ILLN Opinion + Joshua Gutierrez

Welcome to another episode of Illinois Latino News Opinion+ where we talk about major issues the Latinx and underrepresented communities face in our state.

This week we spoke with Joshua Gutierrez, the Prevention and Health Education Manager of TPAN.

TPAN, the Test Positive Aware Network, was created in 1987, during the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to establish a peer-support network at a time where fear and misinformation dominated society’s understanding of the virus. Today TPAN serves those living with or vulnerable to HIV through a variety of services ranging from education to healthcare.

Given his role, Gutierrez is very passionate about education and sharing resources with the community. A lot of the misinformation surrounding sexuality and healthcare starts in the household and leads to issues later in life, such as the Black and Latinx communities being disproportionately affected by HIV and STIs.

“I don’t think it’s because parents don’t care, I just think that maybe they don’t know how to approach it, or they don’t know how to talk about it,� said Gutierrez.

He says that he sees education and wellness as self-investment, and he takes pride in TPAN’s ability to help individuals help themselves.

“We give you science-based, research-based information and we hope that we are giving you the tools to make the best health decisions for yourself,� he said.

Gutierrez says that much progress has been made from the 1980’s to now regarding our understanding of HIV/AIDS and how people living with the virus are treated, including Illinois’ decriminalization of those living with HIV in 2021. House Bill 4430, a bill that would allow HIV prevention and post-exposure medications PrEP and PEP to be accessed without a prescription, recently passed in both the Illinois House and Senate.

“This is great news. This is going to be a game changer. As I was saying that people of color, BIPOC folks are disproportionately affected by acquiring HIV, and a lot of the reason is because there’s barriers to acquiring it [PrEP],â€� said Gutierrez. “…we all know that a tool is only effective if you have access to it.â€�

TPAN provides access to a wide range of services including therapy groups, HIV testing, syringe exchange, a youth drop-in program and much more. All of these programs are free for every client.


TPAN’s website:

Ending Criminal Penalties for People Living with HIV in Illinois:

CDC information on PrEP:

CDC information on PEP:

Information on HB 4430:

Positively Aware, The HIV Treatment Journal of TPAN:

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Culture Is Key To Treating Mental Health Concerns

Publisher’s Note: Mental health concerns dominate people’s minds, even as the pandemic eases, according to a new survey conducted by the newsroom collaborative, Solving for Chicago.

Illinois Latino News is one of the 23 newsrooms working cooperatively to cover pressing issues facing the public in the Chicago region.

This story is based on your responses to the survey about the long-term effects of the pandemic people face and how to overcome those challenges.

Mental Health wellness was among the social problems you said you want to see more news coverage.

The impact of the coronavirus on Hispanics-Latinos, who have been disproportionately affected, has been discerning.

Due to higher rates of deaths, unemployment, college dropout, homelessness, and access to quality health care, the community is more prone to developing symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Systemic barriers to mental health support have worsened for the community — at a time when getting timely help has never been more critical.

Adding to the challenges, the community has been coping with a mental health care system that wasn’t built with them in mind. To adequately move forward in meeting the mental health needs of Hispanics-Latinos, beyond conventional structures and practices, thought leaders say it is critical to focus on culture. Although some aspects of culture contribute to stigmatized views of mental health, it might also be the solution.

“We were comfortable because we just put our heads down, and we’d keep going, and I think that’s what we’d been taught to do. Sigue, sigue, sigue, trabajando, sigue. Go, go, go, go, go, and when we look up again, we find ourselves in chaos because we haven’t looked up in so long.”

Mental health counselor and owner of Advocacy & Education Consulting Pamela Fullerton describes the mentality culturally ingrained into many Hispanics-Latinos: no matter what, keep working. As a result, conversations about self-care, work-life balance, and mental health are much less common, which comes at a price.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report found that only 34 percent of Hispanic-Latino adults with mental illness receive treatment every year.

As an essential worker who can work from home, Fullerton’s experience differed from those in public-facing industries, as she was less at-risk in terms of physical health. However, adjusting to staying home, running a business, teaching and caring for her two children, and assisting her clients through their new stressors, was challenging to balance.

“I did work with essential workers who had to go into work and so dealing with their anxiety of that, their stress about that. I’ve had clients that lost their jobs during the pandemic, and so a part of them kind of felt relief on the one hand, but then, on the other hand, a loss of income is a big deal, so I was helping many individuals find scholarship monies, grants, anything to kind of help them stay afloat,” she said. “I was doing that, which is very stressful knowing that I got a client who needs to get food on their table.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys conducted in June 2020 show that overall, working adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Still, numbers were higher for essential workers, with 42 percent saying they experienced these symptoms and 25 percent reporting they started or increased substance use to cope with their emotions.

In the February 2022 episode of ILLN Opinion+, NAMI Illinois Executive Director Andy Wade discussed the organization’s efforts to specifically target minority communities, who traditionally have stigmatized mental health views and who made up most of Chicago’s essential worker population.

