This is part of a series of interviews Windy City Times is running on LGBTQ+ candidates in the 2023 municipal elections taking place Feb. 28.
The 2023 race to represent Chicago's 26th Wardwhich includes parts of the Humboldt Park, Logan Square and Hermosa neighborhoodshas changed substantially over the past few weeks. In the beginning, there were six candidates; now there are only three following incumbent Ald. Roberto Maldonado's decision to withdraw from the contest.
One of the remaining people is queer candidate Jessie Fuentes, a director at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. She recently talked with Windy City Times about everything from her likes and dislikes about the ward to LGBTQ+ Chicagoans.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: You're a first-time candidate. What are you learning about politics?
Jessie Fuentes: [Laughs] What I think I'm learning is that you definitely have to find some unity in the world of politics. I think there are folks with different vested interests, ideological principles and moral compasses. Based on your mission and vision, you really have to find the people who are going to keep you motivated and inspired.
Running a campaign is difficult. You're on the phone half the time, you're knocking on doors and then you're going through robust endorsement sessionsand you don't walk out of every single space feeling the greatest. You have to find the balance to keep yourself healthy and sane, but you also must do that in a collective spaceand I've been extremely privileged to have found that space. That may not be the reality for every first-time candidate.
WCT: Did Ald. Maldonado's withdrawal alter your campaign in any way?
JF: Absolutely not. We've been hitting the ground strong and making sure we have a grassroots campaign that's committed and dedicated to the residents of the 26th Ward. While we are extremely grateful for Ald. Maldonado's retirement, it has not changed the strategy.
WCT: What do you really like about your ward and what do you really dislike about it?
JF: We have one of the most culturally dynamic wards in the city of Chicago. It is the heart of the Puerto Rican community. It has a large Latino population and an empowering Black populationand everyone is proud to live here, in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Hermosa and Belmont-Cragin. We have organizations that have committed themselves to community-building and the sustainability, and we watch people fight every day to ensure they have a community of their own. The resistance and resilience you see in the 26th Ward is unmatched.
With that being said, we're fighting because they are things to fight against. Gentrification has gripped the 26th Ward. Property taxes are increasing every year and people are terrified of their inability to financially sustain themselves. Some people are considering selling homes they've had for 30 or 40 years because they can no longer afford to stay there. While we have a resilient community, they also deserve to be at peace and should be afforded the opportunity to be themselves without being threatened by the consequences of gentrification. So part of what I want to do, as alderperson, is to provide that protection for that resilience.
The other thing is that we have serious concerns about public safety. We're talking about keeping our young people safe. We do not have fully funded schools in the 26th Ward. We do not have robust, culturally competent after-school programs for all our children. We need to have conversations about how to invest in our schools and how to hold city agencieslike the Chicago Department of Family and Support Servicesresponsible.
And, finally, we have to invest in the mental-healthcare system. We have to be able to talk about the historical and generational trauma people deal with.
WCT: And I saw Treatment Not Trauma [a policy that involves the creation of a 24-hour crisis response hotline for mental health-related emergencies and the reopening of Chicago's shuttered mental-health clinics] on the platform on your website. Could you talk about that?
JF: We have to be able to have real conversations about existing in a system that's currently exacerbating the mental-health crisis in our communities. We have individuals who are not receiving the mental-health care they deserve because maybe they don't have the insurance or maybe there are private institutions that are extremely expensive. And we are trying to tackle the mental-health crisis to mass incarceration, and it has not resolved the violence in our communities at all. We have not invested in our mental-health system and implemented restorative-justice practices.
What we're arguing with Treatment Not Trauma is that we can no longer stand for re-traumatizing or further traumatizing individuals who are suffering from mental-health concerns through perpetual violence and incarceration. Rather, we want people to get the help, services and treatment they deserve. Treatment Not Trauma is offering a different framework in which we can have a response team to respond to the mental-health crisis in our community; it's not about calling the police but a very different, qualified unit. There's no reason people have to pay $200-$300 an hour for therapy sessions they need.
WCT: I mentioned your platform earlier. It's very extensive, but I didn't see anything LGBTQ-related. Why is it?
JF: We're working right now with organizations in the community that are going to ensure we have the most robust LGBTQ platform that [shows] we're fighting for trans rights and gender-affirming care. We've been fighting [alongside] some of our legislators in Springfieldparticularly, state Sen. Omar Aquino and state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayason a bill, House Bill 4664, that does not have the protections for the trans community or gender-affirming care. [Note: The bill passed in January with those additions.]
LGBTQ issues will definitely be up on my website as well as climate. We're going through the same process there; we're making sure we include experts at the front of the movement.
WCT: What do you think is the biggest problem for LGBTQ+ Chicagoans?
JF: I think that we have a real crisis on our hands, particularly with our trans brothers and sisters and the violence against them. There's also the homophobia and transphobia we have to fight in this country despite the progressions that we've made in legislation. In Puerto Rico, we have some of the highest trans homicide rates, and there's a question to be asked about transphobia and homophobia in the Latino communityand how to fight that in communities of color and hyper-religious communities. I want to have real conversations about the type of education that's needed to affirm the identities of young people.
We have to fight. If we quit, it'll never happen. I'm not only going to be the first woman to represent the ward, but I'll be the first masculine-presenting lesbian to assume this seat. That's going to come with a lot of homophobia and we'll have to have conversations about how people who look like me have the right to assume this seat.
I could go on about other thingslike the fact that LGBTQ people are not safe on public transportation. What do we do about that? How are we holding the CTA accountable? These are the fights that I'm willing to be the face of. There's so much work to do.
We've made so much progress. But people are still dying. People are still not safe.
WCT: And speaking of LGBTQ+, the current mayor is part of the community. If you could ask her one question and she had to answer you, what would it be?
JF: [Laughs and pauses] That's hardthere are so many things. But my question would be "What's your plan to protect Black and Brown families against gentrification across the city of Chicago? How do you sustain Black and Brown families across Chicago?"
WCT: What's your biggest advantage in this race and what's your biggest disadvantage?
JF: My biggest advantage is that I'm going to be the only progressive candidate on that ballot. I'm the only individual on that ballot who has dedicated to her entire professional and political career to the sustainability of the community I'm running for. I understand the issues. I understand what it's like to have a parent with a substance-abuse problem and I understand what it's like to lose a family member to gun violence. I grew up in this community.
On the flip side, I've had the privilege to have the political and professional training and experience to be a part of the solution.
The disadvantage is that I'm young and a first-time candidate. We still have to get name recognition. We're working on building name recognition and building trust.
Jessie Fuentes' campaign website is www.jessiefor26thward.com .