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Rudy Lozano's Multigenerational Legacy and the Growing Power of Chicago's Latino Community

Daniel Hautzinger
Rudy Lozano Elementary School
Rudy Lozano Elementary School

In 1983, people of Hispanic origin made up 20 percent of Chicago – but the only Hispanic elected representative was a Cook County commissioner. (Chicago’s Northwest Side 31st Ward had a Hispanic alderman who had been appointed in 1981 by Mayor Jane Byrne.) The Southwest Side neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village were 74 percent Hispanic, but the 22nd Ward’s alderman was the white Frank Stemberk.

That year, a young Mexican-American activist and labor organizer named Rudy Lozano sought to unseat Stemberk. Campaigning on behalf of both himself and the upstart Harold Washington, who was running for mayor, Lozano worked to register Latino voters and bridge the gaps between them and Chicago’s Black community.

Like Washington, who would win the mayoralty that year with the support of a multiracial coalition, Lozano “clearly saw a need for unity across racial lines,” a fellow activist who worked with Lozano told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. And Lozano was a good man to organize the Latino community. “He was grounded in this community,” the same activist noted. “He was active on all levels[,] from Little League, schools, churches and union organizing.”

Lozano’s father was a union member, and organizing was how Rudy first made his mark. Born in Texas in 1951, he grew up in Pilsen after his family moved to Chicago. In 1968, Black and Latino students at Carter Henry Harrison Technical High School staged a series of walkouts protesting the lack of representation in the curriculum and of bilingual education as well as substandard facilities—Harrison, located in South Lawndale, also served Pilsen and was overcrowded. Lozano helped organize the walkout.

Eventually, some 35,000 Chicago Public School students were inspired by the Harrison action to walk out. Within a decade, as a result of both the walkouts and continuing community pressure, the Board of Education built a new high school to serve Pilsen.

Lozano attended the University of Illinois at Chicago after graduating from Harrison. He began helping immigrant workers through a group called Centro Acción Social Autónoma, Hermanedad General de Trabajadores (Center for Autonomous Social Action, General Brotherhood of Workers), or CASA. Since the garment industry employed many Latina immigrants, he also lent his efforts to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, becoming its Midwest director.

Within his home neighborhood of Pilsen, Lozano directed his attention to the Tortillería Del Rey tortilla factory, where immigrant laborers worked and lived in dangerous conditions. The company tried to stymie the unionization push by calling Immigration and Naturalization Services on some of their employees.

With his 1983 campaign for alderman, Lozano sought to win political representation for the communities on behalf of whom he organized. In the February election, two Latino aldermen were elected, but Lozano wasn’t one of them. Winning slightly more than half Stemberk’s total in a race divided by three other Latino candidates, he barely missed forcing the incumbent into a run-off.

Lozano did, however, gain some political power. Harold Washington won the Democratic mayoral primary in February and the general election in April, and made Lozano an adviser.

But Lozano’s career was cut short. On June 8, 1983, he was murdered in his home by an 18-year-old gang member whom Lozano had earlier let in to use the bathroom. Over the course of an investigation and trial, various motives were raised. Lozano may have angered his killer’s gang by using members of a rival gang in his aldermanic campaign, or one of the enemies he had made in his union work had put out a hit. (For years afterwards, Lozano’s friends and family pressed for a more thorough investigation into the latter claim.) The defendant suggested that Lozano owed a drug dealer money, but prosecutors claimed that was a fabricated excuse.

Some 2,000 mourners attended Lozano’s funeral, including the new mayor Washington, who elegized his supporter and said, “If the coalition of Chicago which came with my election is due to anyone, it is due to Rudy Lozano” and people like him. A year after his death, a friend told the Tribune that Lozano had become “larger in death than in life,” because his killing galvanized the Latino community politically and made his name well known throughout the city. (Pilsen’s public library is named after him, as is a Chicago Public School.)

A 2003 Tribune retrospective about Lozano called him “part of the first generation of young Hispanic activists that tapped into Chicago’s changing demographics.” Lozano’s campaign manager Jesús "Chuy" García continued his late friend’s campaign for political representation, defeating Stemberk for committeeman in 1984 and winning the race for 22nd Ward alderman in 1986, after a court-ordered remapping of several wards including the 22nd led Stemberk to decline to run again. García’s election, along with Luis Gutiérrez’s victory in the 26th Ward and several others, helped end the hardline City Council opposition to Washington that has been dubbed the Council Wars.

Gutiérrez eventually became Illinois’s first Hispanic congressman, in 1993, while García forced a run-off against Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 mayoral election. When Gutiérrez retired in 2018, García won his seat in Congress.

Lozano’s own son, Rudy Lozano, Jr., ran against the long-time state representative Daniel Burke—Ed Burke’s brother—in 2010, in a majority Latino district on the Southwest Side. While his candidacy was strong—Burke personally campaigned door to door for the first time—Lozano lost, with Burke winning just 51 percent of the vote. Burke was defeated in 2018 by a García-backed young progressive.

The elder Lozano’s sister Emma also took up his mantle following his death. She, too, ran for alderman and lost, but has had a lasting impact in another way. She formed an immigrant rights group called Pueblo Sin Fronteras (“People Without Borders,” a phrase her brother often used) in 1987 and has remained a staunch activist. She serves as the pastor of Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen alongside her husband Walter Coleman. Under their leadership, the church provides sanctuary to refugees and undocumented immigrants who fear deportation.

And the Lozano family legacy continues to grow. Emma’s daughter Tanya is herself an activist, whose Healthy Hood organization offers health and wellness programs out of Lincoln United, in addition to engaging in activist work. On June 8, 2020, the anniversary of Rudy Lozano’s death, Tanya helped organize a rally for Black and Latino unity in Pilsen in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Thirty-seven years after his death, Lozano’s legacy lives on, carried forth by his equally active relatives and friends. Perhaps eventually their legacy will overshadow his.