Culture Influences How People Deal With Grief

These initiatives, Sharing Hope for the Black community and Compartiendo Esperanza for the Latinx community, consist of three videos that explore mental health from the lens of their respective community through dialogue and storytelling, followed by a guided discussion.

“This is only for them [the Black and Latinx communities] to talk about their community, to talk about their struggles, their challenges, and hopefully, in some cases, their success as well,” said Laura Martinez, Mental Health Equity & Inclusion Director of NAMI Illinois.

She says that culture influences people’s issues and how they cope with things like grief. For example, she recalled a recent event in which her neighbor’s husband died, and after praying, the mourning group began recanting old memories and crying.

“I took the opportunity to turn it into a Compartiendo Esperanza, and I said, you know, there’s this video, and I had my phone,” she explained. The specific video Martinez shared shows a grieving family, with the father explaining the need for him to be “macho” and not allow his children to see him cry.

It sparked a response from the men in the novena group.

“There were males there that said, ‘you know what, I want my children to know it’s not okay. We have a lot of mental health issues on my side of the family, and so I want them to know that if they’re not feeling okay, I want them to get the help that they need, right when they need it because he had lost someone to suicide. He said, ‘I don’t want to go through that again.’”

Fullerton says a significant disconnect between minorities and mental health dates back to its origin, which never considered other cultural experiences.

“If you think about psychology which is the root, psychology and psychiatry, they were started by white men. White, European men and white, older American men and they did all their work on white men and white, middle-class wives. What do they know about everybody else?” she said. “And have we seen mental health in other ethnic cultures? YES! Our indigenous ancestors did ancient healing practices, so mental health has been there; it just looks different than what we see here in the United States.”

She says that mental health providers continue to do a disservice to people of color by not implementing their customs into treatment. It may be a trial and error process to find one’s individualized and preferred method, but doing so creates trust and allows people to feel more comfortable opening up.

“That’s what I think is the beauty of mental health; it’s being in a partnership with the client that you’re working with, with the community that you’re working with, getting their input so that they’re comfortable with what you’re doing in the room because if not, they’re gonna do what so many Latinos, so many Black-Americans, what they’ve been doing for years which is coming to counseling for maybe one or two sessions and then leaving because they didn’t connect with the human being in front of them,” said Fullerton.

The lack of resources and services available for minorities was highlighted during the pandemic. However, many local organizations attempted to provide what people needed, whether food security, protective gear, or a sense of community.

Sin Titulo is a cultural and social justice-focused online apparel company founded by Iraís Elizarraraz and her sisters, Diana and Itzel, in August 2020. They opened with phrases like “first generation” and “you love the culture, now support the people” printed onto their t-shirts but have since expanded to hosting a mental health initiative, Fruits of My Labor, after Iraís was inspired by a panel she joined, where she answered questions about self-love and her identity.

“All these people of different backgrounds came up to me and said your story resonates with me so much, and I didn’t know; I thought my story was just a singular bubble, but it wasn’t,” she explained.

Sin Titulo’s mission focuses on uplifting Black and Brown people, but their recent Cinco de Mayo event was designed to elevate Mexican culture, voices, and experiences. Elizarraraz says that being teased by her family as a child by chanting “quiere llorar, quiere llorar” has led to her reluctance to publicly show emotion as an adult. But she couldn’t hold back at the event and noticed audience members also wiping tears away.

“I’m like, wow, people were crying at the event, and a lot of barriers were taken down after the discussion,” She continued. “Those moments I’m like wow, this is working, and it’s going in the right direction, but then also not only do we have to talk about it but how do we heal from it… we need to address it and make sure it doesn’t happen for generational trauma in the future.”

Fullerton points out that only talking about problems won’t be enough for individuals with more severe mental issues or who require medication. Still, narrative therapy, a type of counseling that focuses on a person’s story and treats them as the expert of their own lives, has proven effective for Latinx.

“We’re storytellers as Latinos, too, so I think it really speaks to the heart of who we are, using this type of therapy where we use stories to reauthor a new story that really is about who we are,” she said.

She says that informal settings such as NAMI’s Compartiendo Esperanza and Sin Titulo’s Fruits of My Labor also help ease Latinos with these sometimes severe discussions. She says that rather than calling them therapy groups, she and her patients call them “platicas,” where she approaches them as a friend looking to catch up.

“We’re just gonna sit here and talk and enjoy each other’s company. Let’s bring in coffee; let’s do a coffee cake. We love to eat, we love to drink, we love to talk, so bringing things in that culturally make us comfortable and that we’re familiar with will help to ease some of the anxiety that comes with thinking, ‘I’m working on my mental health,’ which is stigmatized or tabooed in our culture and other cultures as well,” she explained.

These differences in approaching mental health make a difference to groups who’ve been programmed to feel that only “crazy” people seek therapy. But, whether it’s addressed or not, mental health, like physical health, needs to be monitored to prevent crises.

