a traitor, a worm, a coward. No Cuban, they said, should tell Puerto Ricans who their heroes should be.
"I'm as much a Puerto Rican as many of these people," says Alvarez. "My mother was born in Puerto Rico. I've lived there. I've studied there. I have family there. Yes, I was born in Cuba. But I don't consider myself more Cuban than Puerto Rican. I feel more Caribbean. More of a citizen of the world."
On a sticky night in August, both factions converged for a Park District meeting held in a hot, crowded field house on the near northwest side. "All great nationalistic leaders who have fought for their country's independence have been accused of violence--that's not the issue," says Ocasio, echoing his speech from that evening. "The issue is a community's right to select its own heroes."
Alvarez also spoke at that meeting, though he was greeted with catcalls and felt the need to be escorted by security guards, because of death threats. "My name is Daniel Alvarez, Sr.," he began his testimony. "I'm here today as a U.S. citizen. My mother was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and I--"
"Your mother is a gusano [worm]!" someone shouted.
Eventually, the board voted three to one against the statue (three members were absent). It was embarrassing for Burroughs, who had all but guaranteed confirmation should the statue be bronzed, and it was the first time her advisory committee had been overruled. In protest, Burroughs resigned from the committee, and parks superintendent Forrest Claypool apologized for any confusion.
But Claypool and the board are unrelenting. "It was clear to us that the controversy was dividing the community," says Nora Moreno, communications director for the Park District. "Our position is that members of the community come back to the board with someone they all agree on."
However, compromise seems unlikely. The statue has been erected outside a Puerto Rican culture museum, also named for Campos, while its proponents continue their campaign against Alvarez, flooding City Hall with requests that he be fired and picketing a recent reception held to honor him. "They were trying to intimidate the people who came to the reception," says Alvarez. "That shows you what Pedro Campos inspires in people."
Ocasio says he doesn't condone such actions. "I have nothing personal against Alvarez," says Ocasio. "But he has to understand that issue is bigger than all of us."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Peter Barreras.