DIY versus development, international edition
Chicago cultural space La Casa del Inmigrante and Mexico City anarchist library Biblioteca Social Reconstruir bond against a common enemy.
June 23, 2021
By Kelley Tatro of Chicago Reader
Marcos Hernández is a restless person, his speech rapid and his hands continuously busy. He and three friends—Juan Herrera, Carolina Duarte, and Tonatiuh Ayala—chat around a conference table under fluorescent lights in what would look like a nondescript office space were it not for the raised platform in one corner, where a drum set and other bits of music gear hint at the sound and sociability once hosted here. On a warm Sunday afternoon in May, I’ve joined them on the second floor of a former commercial office building adjoining what used to be a metal-recycling business at 3200 S. Kedzie in Little Village.
Hernández, an auto mechanic, and Herrera, a sign painter, both live on the first floor of the building, where they also maintain studios to create music and graphic art. But the second floor is a treasured space not only for the building’s shifting roster of artists and residents but also far beyond it. Since 2016, it’s been the home of La Casa del Inmigrante (“Immigrant House”), a DIY cultural organization formed by five current Casa residents and three friends, including one who visits periodically from Minneapolis. The group faces imminent eviction, but it’s in no danger of dissolving.
Everyone at the table is a member of La Casa del Inmigrante, and every member is an immigrant from Mexico. “Esto es la base” (“This is the foundation”), explains Duarte. She and Ayala, a carpenter, both live on the north side. The entire building at 3200 S. Kedzie has come to be known as La Casa del Inmigrante, not least because all five of its current tenants are members of the collective. They’ve used the space to support local artists, including nonmembers, by providing them with free studios and hosting workshops where they can share their crafts—in music, theater, and visual art—with the larger community. They’ve raised money to buy and distribute shoes to children in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, and over the years they’ve repeatedly used the narrow, low-ceilinged, second-story space to host punk bands playing benefit shows. Proceeds from those shows have gone to the victims of the 2017 earthquake in Oaxaca, to the families of the 43 students disappeared in 2014 in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, and to people displaced by prolonged political violence in Chenalhó, Chiapas, among others.
La Casa has also thrown five benefit shows for La Biblioteca Social Reconstruir, an independent Mexico City library that bills itself as an acervo anarquista (“anarchist archive”). The BSR is something of an inspiration and a model for the Casa folks, who dream big when it comes to new types of events they want to hold in their space: artisans’ markets, workshops for elderly adults, even dance circles. Like their counterparts at the comparatively venerable BSR (it was founded in 1978, when its founder made his personal library publicly accessible), they strive to create a place where people can gather to enjoy and inform themselves. As autonomous organizations unconnected to the nonprofit ecosystem, La Casa del Inmigrante and the BSR have struggled to secure spaces in which to operate—they’re both in gentrifying cities where housing costs are high and getting higher.
“Los espacios son carísimos,” affirms Ayala—rents are very expensive. It’s a common challenge for DIY institutions, which purposefully refuse to set up hierarchical organizations with paid staff and other overhead costs (and whose informal nature often means they can’t access established funding sources such as granting agencies). The BSR was evicted from a space in Mexico City in 2009 and remained without a home until 2015. La Casa del Inmigrante seems likely to endure a similar ordeal if the state’s eviction moratorium ends on June 26—which it will, if not extended again by Governor Pritzker.
La Casa’s struggles over the space began at the height of the pandemic. The Chicago Southwest Development Corporation, working with Saint Anthony Hospital, had acquired the property from La Casa’s original landlord, Azteca Mall LLC, in 2018. It plans to use the land as part of a huge development project called the Focal Point Community Campus, which would include a new Saint Anthony Hospital as well as housing and retail space. (The CSDC’s CEO, Guy Medaglia, is also president and CEO of the hospital.) In October 2020, the CSDC posted notice of their plans to demolish the building at 3200 S. Kedzie to make way for the development.
