18 on 18th Street: Magda Ofelia Ramírez

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!


Activist and Author – Chicanas of 18th Street

Magda Ramírez is a people’s activist and one of the women behind Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago. She first witnessed poverty as a child while living in a Mexican border state. It didn’t make sense to her that there were families with nothing to eat, and she convinced her grandmother to pass out “her good tortillas” instead of the leftovers to needy households.

Her father was a worker organizer in the mines of Coahuila, Mexico. He was well-read and his side of the family lived in Texas, so he taught young Magda about the border and the historical love-hate relationship between Mexico and the United States. Her mother was trained to be a teacher but took on the traditional role of homemaker. However, she would read every night to Magda and her three little sisters. “We were always made aware that reading was something we should do,” she said. And one of her earliest memories is of her mother reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Spanish, thus instilling a sense of justice in the girls.

In search of better work, her father fixed his papers and immigrated to Chicago with a cousin and a friend. He would later send for the rest of the family. Here he worked in restaurants and factories before landing a permanent job as a welder, and he arrived home and shared stories with his daughters about “la migra”, how immigration agents would conduct randomized raids, barging into the workplace fully armed to demand papers and make arrests. Magda took those stories to heart.

“We lived where the university is built now,” she said, on Newberry and Roosevelt. They attended the neighborhood church, St. Francis of Assisi, where she also enrolled in school. By then she already knew how to read and write in Spanish. When the nuns would make inappropriate comments about Mexico, Magda recalled raising her hand to say that Mexico didn’t steal anything from this country, “on the contrary.” Further isolating her, the nuns called her Magdalene because they said her name was not Christian enough.

She had her first real experience of discrimination via the church. Several African American families lived on her block and she was friends with a girl named Jackie. When Magda invited her to church, “the priest said she could not come into the church based on the fact that she was Black,” she said. Magda had already developed an understanding of and much sympathy for the Black experience “because of the stories [her] mother read.” The incident stayed with her.

In the end, twelve years of Catholic school education filled her with a lot guilt, but also taught her to be kind and charitable. The political awareness she picked up at home, combined with religion “made me into a guerrillera before my age,” she said.

As a young woman, Magda came to live on 17th and Laflin and was one of the first Latinas to set foot in Circle Campus. She then joined the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) based in what is now Harold Washington College. OLAS helped to fill three busloads of educators, activists and youth that made the trip to Colorado for the first-ever Chicano Youth Conference in 1969. Back then, Pilsen faced a gang problem, police brutality, la migra, and poor city services, but the aftereffects of that seven-day conference would forever alter the course of the neighborhood.

That week, the Brown Berets from the West Coast took over a church in Denver and participants spent “all day learning nuestra cultura, doing art, writing poetry, watching teatro, it was a mesh of things,” she said. “More than anything, it was all raza.” Ritually, the guys would raise their fists in the air and cry Chicano Power. “I was enthralled, I was proud,” she said. Although she was born in Mexico, she didn’t feel fully accepted neither here nor there. So when the Chicano Movement came along, she and others like her were ready to embrace it. It was about “uniting los mexicanos de allá y los mexicanos de acá,” she said.

Their return to Pilsen set off a series of Chicano-conscious initiatives, from public art to social services to political power. Casa Aztlan went from being a community clinic to “an anchor” where Mexican Americans congregated. “For me, every day was Chicano day,” she remembered. The notion of Chicanismo was more or less confined to the Pilsen neighborhood, but Chicano muralism and values did perforate the Little Village community, especially in relation to Harrison High School. Brown youth became proud of who they were and gained the energy to push for change.

At UIC, Magda advocated for a Latino Studies program. “When we decided to take over the building because we didn’t have Latino Studies, they were not our friends for sure,” she said. “As with many services our people have gotten, they don’t give them to us because they feel it’s the correct thing to do. We pushed them to do things,” she said. She thinks universities have never had a very good name with Latino communities. In UIC’s case, “They now owed the children of the people that they displaced an opportunity to go to school,” she said.

While enrolled, she also organized for the national boycott of non-union grapes and lettuce and protested the massacre of Tlatelolco. Her teachers were lenient with her organizing activities as long as she turned in the work, but her classmates called her a communist.

Magda and the five women that wrote Chicanas of 18th Street formed a collective that encompassed the progressive struggles of Puerto Rico, Latin America and the Middle East. Within it she grew from being a Chicana activist to a global social activist. But she still wanted to write a book about Pilsen “so we can leave a legacy to our youth, so we can have something to look up to, that their people were here,” she said.

She approached Leonard Ramírez, a Chicano who was the head of the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services (LARES) program at UIC, and asked him to be the editor. Each of the six women had a lifetime of experiences to share and they held strong opinions where they didn’t always agree. With his academic background, Leonard’s role was to give a structure to that dialogue and add a historical context to their stories. “We must’ve driven him crazy, there were moments when we wanted to give up and throw away everything,” Magda said.

It took 13 years to publish the book. It was a challenge for the women to simply find the time to meet, not to mention the research and gathering of information that it involved. In picking the name of the book, “We wanted the word Chicanas in there somewhere. Then we were like, ‘well, where do we hang out?’ The port of entry: 18th street,” she said. The book launched in a packed National Museum of Mexican Art in November of 2011.

Magda said the tentacles of gentrification were seen since the 70’s when the city started approaching community groups. She’s worried that there isn’t enough resistance to the zoning changes and the plans that politicians have for the neighborhood. The power-holders “wanna give it to us in little spoonfuls so before we know it, we’re out of the community,” she said. “I don’t see any more children like I used to. I see a lot of dogs. And I’m sorry, it feels really sad to walk down the street and not see my people.”

Today, Magda is an anti-war organizer and the founder of the Committee Against the Militarization of Youth. On Sundays she also produces the radio show, Radio Chamba, at WLUW 88.7 FM. The message she has for the new generations of Mexican Americans is, “Fear not, the power is in you. The problems that we have are not going to end if we continue being afraid,” she said.

A “Comandante Ché Guevara” ringtone aptly brought our conversation to an end.

Find Chicanas of 18th Street on Amazon.

Interview by Jackie Serrato
Photo by Jackie Serrato

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