“What I’m trying to do is take us to a point where we don’t only think about our mental health when we’re in chaos. But prior to all of those, when just trying to deal with the daily stressors of life…. That’s what mental health awareness is really all about. It’s preventative,” Fullerton said.

We want to hear from you!

Tell us what you think about this story. What you liked/didn’t like about it? Was it useful/not useful? What do you want to learn more about this topic? Email us at

Also, The Solving for Chicago survey remains open for those who would like to share their own experiences with the Solving for Chicago collaborative: How has working through the pandemic changed your life?

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Illinois Latino News partners with Medill’s Metro Media Lab

“Solutions journalism resets the mindset for journalists from focusing on problems to what’s being done about problems,” said Hugo Balta, Publisher of Illinois Latino News (ILLN), at the Collaborative Journalism Summit 2022 (CJS 2022), hosted at Columbia College, Chicago this month.

Balta was one of the guest speakers at Medill’s social justice and local news partnerships: collaboration, investigation, and education session. Kari Lydersen, lecturer at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, led the discussion on Medill’s Metro Media Lab and the social justice specialization in its master’s degree program. Medill students work with many Chicago media outlets and professional reporters on in-depth investigative and immersive stories on topics ranging from police reform to environmental injustice to the effects of COVID on communities and much more.

ILLN is one of the newsrooms partnering with Medill. “Part of our mission is to provide student journalists with real work experiences in order to help them on the path to success,” said Balta.

Change Agents session at Collaborative Journalism Summit 2022, Columbia College, Chicago

Apoorvaa Mandar Bichu, who goes by “Apps,” a graduate student at Northwestern University, was also a guest speaker at CJS 2022 and has been assigned to work with ILLN and the Chicago Reporter. “I like that I was challenged to think about telling the story differently than the common “what, where, and when,” and consider applying solutions journalism in telling a story differently,” she said.

Solutions Journalism is the rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, which includes these key elements: responses, insight, evidence, and limitations. Connecticut Latino News (CTLN) and Illinois Latino News newsrooms were introduced to solutions journalism by grants provided by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN).

CTLN was one of ten news outlets chosen to be a part of the Advancing Democracy six-month project. ILLN is part of the Democracy SOS Fellowship.

Balta is participating in the Solutions Journalism Train-the-Trainer program provided by the SJN in order to develop expertise in teaching solutions journalism. “Solutions journalism builds trust with the public by promoting transparency in every step of the storytelling process,” said Balta. “Due to a lack of equitable representation in newsrooms, there is an urgent need to train journalists to be transparent in news gathering and reporting on the complexity of racial identity, social constructs, and cultural competence. Training journalists on how to produce solutions journalism stories allows me to help them develop ways to engage audiences disillusioned by the onslaught of negative narratives in news coverage.”

Apps is working on a story on how educators are responding to the large number of Hispanic-Latino students who, due to the coronavirus pandemic, were forced to drop out or not apply to schools of higher education. Her piece will be submitted to Solving for Chicago, a collaborative of 20 print, digital, and broadcast newsrooms, including ILLN, working cooperatively to cover pressing issues facing the public.

Another story that will be afforded to Solving for Chicago is by Raphael Hipos, another graduate student at Northwestern University who is working with Illinois Latino News as part of the Metro Media Lab partnership. Hipos is writing a story about how the pandemic is driving the nationwide surge in union organizing.

The Metro Media Lab is designed to help local news organizations better engage with citizens; provide quality, solutions-oriented journalism; and strengthen the sustainability of local news organizations through research, training and student-produced storytelling in partnerships with Chicago outlets.

“By pairing our research, our faculty, and our students with journalists and future journalists, we can make a difference in helping people understand the importance of local news and establishing successful news organizations to provide this essential service,� said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker.

Cover Photo: Guest speakers at Medill’s Metro Media Lab and the social justice specialization in its master’s degree program, Collaborative Journalism Summit 2022, Columbia College, Chicago

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The Path Forward: Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Latino Community

Many Hispanics-Latinos view mental illness as a sign of weakness. Shying away from addressing mental illness for fear of being labeled “loco,� Spanish for “crazy,� only makes matters worse.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in recognition of that observance, it was the subject of this month’s Latinx Talks (LT).

Hugo Balta, Publisher of Illinois Latino News (ILLN) and moderator for LT, led a panel discussion on the stigma associated with mental illness within the Hispanic-Latino culture.

Hispanic-Latino adolescents’ mental health and academic performance declined during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents’ job loss forced many teenagers’ to take over childcare responsibilities for their younger siblings and for others to get a job to help make ends meet.

Pamela Fullerton, a bilingual and bicultural Latina Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and professor at Northeastern University, believes most schools do not have the resources to support students adequately.

“Schools, WAKE UP!” Fullerton said. “I was working for a school that had two social workers for the entire school. How are we going to serve our students with that lack of mental help support? We’re not.”

Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the United States, and the number of Hispanics-Latinos who speak Spanish at home has grown from 24.6 million in 2000 to 39.1 million in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, between 2014 and 2019, the proportion of facilities offering mental health treatment in Spanish declined by nearly 18 percent, according to a study published last week in the journal Psychiatric Services.

Language is a clear barrier to seeking and delivering appropriate treatment among Hispanic-Latino. Language proficiency is especially important in psychiatric care because the determination of psychiatric diagnoses significantly depends on verbal communication between patients and professionals. 

“Hospitals are required to provide an interpreter for their patients,” said Laura Martinez, Mental Health Equity & Inclusion Director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The Joint Commission, the primary accrediting organization of U.S. hospitals, requires institutions to have a language services policy in place. “They also have to have signage throughout the hospital in the top five languages in their area.”

Omar Corro, Senior Director of Operations with Rincon Family Services, says language alone isn’t enough to serve the needs of the Hispanic-Latino community best. “Having that cultural humility is very important as well,” Corro said.

Hispanics-Latinos are not a monolith. With a seemingly endless range of subgroups and individual variations, culture is important because it bears upon what all people bring to the clinical setting. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General finds It can account for minor variations in how people communicate their symptoms and which ones they report.

As Chicago, like many cities across the country, continue to crawl from the grip of COVID-19, much of the funding that was available at the height of the pandemic has decreased. Grassroots organizations, like Illinois Unidos, which have been on the frontline in helping Hispanics-Latinos through the crisis, fear that the communities who need the most help won’t get the resources they need.

“If they’re getting money, we want to see transparency,” said Dr. Pamela Vergara-Rodriguez, a triple boarded certified physician in psychiatry in the Cook County Health System, says transparency is paramount. “Where is that money going, and who is it serving?” Vergara-Rodriguez said that coalitions need to demand that local and state governments provide data and transparency in allocating resources to the public.

Latinx Talks is a monthly program produced by Imagen Marketing Consultants. The new Latino speakers series aims to bring to the forefront the inequities facing the Hispanic-Latino community.

Cover Photo: Illinois Department of Central Management Services

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ILLN Opinion+: Claudia SIlva-Hernandez

On this week’s episode of Illinois Latino Opinion+, Claudia Silva-Hernandez, who is running for Cook County Circuit Court Judge, joined to discuss her campaign and why she thinks she should be elected.

Silva-Hernandez grew up in the south suburbs of Dalton and Flossmoor, areas which both have low Hispanic-Latino populations. She says that growing up, educators thought she didn’t understand English, because she was bilingual and because she was a shy child. It made her feel invisible during her school years, but she says it now motivates her to try to prevent others from feeling that way while they navigate the legal process.

“So that’s really one of my driving forces for wanting to be a judge is I want to make people feel visible. I know what it’s like to feel marginalized or scared or to feel out of place, and I think a lot of litigants who come to our courtroom these days definitely feel like the cards are stacked up against them,� she said.

Silva-Hernandez’s legal experience includes positions at the Chicago Housing Authority, Will County Public Defender’s, and the Clerk’s Office of the Circuit of Cook County, among others. She says that she’s held each of these roles with the intention of helping others and feels like they’ve all contributed to preparing her for the potential role as Cook County Circuit Court Judge.

She said, “not only am I Latina, but I’m also someone who cares and someone who always makes it a point to connect with other people, to make people feel seen, to make people feel welcomed, and I think that’s an important key takeaway.�

Silva-Hernandez is a candidate in the primary election, which will be held on June 28, 2022. The general election takes place on November 8, 2022.

Resources mentioned in this video:

Silva-Hernandez’s campaign website:

Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Directory:

Silva-Hernandez for Judge on Facebook:

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Blood and Booze: The history of Cinco de Mayo

The images that come to mind for most United States residents when thinking of Cinco de Mayo are of Mexican flags, sombreros, long mustaches, tequila and, in general, a vibe of celebration and partying. But, where did this celebration come from and how has it changed with the passage of time?

It was late morning of May 5, 1862, when the Mexican soldiers defending the city of Puebla saw the French army marching towards their position. These were dark days for the nation of Mexico. They had lost half their lands to the United States less than two decades ago, the crippling debt to European nations had impoverished the whole country, the division between conservatives and liberals could not get any deeper and now the French army had come to claim Mexico as their own.

These young and inexperienced Mexican soldiers would never have believed that some hours later they would be celebrating as the French army, the one that had at the start of the century started a war with all of Europe and nearly won, was retreating under heavy rain.

“Yes, we celebrate the victory of the Mexican army over the French army that invaded Mexico, it is known as the Battle of Puebla,â€� said Benjamín Villanueva García, a 43-year-old resident of Cancún, Mexico. “In Mexico it is more of a patriotic celebration, in the sense that a foreign invading army was defeated.â€�

The memory of this battle brings pride to most Mexicans. At the time, the idea of Mexico as a sovereign nation was constantly being challenged both by external and internal forces. And the victory at Puebla seemed like a reason to feel pride and hope; like the impossible was possible.