The conversation in the Casa conference room has become an impassioned torrent of information about the group’s activities and aspirations, continuing unbroken for 22 minutes, in response to just one question from me: “What’s your relationship to the BSR?” Hernández, who’s been listening to the others talk and busily picking at a stubborn strip of tape stuck to the table, finally pipes up with a rapid-fire account of how he encouraged his friends’ embrace of the Mexico City institution. Though all four of these Casa folks are originally from Mexico City, only Hernández has in-person knowledge of the library.
The BSR is a one-of-a-kind place, its impressive collection of leftist historical and political literature amassed by Ricardo Mestre Ventura, one of several Spanish Civil War exiles who settled in Mexico City after fleeing Franco’s fascist regime in the 1930s. Mestre was an anarchist whose belief in the power of the written word had been shaped by his own education in workers’ libraries in Spain, and during his exile he amassed his collection while working as a bookseller and editor. He opened the library in rented space on Avenida Morelos in Mexico City’s historic district, in the hopes that its central location would render it accessible to the largest possible number of people in the sprawling megalopolis.
Mexico has nothing like the robust public library system we take for granted in the United States. Not only are public libraries rare and lending privileges rarer, but books themselves can be much more expensive. Specific titles—especially on a subject such as anarchism—are hard to find in Mexico City’s street markets, despite their teeming trade in secondhand books, and even if you can track down a volume online (not a popular option among people I know), you might not be able to afford it.
Mestre not only made his collection public but also established the library and its environs as a gathering place. He frequently met with fellow Spanish exiles at nearby Café La Habana, a famous haunt for the city’s cultural and political thinkers (rumored to be where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara brainstormed the Cuban Revolution). Mestre was equally motivated to befriend young people interested in anarchism, and for a particular group of young people, the timing couldn’t have been better—the city’s punk scene was coalescing during the same period when Mestre was building an audience for his young library.
Two of the library’s current caretakers, Martha García and Kiko (who’s asked to be identified only by his nickname), remember Mestre as different from the other aging exiles: more approachable, less fixated on reminiscing about the past, and actively interested in Mexican politics as well as young people’s views on social problems. “He had a lot of empathy for people younger than himself,” says Kiko. He adds that this sentiment translated into a deep mutual respect between Mestre and the punk kids—mostly people in their teens and early 20s—who increasingly began to frequent the BSR.
Finding public places to gather in peace, without the intervention of police or government authorities, was a challenge for young people in Mexico City in the 1980s and continues to be today. The Biblioteca Social Reconstruir became a place where the city’s punks could educate themselves and work on fanzines or other projects of their own. Marcos Hernández first visited the library in the mid-1990s, when he was a high school kid in Ecatepec—a municipality in the north of Mexico City that’s called “Ecatepunk” for all the punk fans who live there.
“The truth is that I didn’t like to read,” Hernández admits. Originally, he says, he was more involved in what he calls “destroy punk,” a more hedonistic way of engaging with the scene. But as he was drawn into a more socially conscious circle of punk-scene friends, he began to spend more time at the library. He describes it as a precious place—you could photocopy stuff for free, and no one would run you off for hanging around with your friends. He says it’s where he started to enjoy learning, and where his involvement with punk evolved into something more politically engaged—something grounded in the anarchist ideas that he heard about and witnessed in practice at the BSR.
So deep was the connection Mestre felt with young people such as Hernández that, when he died in 1997, he left the library in their care—with the express wish that it remain publicly accessible. Unfortunately, he had never bought a building to house it, and renting office space in downtown Mexico City was no easy thing (and hasn’t gotten easier). At the time, formal waged work was disappearing in the struggling local economy, which had endured one financial crisis after another from the 1970s onward. Mestre’s death occurred in the wake of the so-called Tequila Crisis of 1994, when the value of the peso plummeted, spurring a $50 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund. When I arrived in Mexico City in 2008, people shrugged when I referred to the global financial crisis then still unfolding. They were too inured to economic disaster for that crisis to register as a new calamity.
