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Chicago Tribune

Puerto Rico Talk Fills Air In Humboldt Park; Recent Election Kindles Debate In Neighborhood

By Oscar Avila, Tribune staff reporter

31 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

The massive steel Puerto Rican flags that bookend the "Paseo Boricua" business strip are a source of pride in Humboldt Park. But what the flag should represent--a commonwealth, independent country or the 51st state--has been a bitter dispute for decades along the aptly named Division Street.

Now some worry that a heated governor's race on the island, certified this week after two months of fighting in the courts, will inflame differences and make it harder for Puerto Ricans in Chicago to tackle problems such as gang violence and housing.

On one side are neighborhood leaders like Jose Lopez, who came of age as a militant for Puerto Rican independence. He founded the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, whose newspaper recently criticized the "maneuvers" of statehood backers.

Then there are residents such as Leoncio Vazquez, who backs statehood and runs the Spanish Action Committee of Chicago. He recently complained that the annual Puerto Rican parade had been taken over by the "anti-American" ideology of the independence movement.

Many in the neighborhood have aligned themselves with one of the two major candidates in the governor's race: Pedro Rossello, who supports statehood; and the ultimate winner, Anibal Acevedo-Vila, who prefers the current commonwealth status but has reached out to independence backers.

"Here, all the world is divided," said Wilfredo Gonzalez, publisher of Chicago Ahora, a Humboldt Park newspaper in which the Puerto Rico election has dominated the front page. "Some people can still work together. Others cannot."

Island politics remain a touchy subject in Humboldt Park, the Chicago area's historic Puerto Rican center and home to the city's third-largest concentration of Puerto Ricans. About 113,000 Chicago residents claim Puerto Rican descent, second only to New York.

Chicago used to be a hotbed for the Armed Forces of National Liberation (with the Spanish initials FALN), which organized bombings here and in New York that killed six people between 1974 and 1983.

Though some neighborhood residents still see FALN's members as heroes, others view the independence movement as a black mark against the image of Puerto Ricans everywhere.

Those old fissures have become more pronounced as former independence activists, such as Lopez and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), have become involved in neighborhood affairs and politics. This fall, Gutierrez traveled to Puerto Rico to endorse Acevedo-Vila of the Popular Democratic Party.

Gonzalez said Humboldt Park leaders should not dabble in Puerto Rican affairs, regardless of their views on statehood and independence.

"It's like me, who has lived here for 28 years, telling Puerto Rico what to do. It isn't right," he said. "They need to take care of their constituents in Chicago."

Gutierrez said many Chicagoans maintain family ties in Puerto Rico and have a personal interest in politics there.

"The truth is that we're all part of one grand diaspora," he said. "When the colonial situation of Puerto Rico is settled, then we can begin to talk about taking separate baths. But we remain one integrated people, in Chicago and there."

But some say Puerto Rican affairs and neighborhood politics remain too integrated.

Vazquez, for example, contends that his political views have led Gutierrez to steer government grants away from the Spanish Action Center, which provides English classes, food and other services.

"He closed the door on us because we are not independentistas, because we don't agree with his philosophy," Vazquez said.

Gutierrez said his career in Congress, in which he won a large majority of the Puerto Rican vote, shows that voters of all stripes see him as fair. Gutierrez said he has never introduced legislation supporting Puerto Rican independence because he feared irking constituents who disagree.

Several Division Street merchants said they had the same concerns and declined to comment about their political views.

Minerva Santiago, associate executive director of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, said her job demands that she maintain a discreet silence while her neighbors make passionate arguments.

"It's best for you to stay neutral," Santiago said. "That way, nobody feels like they're getting into something they don't believe in if they work with you."

For now, island politics show no sign of waning in Chicago.

Gutierrez hosted a Chicago fundraiser that netted $50,000 for Acevedo-Vila and says he plans to keep pushing the cause for independence.

Hector Concepcion, president of a Chicago group that promotes Puerto Rican statehood, said he plans to recruit candidates who will try to oust Gutierrez and other politicians that favor independence.

Still, Felix Masud-Piloto, director of the Center for Latino Research at DePaul University, said he thinks Puerto Ricans in Chicago have done a reasonably good job in maintaining their unity despite their political differences.

"It's clear that people continue to be divided. It's like the Republicans and Democrats," Masud-Piloto said. "That doesn't mean that they can't coalesce and work in the interests of everyone."

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