Juan Mora-Torres, an associate professor of Latin American History at DePaul University and author of the book “The Making of the Mexican Border,â€� told  The DePaulia what Cinco De Mayo means to him.

“Since its independence, [Mexico] had been a divided country, no sense of nationhood, all kinds of political conflicts and military conflicts among themselves,� he said. “They lost half the territory to the U.S. Things were not going well. Right? So [the Battle of Puebla] was like the first sense of something good happening since the independence.�.

Sadly, it was short-lived. France continued its campaign to take control of Mexico and ended up succeeding in installing Maximilian I as Emperor of Mexico. But the Battle of Puebla ended up becoming a powerful symbol for Mexicans living in the United States.

Mora-Torres suggests that the date is still remembered not necessarily because the victory had important implications at the time, but because it resonated with other struggles that Mexicans — and later the whole Latino community — were facing in the U.S. As the years passed, different generations of Latinos in the U.S. could see their own struggles against immensely strong forces as parallels to what happened in Puebla centuries ago.

“Every generation gets a different meaning from the Cinco de Mayo,� he said. “And in my case, the youth of my generation found value in that because that was the moment of the Civil Rights Movement.�

Delia Cosentino, acting chair of Latin American and Latino Studies and associate professor of History of Art and Architecture at DePaul University, had a similar view on the subject.

“For those who do know the history, it makes sense to want to celebrate a David and Goliath sort of fight in which the less powerful player wins the battle (i.e. Mexico vs. France),â€� Cosentino said. “It could be an analogy for marginalized communities in the U.S. feeling empowered in the face of Anglo political and social aggressions toward Latinos and Mexican Americans in particular.â€� 

“Any holiday that brings people of a shared heritage together can serve as a form of social glue, giving an emboldened sense of commonality,� she continued.

East Los Angeles, March 5, 1968. It started with the students at Garfield High School organizing a walkout and it ended up with thousands of Latino students walking out of their own schools all around the city. Not even the police were able to silence the Chicano movement that demanded to be listened to.

These students stood against structural racism in the government that stripped them of their rights and their identities, and against the day-to-day racism that kept them away from opportunities of a better life and from the respect they deserved. They hoped that one day they would beat the odds and wake up in a country that did not treat them as second-class citizens.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the United States with folkloric dances and Mariachis, with sombreros and fireworks, but especially copious amounts of beer and tequila. According to Nielsen, a data and market measurement firm, more than $735 million worth of beer and related malt beverages was bought in the U.S. in 2016’s Cinco de Mayo.

Mora-Torres explains when there’s money to be made, companies will take advantage. Margaritas, tequila, Mexican beers, nachos — all of these have become a part of the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. 

“You have to celebrate,� Mora-Torres said. “Now the celebration has taken over and the politics have been neglected, right? But every generation will find some value in the Cinco de Mayo.�

“In my generation, it was about civil rights,� Mora-Torres said. “And so, the young people got to find their agenda. And I think they will use the Cinco de Mayo as a metaphor, because it is an event that highlights the David against the Goliath struggle […] But I have no problem celebrating. Okay. It has been a very long winter. We have been two years with Covid.�

It is May of 2022, Chicago. While we go through a winter that does not want to end, I write this article in my room as the sun sets. As a Latino student in the U.S., I cannot keep my mind away from the current struggles: how there are still people being treated as illegal for making a hard decision to forge a better future for themselves, or how still the stereotypes around Latinos frame what we are expected to be capable of or how neighborhoods with a majority of Latino population are being neglected even in a city that prides itself of being liberal. In the end, I feel relief, because I know that the reason why David beats Goliath is because he never stops throwing stones.

Cover Graphic by La DePaulia multimedia assistant, Frankie Perez. 

Santiago Posada-Jaramillo is the Opinions Editor of La DePaulia. He enjoys politics, history, psychology, and video game design. He is from Colombia and new to the U.S. Santiago is a graduate student part of the MFA Game Design program at DePaul University. He decided to join La DePaulia because he believes that an informed community can make the world a better place. 

Email him at

Publisher’s Notes: You can read Santiago Posada-Jaramillo’s Spanish language version of Blood and Booze: The history of Cinco de Mayo by clicking on Sangre y alcohol: la historia del Cinco de Mayo.

Illinois Latino News (ILLN) and La DePaulia are partners in best serving the Hispanic-Latino community.

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Illinois Latina leaders pave the way forward for 2022 elections

Delia Ramirez, Illinois’s state representative for the 4th District, is poised to play a pivotal role in the 2022 congressional elections. Not only is she running for the state’s newly drawn 3rd Congressional District, but if elected, she would make history as the first Latina congresswoman from the Midwest.