These economic upheavals exacerbated wealth inequality and contributed to the steady transformation of Mexico City. Its picturesque, heavily touristed historic center was increasingly at the heart of battles about who should be able to use public space and how. Despite the recession that began in 2008—by which point at least half of Mexican workers made their living from informal as opposed to on-the-books labor—city officials were preparing for high-profile bicentennial events in 2010. Street vendors were evicted from parts of the historic district, and its already high rents rose further still.
By then, the Biblioteca Social Reconstruir had moved twice and was located in an old office building near La Alameda Central, a park that encompasses the majestic art deco Palacio de Bellas Artes, a major cultural and performing arts institution in the historic district. García says the library’s rent was then close to 4,000 pesos monthly (roughly $335 at 2008 exchange rates), a small fortune for the punks struggling to keep it alive. I was lucky to get to know the library a little before it was evicted in early 2009, after months of struggling to make that rent.
For the next six years, García’s sister took charge of storing the library’s collection. It includes valuable and even irreplaceable books and newspapers: 19th-century Spanish-language editions of the works of anarchist forefather Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Diego Abad de Santillán’s 1925 biography of Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, an original issue of the newspaper Regeneración (published by the Flores Magón brothers in the early 20th century), and dozens of European papers from the Spanish Civil War period.
Finally, in 2015, the library signed a two-year renewable contract with the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), one of Mexico’s only autonomous labor unions. The BSR reopened on the ground floor of the union’s building and resumed providing a space for self-improvement and sociability. The library’s relationship with the FAT is sympathetic, even symbiotic, but the situation remains precarious—every two years, its contract must be renegotiated. For now, at least, García says that the FAT allows the BSR to use the space in exchange for a monthly contribution of 3,500 pesos ($175) to the building’s maintenance and other expenses.
In 2008, just before the Biblioteca Social Reconstruir’s eviction, Hernández had moved to Chicago and started working with the friends who would form La Casa del Inmigrante. The Casa project began around 2014 with a film series they called Video Club en Resistencia: using portable equipment in borrowed spaces, they screened documentaries with the goal of fostering dialogue among communities in Pilsen, where Hernández and Herrera then lived.
“Desde allá tenemos esa inquietud,” says Herrera (“Since then, we’ve had this restless desire”). The film series was the first outlet for their drive to amplify issues such as immigration and environmental justice. Duarte says they’d also been experimenting with local activism, looking for ways to make a difference directly—they wanted to use methods that were “más orgánico,” instead of relying on nonprofits or other established organizations.
When Hernández learned of the BSR’s reopening in 2015, he told the other members of La Casa del Inmigrante about its history, its mission, and its DIY methods. As they learned more about the library’s role as a meeting space, not only for punks and anarchists throughout Mexico City but also for its immediate neighbors, they saw parallels with their own efforts. The library’s autonomous organization, without formal hierarchies, also struck a chord. La Casa del Inmigrante held its first benefit show for the library that year.
In 2017, I attended the third festival, by then called Breaking the Borders. The first fest had been held at a different DIY venue, but since 2016 the Casa folks had been hosting events at the S. Kedzie address, having partnered with their friend Guillermo Hernández (no relation to Marcos), a theater producer who was renting the space from Azteca Mall LLC. The third Breaking the Borders fest was an all-night marathon with seven acts on the lineup, including Marcos Hernández’s own Desafío and out-of-state visitors such as New York City hardcore band Huasipungo. It occupied a warehouse space that the friends had cleared of debris, and they’d later rehabilitate the adjoining office building that I visited last month. The 2017 benefit raised $600 for the library, according to the money transfer posted on Hernández’s Facebook page.
