18 on 18th Street: Guacolda Reyes

Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.

While there are many influential Pilsen individuals to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!


 

Vice President of Real Estate Development – The Resurrection Project

Guacolda Reyes is an advocate for affordable housing in Chicago. Her background as a community organizer in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet determined her life’s work. Today, as the Vice President of Real Estate Development for The Resurrection Project, she has been instrumental in the development of affordable housing units in the Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards neighborhoods.

Reyes began her career in the city of Santiago, Chile, working in impoverished communities. More than 40,000 people were tortured and over 3,000 disappeared during the course of Pinochet’s military rule. That’s why most community organizers like Reyes worked under the Roman Catholic Church, which gave them protection against the regime.

“It was hard to be a community organizer during the dictatorship,” Reyes said. “I was working in the outskirts of Santiago, going to Catholic churches and sitting down with men and women and working with them on issues of unemployment and alcoholism. We built gardens and modest houses with very little construction materials.”

She first came to Pilsen in 1991 with her husband and 2 year-old daughter because he wanted to enroll in a graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Several years later, she would join him at UIC and earn her Master’s degree in Urban Planning. Since 1997, the Reyes family has lived on a stretch of 16th Street that she says has gone from a hardscrabble outpost to a warm and inviting block.

Reyes guides The Resurrection Project in planning and building affordable housing complexes. “I have seen first-hand how our community has changed through the work we’ve been able to do,” she said. “It takes energy from people to transform a neighborhood. It’s not just bricks-and-mortar.”

She has overseen the rise of various affordable housing buildings in the community including Casa Morelos, Casa Puebla and Casa Maravilla. The most recent one, Casa Queretaro, will be a 45-unit multi-family building on the corner of 17th and Damen where a silo once stood. After years of working with residents and partners, The Resurrection Project was able to secure the land and construction began last year. Casa Queretaro is scheduled to open in December of 2015.

“Affordable housing is important because it’s about dignity,” she says. “I would like to believe that I fight for social justice, but I don’t do hunger strikes, I don’t protest on the streets. I did in Chile, but I don’t do that anymore. For me, the way that I act on my values is by developing affordable housing. Every human being has the right to feel proud of the home that they live in.”

While Reyes thinks that overall development is good for the Pilsen community, she fears that the changes will not cater to the community that has been here for a long time. “I do not want the hard-working families from our community being displaced by brand new development,” she said. “We need to reflect and look for opportunities that are truly going to benefit the families that have been here for the last 25 years.”

In July 2014, Reyes was named to the mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force.

Interview by Paolo Cisneros and Luiz Magaña
Photo by Luiz Magaña

Editor’s Note: One of the authors of this piece was an employee of The Resurrection Project at the time of publication.

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