“It’s about making sure that every woman can see themselves in every space of power,â€� Ramirez said. “Because when we arrive, we are that wild dream realized.â€�

Born and raised in Humboldt Park, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, Delia Ramirez comes from a long line of resilient women; her mother crossed the border when she was pregnant with Delia during her first trimester. “This woman wanted to be in this country because she wanted her daughter to have more than she ever had,� Ramirez said.

She started her career volunteering at shelters to help people find housing and jobs and worked her way up to become a state representative. When there was an open seat in the State House, the people she had helped through the years started asking her to run. “And I said, ‘oh, why me?’ Someone should run but not me. And part of the reason was because I hadn’t seen a young Latina in these spaces,� she said.

Ramirez was among several Illinois Latina candidates who discussed the importance of making space for Latino and female voices in the 2022 elections at the Latinas in Politics forum discussion, which took place at the Hubbard Inn on April 27th.

The panel, which was conducted by the Latina Executives and Entrepreneurs Network (LEEN), featured voices from prominent Illinois representatives such as Illinois State Senator Karina Villa, Maria Reyes, the candidate for the DuPage County Commission Board, Leticia Garcia, the candidate for the Cook County Commission Board, and Claudia Silva-Hernandez, who is running as a judge candidate in the Cook County elections.

May be an image of 9 people and text

Latina representation in politics is more important now than ever before, as only about 3 percent of the voting senators and representatives in Congress are Latinas, despite accounting for as much as 16 percent of the female workforce, according to NBC News.

Even though there’s been a 75 percent increase in the number of Latino elected officials in the past two decades, Latinos make up less than 2 percent of all elected officials in the country, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). 

In Illinois, 17.5 percent of the total population identify as Hispanic or Latino, highlighting the need for increased Latino representation in leadership. The Illinois Latino Legislative Caucus currently has 15 elected official members, taking up 9 out of the 118 seats in the Illinois House of Representatives and 6 of the 59 seats in the Illinois Senate.

Ramirez isn’t the only Latina who had to work her way to the top from humble beginnings. State Senator Karina Villa (D-West Chicago) was a school social worker for 15 years before she decided to transition into politics.

Born and raised in DuPage County, Senator Villa only saw white male Republican representation growing up, everywhere from Congress to the State Senate. “I said, why not?” she said when asked what inspired her to run for politics. “Our students need it, our students are suffering, and I didn’t know what to do. Where are the leaders? Why aren’t they here? Why aren’t they listening to the needs of my students?”

Villa said she had never aspired to run for politics, but the need for change led her to go door-to-door, talking to voters, and eventually become a member of the Illinois State Senate for the 25th District.

Cook County Judge candidate Claudia Silva-Hernandez who is running for election in June, said, “I remember sitting in my classes when I was in grade school and feeling kind of invisible and wanting desperately for the teacher to call on me so I can read the paragraph and so they can see that I was smart too, just like everybody else.�

Silva-Hernandez felt the need to run for election because she wanted to prove to others that just because she spoke Spanish didn’t mean that she was any less capable than her peers. “So I want to provide for people who come before us for judge[ship] so that they don’t feel invisible like I did when I was a child,” she said.

The Latina leaders in the panel talked about the need to stop expecting others to step up for them and be the change they want to see in Illinois politics.

Rep. Dagmara Avelar, D-Bolingbrook discussed the tendency among Latina women to “support whoever wants to run� but shy away from running in the elections themselves and said that it was important to change that narrative.
“We never really look back and say like, why not us?� she pointed out.
This reluctance among Latina women to run for elections could be because the lack of Latina representation in state and national politics leads to feelings of uncertainty regarding their political ambitions.

“As Latinas, we can have all the master’s degrees in the world, we can pass 17 pieces of legislation, we can be the ones moving things first in the nation…and we still ask ourselves: are we good enough?â€� Ramirez said.

She looked at the crowd of people present at the panel, some of whom were journalists, some of whom were there because of an interest in Illinois politics, and many of whom were Latina women themselves, and said, “So, what I want to say to all of you here is you are more than good enough­– as entrepreneurs, as nonprofit leaders, and as women who are lifting other women, you are more than good enough.�

Cover photo: Latinas in Politics forum, Hubbard Inn, April 27 (Courtesy of Apps Mandar Bichu).

Apps Mandar Bichu is a graduate student journalist pursuing a Masters of Science in Journalism at Northwestern University.

She is currently interning at The Chicago Reporter and Illinois Latino News (ILLN).

She specializes in multimedia journalism and is passionate about social justice reporting, travel journalism, and all forms of content creation.

You can follow her on Twitter at @ApoorvaaBichu and on LinkedIn: Apoorvaa “Apps” Bichu, or check out her website to learn more about her work:

Publisher’s Notes: ILLN is collaborating with Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in providing students with mentoring and real work experiences. As such ILLN is part of the professional partnerships within the Social Justice Specialization and as part of Medill’s Metro Media Lab.