“Derecha la flecha, aquí no hay trucos,” quips Herrera (“The arrow flies directly, here there are no tricks”). The Casa operates with a transparency and directness that most charity organizations can’t match. The members choose a cause, brainstorm ways to help, come to a consensus, and then get to work themselves. “No nos condicionamos ante nada,” says Ayala (“We are not influenced by anything”). They’re not subordinate to anyone and cherish their independence, which they link to their interest in anarchism. The recipients of their support tend to appreciate seeing documentation of how much the Casa raised and what it cost to send (services such as Western Union take a bite of international cash transfers). That manner of operating is a “reference,” explains Duarte, a calling card recognized by some of their Mexican beneficiaries. She laughs, imagining how they’d be described: “En Chicago, unas personas inquietas.” Those restless, driven people in Chicago.
The Casa folks have needed every ounce of their impressive energy over the past several months. Hernández and Herrera describe struggles with the Chicago Southwest Development Corporation that have left the collective’s members weary—particularly the five who live in the S. Kedzie building. “Estamos cansados de pelearnos con ellos,” says Hernández (“We’re tired of fighting with them”).
La Casa del Inmigrante had begun working with Guillermo Hernández in 2016, and the group eventually sublet space from him at 3200 S. Kedzie. Their troubles with the CSDC began in earnest after he became seriously ill and died in August 2020. As Borderless Magazine reported in February 2021, the Casa members had been indirectly paying rent to the CSDC for years through Guillermo Hernández, and they contacted the company immediately after his death in an attempt to continue paying their rent directly. The CSDC refused to accept the money, insisting that it would deal only with the official leaseholder.
In October, the tenants at La Casa received notice of the CSDC’s intent to demolish the building. The next month American Demolition, contracted by the CSDC, put up a fence around the property and hired private security to surveil it.
Since then, the Casa residents report periodically being locked out by that fence—and even being locked in. Just after Hernández and I reestablished contact in April, he apologized via text for a lapse in communication: “Tuvimos otro lock in, pero ya se resolvió todo” (“We had another lock-in, but now everything has been resolved”).
The residents also say they’ve gotten notices from the CSDC and its proxies as recently as June 14 (directly or via their lawyer) claiming that the building is uninhabitable and in urgent need of inspection. The allegation that the space is in dangerous disrepair bemuses La Casa’s residents, who have cozy little apartments on the first floor that they built for themselves in disused office space—tidy dwellings that they show off with no small pride.
“No quiero estresarme,” Herrera told me after the latest notice (“I don’t want to stress myself out”). The CSDC’s lawyer had told La Casa’s lawyer that an inspection would occur on the following day, June 15, but it never happened. The Casa group is represented by attorney Kelli Dudley, who runs the Resistance Legal Clinic and teaches housing law at DePaul University. She wrote to me about the inspection warnings: “This landlord has, in the past, tried to misuse the City’s services by having them ‘inspect’ the premises, condemn the premises, and remove the tenants on that basis instead of going through the recognized court proceedings to get possession.”
Hernández and Herrera also say that the private security service at the property, contracted via American Demolition, has been less than professional. “Nos están acosando todo el tiempo” (“They are harassing us all the time”), says Hernández. (The February Borderless story details the situation.) Hernández estimates conservatively that officers from the Chicago Police Department “han venido aquí como tres, cuatro veces” (“have arrived here like three or four times”), and Herrera recalls that they once brought five patrol cars (“cinco patrullas”).
Hernández and Herrera switch to English to replicate their dialogue with the cops: “What are you doing here?”
“Get the fuck out of here, guys!”
“But we live here!” Hernández protests.
“No, no one lives here.”
The Chicago Police Department has not engaged in any detail with the allegations from La Casa tenants. “The Cook County Sheriff’s Department is in charge of the eviction process,” reads the department’s response. “Anyone who feels they have been mistreated by a CPD officer is encouraged to call 311 and file a complaint with COPA, who will investigate allegations of misconduct.” (Casa residents have shared photos and video with the Reader that document visits from CPD, not from sheriff’s officers.) A representative from American Demolition states that as of June 1, the company is no longer involved with the CSDC project. The Casa folks confirm that the site has had different security since then.
