An Interview with 26th Ward Alder Jessie Fuentes

This interview was conducted by Claire Kaczanowski, 24-year-old queer woman living in Humboldt Park. She teaches English to adults at the City Colleges of Chicago and is a drag performer who enjoys staying engaged with local politics.

“We don’t need multi-million dollar developments to beautify our community. We have artists, we have developers who build affordable housing, we can build things that do not include the displacement of our people,” said Alder Jessie Fuentes. I sat down with Alder Fuentes to talk local politics, art, and community development. Alder Fuentes is the first woman and the youngest person to lead Ward 26 (Humboldt Park) and is a strong advocate for uplifting young people through public school funding, developing the community through affordable housing and street beautification, and prioritizing mental health and public safety.

What was it like growing up in Humboldt Park?

Fuentes said, “Yeah, I was born and raised in Humboldt Park. My parents were separated. Both of them suffered from substance abuse. My dad spent a good chunk of my life in prison … And, you know, I think it took me a while as a young person to really know how to navigate my social and emotional temperament. I was really angry, about particularly my mom’s addiction, because that’s who I spent the most time with … as a young person, I think that you take on a lot of the responsibility for why your parent is the way they are.” Fuentes, who also uses they/them pronouns, further discussed the struggles they encountered as a young person, “Someone made a comment about my mother’s drug addiction because she would, you know, occasionally appear up at the school and it was very evident, right, that she was struggling. And I couldn’t take it … so I had gotten into a physical altercation that led to my expulsion from high school, and I ended up at a small alternative high school… And that school changed my life.” Fuentes is a huge advocate for cultivating a culturally and linguistically competent curriculum for public schools because of the experience she had at this alternative high school, “I remember sitting down with a mentor … The first comment that he made to me is, ‘We’re not here to treat you like a prisoner or an animal. You are a young person that’s worthy of an education.’ This is the first time I felt seen, dignified, humanized. And I didn’t feel judged for what I look like, how I dress, the zip code that I grew up in. … the Puerto Rican studies class really taught me about the colonial history of Puerto Rico and what it meant to be, you know, a colonial being of an island that had been a property of the United States for about a century. And then for the first time, my mom’s drug addiction, even my father’s, made sense to me, right, like what they were going through was a cycle of historical and generational trauma that they couldn’t break out of. And I feel conscious enough to want to do the work not just for myself, my family, but for our community. And I had become an activist thereafter.”

I love your ideas on street beautification and uplifting the community through art. What kinds of projects are you working on related to that goal?

Fuentes responds, “So we’re going to start convening monthly meetings to really outline our vision for North Avenue and that will look like several different things: murals on buildings, to pavers on the ground, to the type of light poles we want to see to really create a dramatic, artistic and creative corridor for North Avenue… North Avenue is really like a Latin American village. Right? And so it’s about how do we take art and creative architecture to really kind of make folks feel like they’re in Latin American village. And the reason that physical appearance is important is … it has an effect on your social emotional ability to find belonging in a space. And so when we do things like build affordable housing, it makes Puerto Ricans feel a little more at home.” Fuentes expounds upon why art is so important to them and the community, “I come from the culture of hip hop, poetry, and breakdancing and you know, all of those elements of art really saved my life … I acted in a couple of plays and those spaces were so liberating. And so it’s about like, how do we use our artistic community as a space of resistance, right? Like how do we use art to really articulate our experiences?” Fuentes concludes with, “We don’t need multibillion dollar developments to beautify our community. Right, we have, we have artists, we have developers who build affordable housing, we can build things that do not include the displacement of our people.”

I know you’re a big advocate of public school funding and supporting the development of a culturally and linguistically sound curriculum, what does that look like for you?

Fuentes said, “Yeah, you know, I attended public schools most of my life and I got expelled. And I didn’t realize the void that existed in my educational experience until I went to the Puerto Rican high school. And learned about black history, it’s so much more revolutionary than the version that you get in textbooks and Chicago public schools, or even when you learn about Latin American history, in this perspective, that is not really the Eurocentric version of what happened in those moments in history, I think if I had stayed in a CPS school my entire life, I probably would have never learned about the colonial experience of Puerto Ricans or the Spanish American War.” Fuentes explains the importance of multicultural education in CPS, “There’s an importance to have a bicultural and bilingual type of education in the city of Chicago. I mean Latino students make up the majority of Chicago Public Schools, and yet who they are, where they come from, is nowhere in the curriculum. I mean, think about how many students from Venezuela and Ecuador are going to be enrolling in the upcoming school year in the city of Chicago. Will they find who they are in those classrooms? Will they see a sense of belonging? Or will they get a version of history, right, that doesn’t speak to their humanity and their resistance. And so that’s that’s really important to me…. And if we are talking about healing the city of Chicago, healing young black and brown people, building a safe city, then that means providing proper education to our young people. Allowing them to politicize themselves and build consciousness so that they can become agents of change in the city of Chicago, not internalize… And for me, I think it’s extremely important to begin doing that in the classroom.”

The last issue I want to touch on is your advocacy for mental health resources. Can you expound upon your goals related to mental health?

Fuentes states that they believe that mental health should be a public service and states that, “There are no resources, mental health resources that we’re providing our young people that doesn’t require some comprehensive health insurance, or an insanely expensive copay that all families can afford … and the investment in the mental health of the residents of the city Chicago should be a priority for all of us. But more importantly, we just don’t have systems that allow us to de-escalate or create spaces of healing for individuals who are on the brink of a mental health crisis, or a breakdown. In fact, we have systems that exacerbate those situations and often go from an individual experiencing a mental health crisis to a crime real quick. And, you know, it’s unfair to the individual that is struggling with their mental health. It is unfair to the entire community, to not have systems in which we are able to truly care for our residents.” Fuentes also emphasizes that “We need to have a response system that doesn’t include the police. Specifically when it’s not needed, right. We need a police free system that allows experts who know how to de-escalate or know how to respond properly to individuals that are in the middle of a mental health crisis.”

Final question. It sounds like you deal with a lot of heavy topics every day, so what do you do to unwind after a long day of advocacy?

Fuentes said, “I’m someone who listens to a lot of music. My partner is really great… We have dinner together and reflect and decompress. And I like to work out.”

Thank you for all that you do for Ward 26, and for the city of Chicago, Alder Fuentes.

Post photo credit to The New Day \ Daniel Delgado