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Organ Donation: A Birthday Story

“Cumpleaños feliz, te deseamos a ti,” our family sang “Happy Birthday,” to my wife, Adriana. “Cumpleaños felices,” we raised our voices as she celebrated another year with her new liver. Adriana had suffered from polycystic liver disease, a rare condition that causes cysts (fluid-filled sacs) to grow throughout the liver until the selflessness of a young woman saved her life.

Soon after the birth of our first child in 2003, my wife’s aggressive form of the disease became even more severe, deforming her organ further. A healthy liver has a smooth appearance weighing between three and three and a half pounds. Adriana’s polycystic liver looking like a cluster of large grapes, weighed just over 20 pounds when it was removed.

The enlarged liver displaced her other organs, complicating her overall health; Adriana would surely die without a transplant. Her medical miracle happened in her native Colombia. An organ donor, a woman who unfortunately died in an accident, was a match with Adriana.

In general, about 75 percent of people who undergo liver transplants live for at least five years, according to the Mayo Clinic That means that for every 100 people who receive a liver transplant for any reason, about 75 will live for five years and 25 will die within five years. Adriana celebrated 17 years with her new liver last November.

Adriana celebrates her birthday in April 2022

April is National Donate Life Month. Doctors and advocates say it’s more important than ever to bring attention to the need for organ donors. Approximately every 10 minutes, another person is added to the national waiting list.

I became an organ donor soon after Adriana’s liver transplant. Before then, I was like many Hispanics-Latinos, who are less likely to donate organs than Americans as a whole, according to organ donation experts. Hispanics-Latinos are disproportionately in need of donor organs and are less likely to consent to donation than their non-Hispanic counterparts, reports the National Library of Medicine.

“We have transformed the way that they’re thinking and looking at … organ transplantation,” said Dr. Juan Carlos Caicedo, organ transplant surgeon and the director of the Hispanic Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. In an interview on WTTW’s Latino Voices, Dr. Caicedo told me that his team of 50 medical professionals at Northwestern Medicine’s Hispanic Transplant Program helps break down language and cultural barriers in the Hispanic-Latino community. “To be able to do it in their own language – knowing their culture, because our team is bilingual and bicultural — and removing all the language barriers and cultural barriers, we have been able to engage them in a positive way,” he said.

Last year, nephrologists at Loyola University Medical Center told Adriana that her kidneys, which suffer from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), were giving out. PKD is another inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within one’s kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time. As a result, Adriana is quickly reaching the point of needing dialysis. 

I quickly volunteered to be tested to see if I could be a living donor for my wife.

Transplant patients are often reluctant to consider an organ from their spouses because the organs may not be a good match in blood and tissue type. Poor matching can cause the recipient’s immune system to reject the organ.

But a report in the journal Dialysis and Transplantation found that kidney transplantation from spousal donors “has comparable outcomes to those of other living-unrelated donors, and shortens the time spent on the waiting list.�

Adriana and I on the town

Adriana is on that list, and the wait could be as long as three years. Happily, Adriana and I learned that I am a solid match to donate my kidney to her. We will have the surgery in June.

There are more than 100,000 people currently on the national transplant waiting list.

Current statistics show that Americans belonging to minority groups make up nearly 60 percent of those waiting for an organ transplant.  Although a transplant can be successful regardless of the race or ethnicity of the donor and recipient, there is a greater chance of longer-term survival for the recipient if the genetic background of the donor and recipient are closely matched.  

Please consider becoming an organ donor. Americans from every community are needed to help make a life-saving difference. Persons who register as organ donors can save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of 75 others.

Some of those donations can take place while you’re living. For example, living donors can give a lung, kidney, or part of their liver, which can almost regrow to its original size.

Next year, my family hopes to add a June birthday for Adriana, the first of many celebrating her new kidney, our family’s love, and the gift of life.

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ILLN Opinion+: Robert Rodriguez

On this week’s episode of Illinois Latino News Opinion+, Dr. Robert Rodriguez, president and founder of DRR Advisors, joined us for a discussion about businesses measuring inclusivity and accepting accountability for the lack of Latinos in leadership roles. He also stressed the power in Latinidad and identity.

DRR Advisors is a firm that consults businesses in building various inclusion initiatives and Latino talent management programs. He has worked with many companies in industries spanning from banking to transportation and while their business ventures range, many of them operate with similar outlooks toward their Latino staff. He says that one of the common factors in the past has been a lack of accountability on the company’s end and the mindset that their Latino employees have not reached leadership roles due to their own issues that need to be “fixed.�

“‘Cause we’re not broke, I’m not fixing anybody but the companies that get it are the ones that say, Robert, help us. Help us as an organization that will create the conditions that nurture their success. Help us improve the systems that we have in place regarding identifying top talent, help us make sure that Latinos aren’t over mentored and under sponsored,� he said.

He says that now many more companies are taking accountability for the systems that have traditionally prevented Latinos from progressing.

Dr. Rodriguez also spoke about his personal struggle in forming his sense of identity as a Mexican-American growing up in the Midwest, and how entering corporate America complicated it further.