The CSDC has not directly replied to the allegations either. Perhaps because the company shares a CEO with Saint Anthony Hospital, one of its partners in the proposed Focal Point Community Campus, my request for comment is eventually referred to Jim Sifuentes, the hospital’s senior vice president of mission and community development. He initially characterizes the residents of 3200 S. Kedzie as “trespassers” and repeatedly brings up how unsafe the space allegedly is. “I don’t understand why they would want to stay there,” he says.
When I point out the connotations of “trespasser,” though, Sifuentes changes his tone. Pressed about the complaints of the residents at 3200 S. Kedzie—specifically lock-ins and problems with security personnel—he uses a less confrontational word. “We have not stopped the tenants from coming in and out of the place,” he says. Though he claims that “the Fire Prevention Bureau has listed this building as a dangerous building” (Dudley disagrees), he can’t explain why the city has not therefore agreed to inspect the property. “I can’t speak for the city of Chicago,” he says.
Sifuentes also claims that the hospital has offered to help the residents find a new home. The Casa residents respond that they did receive an offer—to be placed in a homeless shelter. That wasn’t as safe an option during COVID, and they weren’t willing to move to a place where they couldn’t re-create their studios—some of them have been able to use the Kedzie space to keep working through the pandemic.
Sifuentes is keen to emphasize the good that Saint Anthony Hospital does: “We serve the marginalized,” he says. I ask if those ends justify the means in this case. “If this was a residence, it would be a different story,” he replies. “It would be different if we didn’t have a history of living out our mission.”
Dudley doesn’t believe the question of whether the 3200 S. Kedzie space is technically a residence is even relevant. “The Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance is not tied to zoning determinations,” she says. “In fact, it can apply to an area someone uses as a sleeping place unless excluded under exceptions to the ordinance, which this property does not appear to be.”
She also thinks the effort to characterize the residents’ presence as illegitimate has no basis in fact. “Legally speaking, the Casa residents are tenants, not squatters,” she explains. “This is because the root of the tenancy goes back to an agreement between a now-deceased tenant and the former owner. At one time, payments were being accepted from the current tenants, there was communication with them, and the tenancy was otherwise acknowledged.”
Unfortunately, none of this may help the Casa del Inmigrante crew stay put. They know that eventually they’ll need to leave their current home, not least because the eviction moratorium appears to be ending soon. They’ve been doing what they can to safeguard their personal safety and La Casa’s existence during these past several months. And they continue to live out the collective’s principles by helping their friends.
Since their most recent annual benefit for the Biblioteca Social Reconstruir in 2019, the Casa group have been constrained by the pandemic and the precarity of their housing. But this past January, they were able to show their support when the library faced a very different but equally grievous need. Héctor Hernández Becerril (known as “Tobi”), the former punk kid who’d arguably grown closest to Mestre and played a significant role at the library after his death, had contracted COVID. Hernández and the Casa folks sent out a GoFundMe call to contacts in Chicago, Mexico City, and beyond and raised $1,966 to cover his care. The donations went instead to pay for his funeral.
Today the Casa group’s friends at the Biblioteca Social Reconstruir offer solidarity in their hour of need. The library is a well-respected DIY cultural institution that’s survived many trials of its own over the decades, and its volunteer personnel can give valuable advice and encouragement. But even if they were to return years of favors by hosting a benefit show for La Casa, it wouldn’t help—and not just because the peso is quite weak compared to the dollar. The problem isn’t that the Casa folks can’t pay rent but rather that their landlord won’t accept it and wants them gone.
I ask García what message the BSR would send to La Casa del Inmigrante. “You have to weld yourself to the struggle,” she says. “The question is to find another space, no? To find another space and to keep giving life to all of this.” Gentrification is a common threat, in Chicago as well as Mexico City. “They want to erase us, no? It’s also erasing social projects, communitarian projects, and we have to fight so that they don’t erase us, don’t eliminate us.”
“We begin anew,” concurs Kiko. “Lo importante es seguir adelante.” The important thing, he says, is to keep moving forward.
More information about the Biblioteca Social Reconstruir is available at bibliotecasocialreconstruir.wordpress.com and the library’s Facebook page.