“I didn’t embrace my Hispanic heritage. I was never ashamed of it, I just didn’t see it as something that served me well,� he said.

Dr. Rodriguez says that he grew out of this mindset and realized the strength of his bicultural perspective that came from his Hispanic background. He says that he now encourages young Latinos to approach identity and ethnicity on their own terms.

“But what I tell folks is whatever your sense of identity is, you own it, you determine it. Don’t let somebody else determine it for you and as I talk to many young Hispanics, that’s what they’re finding,� he said.

As a writer, Dr. Rodriguez has converted these lessons he’s learned through personal experience and research into the written word, making the information he sought during the early stages of his career readily available for Latinos looking for guidance, something he says he did not have.

“And the reason I wrote it is ‘cause I think there was a story that needed to be told that we are a powerful community, that we contribute a lot to this society and that we are a callus for economic growth. Now that I’ve written three books, I’m super excited now to see more and more Latinos writing books and getting published because our stories need to be told and I’m glad that there’s an audience for those books,” he said.

Resources mentioned in this video:

Auténtico, Second Edition by Dr. Robert Rodriguez and Andrés T. Tapia

DRR Advisors’ Website:

Autentico: The Definitive Guide to Latino Career Success

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Reform Racist Permit Process In OrderTo Build A Healthier Southeast Side

City officials made the right decision by denying General Iron’s permit, but something is clearly wrong when it takes four excruciating years â€“ for everyone involved â€“ to settle a permit dispute. The fight was so intense that it even led to an intervention from federal agencies. Ultimately, it demonstrated the glaring flaws and systemic racism embedded in the permitting process for industry and the urgent need to reform zoning and land-use laws in Chicago. 

From the first day that we heard about the proposed move of General Iron from Lincoln Park to our neighborhood, Southeast Siders didn’t want a facility with a history of fires, explosions, and all the other problems that made residents of Lincoln Park call for it to be shut down for years. We knew that if this facility received a permit, it would be shredding entire cars down the street from George Washington High School for years to come.

As a lifelong Southeast Sider, I’ve lost count of the toxic industries that are allowed to open up shop near me. Every time a new one piles into the neighborhood, there is little transparency, community participation or accountability in the process. 

It seems that we are a sacrifice zone to polluters and that the city’s zoning laws are designed to keep us buried in industry. To Southeast Siders, these laws are not all that different from the redlining that cut deep race divisions between Chicago’s neighborhoods that maintained inequities for communities of color. 

The city’s history of segregation and racism has forced communities of color to suffer a lesser quality of life than wealthy white residents for decades. 

According to the CDPH’s Health Impact Assessment of RMG-General Iron, life expectancy for Southeast Side neighborhoods is two to nearly seven years shorter than in Lincoln Park. All three Southeast Side community areas rank in the bottom half of all Chicago’s community areas for life expectancy, cardiac and respiratory disease, and self-rated health, among other metrics. The CDPH has also identified these areas as having among the lowest child opportunities in the city, based on educational, health and environmental, and social and economic data. 

You can still see those divisions in the way that the city allows polluters to accumulate in communities of color while pouring resources into Whiter more affluent areas for different types of development. Similar clashes over industry amassing in communities of color are playing out in La Villita, Pilsen and McKinley Park. 

The solution is to make clear guidelines to the permitting process that are equitable, transparent, and leave plenty of room for genuine community participation. The health of residents should be the deciding factor, and the city must prevent industry from amassing in communities of color. 

No community should have to worry about breathing neurotoxins or being covered in dust saturated with heavy metals like lead and arsenic from the industries that brush up against houses and parks. The first line of defense for our health should be in the permitting process for new industries. 

If we had an equitable permitting process, the General Iron decision would not have taken as long as it did. The city could have taken into consideration the almost 250 industrial facilities that line the South Branch of the Chicago River and the existing monitors that register some of the highest levels of toxic metals like lead in the entire state. The city would have listened to the neighbors and heard our long list of concerns which would have led to the inevitable denial of this permit. 

Mayor Lightfoot promised to introduce an ordinance that would address cumulative impacts and make the permitting process more equitable. Environmental justice communities will hold the mayor to her promise for a long-overdue legislative fix to a system that isn’t working for anyone.

The Southeast Side was essential in making Chicago and the region what it is today, and it’s still an essential part of the city where the people who live here can decide what our community should look like. We can be an important part of planning and building a healthier Southeast Side whose prosperity will open up new possibilities for our city. 

Gina Ramirez works to further sustainable land use and zoning rules that can provide crucial protections to areas of Chicago, like the Southeast Side, that are burdened with cumulative industrial pollution. Ramirez is an active member of the Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the Southeast Environmental Taskforce. She has a MA focused in sociology from Roosevelt University and BA in communications from DePaul University.

Publisher’s Note: Do you have something to say? We’re interested. Submit ideas for Opinion-Editorial essays and/or finished work to

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