Interview: Byron Sigcho & the Man

Twice in the past two years I’ve been wrong about the 25th ward.

My first blunder concerned its alderman, Danny Solis, who I assumed was popular. After all, he is the longtime Latino incumbent of a heavily Latino ward. Plus, when you hear the Latino residents of a Latino enclave mention the Spanish name of their Latino representative, you’re inclined to believe he’s their guy, the man they’ve put in place — and keep in place — to be their voice in government.

As it turns out, Solis isn’t as popular among the voters of his ward as his 19 years in office would have you believe. Had I bothered to ask, many of his constituents could’ve explained to me how, back in 1996, Solis was appointed (not elected) by Chicago’s Democratic machine, which has done all it can ever since to make sure the people of the 25th ward never elect a true representative, and to which Solis has been nothing more than a rubber stamp.

You learn a little more as you live a little more. Now I know better.

The other person I was wrong about is Byron Sigcho, the guy who looks to finally knock Alderman Solis off his appointed pedestal in next month’s election.

Initially I was put off by Sigcho’s background in economics, a field of social science I foolishly conflated with the hard-nosed fields of business — like finance, the degree of choice among the lupine Jordan Belfort wannabes. Having known a few Latinos with degrees in one business field or another, I dismissed the 31-year-old Sigcho as yet another Ayn Rand type, à la Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan: a person who, even when he sounds like a working-class populist, is really a reactionary centrist at most. Pretty much all of the Latino lefties I know who went to college pursued either one of the other social sciences — history, sociology, political science — or something in the humanities.

Here again, my being an irregular visitor to the 25th ward kept me unaware of what a lot of residents have already come to know about Byron Sigcho: that Sigch0 is an activist, that he’s a prominent young voice in the struggle to safeguard public education, and that he uses his training in economics for good — to analyze the financial abuses of City Hall, especially with regards to Chicago’s public school system.

Though he’s certainly no one-issue candidate, over the past few years Sigcho has increasingly railed against the inequities of the city’s public education system. He argues that the recent spree to close public schools in poorer neighborhoods and replace them with charter schools represents “the privatization of education,” thinly disguised. “They’re trying to create three tiers of education” — he insists — “public schools, charter schools, and private schools.”

Of course, the largest proliferator of charter schools in Chicago is the United Neighborhood Organization, which opened the doors to the unaptly named Bartolomé De Las Casas Charter School near 16th and Ashland in 2006 — though the opening of an UNO school in Pilsen shouldn’t have come as  a surprise to anyone familiar with Alderman Solis’ history. The incumbent was an early executive director of UNO, helping the nascent group develop its political acumen, until he was tapped by Mayor Richard M. Daley to replace Ambrosio Medrano, the disgraced former alderman ensnared by a corruption scandal.

That was in 1996. The next year, under the leadership of Solis’ handpicked successor, the conniving Juan Rangel, UNO dipped its toe into the charter school racket.

While Solis is trying to distance himself from the organization he helped build, Sigcho points out that Solis has maintained a strong relationship with UNO through a network of friends and family members. Solis’ wife Mary Jane taught third grade at an UNO school from 2007 to 2012. His sister Grace Perales was also an UNO teacher, as well as “UNO’s longtime office manager,” according to an exposé published by Chicago magazine in February of last year. A $75,000 contract was given to Monterrey Security, once co-owned by Solis’ brother Santiago (and for which Solis’ wife is formerly the VP). And if all that weren’t enough, UNO’s chief strategist since the Nineties has been Phil Mullins, Solis’ high school chum.

“I know what’s happening in Chicago, because it happened in Ecuador: the lack of opportunities for poor people.”

Due to a system operating under minimal government oversight, UNO administrators have been able to line their pockets and those of their friends and family members with taxpayer dollars, while shirking their duty to provide quality public education to Chicago’s most needy communities.

“Out of every dollar in government funds that a charter school gets, only 40 cents goes to the students,” Sigcho explains, peppering the interview with similar facts and figures. “The other 60 cents goes to administrators, managers, contractors and other people.” Sigcho also questions how UNO could boast of profits to its investors on the one hand, while asking the state of Illinois for a $98 million grant to build three new schools on the other.

Last June the SEC charged UNO with defrauding investors by hiding the fact that it handed out multi-million dollar contracts to companies owned by brothers of Miguel D’Escoto, UNO’s senior vice president. (D’Escoto resigned following the revelation, and Rangel resigned 10 months later.)

Sigcho compares the UNO octopus to a typical grocery chain, saying UNO “just wants to spread and grow, no matter what. They don’t care about the damage they do to the public school system.”

Seeing the rich use private means to undermine the well-being of working-class families makes Sigcho think of his birth country. “I know what’s happening in Chicago, because it happened in Ecuador: the lack of opportunities for poor people,” he recalls.

As with most immigrant stories originating in Latin America, a hopeless situation forced Sigcho to leave his homeland. “There was a crisis in Ecuador,” he tells me. “The rich people were taking everything. Things were really bad.”

At this moment Sigcho’s voice, normally brimming with gusto, wavers. He goes silent for a few seconds, before saying, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “My family’s from Honduras. I understand.”

Around the time Solis took the helm at UNO in the late Eighties, Sigcho was just a boy in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. In 1983, the year Sigcho was born, Ecuador was entering its fifth year of democratic civilian rule following two decades of political turmoil, punctuated by the periodic command of a military junta or dictator.

Unfortunately the country’s return to democracy coincided with the onset of prolonged economic ruin, during which the country was plagued by soaring rates of inflation and unemployment. El Niño caused two polar disasters: drought in some areas, flooding in others. Then Ecuador was hit by a massive earthquake in 1987, foiling what little economic recovery had been achieved. The government passed austerity measures to stop the bleeding, but 10 years later the economy nosedived again, seeing the now defunct Ecuadorian sucre lose 67 percent of its value in 1999. This culminated in a golpe de estado (which failed) the year before Sigcho emigrated.

Things wouldn’t begin to turnaround for Ecuador until President Rafael Correa took office in 2007. Borrowing a few pages from the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Correa implemented policies which have drastically reduced poverty rates and provided education and other social services to Ecuador’s poorer citizens.

“I’m happy to see the changes that are happening in Ecuador,” Sigcho says when I ask him about the present conditions in his home country. “The government is focusing on the people. There’s some bad, of course. But things are changing.”

Sigcho came to the States in 2001, spending a few years in a rolling, verdant suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, where he graduated from high school and attended nearby Cumberland University. He begins to tell me how he was the sole Latino at his high school. “No, wait,” he interjects. “There was one other Latino.”

When he first visited Chicago, he was surprised to see it had such a vibrant Latino community. He laughs, remembering how his trip to Pilsen was the first time he’d seen so many Latinos in one place since leaving Ecuador. It was during his tour of the neighborhood that he decided he wanted to move to Chicago.

“I not only talk the talk, I also walk the walk. I’m out in the community working with community members.”

He completed his undergraduate studies in mathematics and business administration at Cumberland in 2006 and moved to Pilsen. Then he received a soccer scholarship to pursue a master’s in economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which he earned in 2010, thereupon becoming a candidate in UIC’s Policy Studies in Urban Education doctoral program, where the extent of his schooling currently lies.

Meanwhile Sigcho has worked as an instructor at UIC’s Center for Literacy and co-founded the Spanish Literacy Program, helping Latinos develop the tools they need to access political and economic opportunities. He has been a board member of the Pilsen Alliance, a local organization which advocates social justice through grassroots participation.

“I’m an activist, first and foremost,” Sigcho insists. “I not only talk the talk, I also walk the walk. I’m out in the community working with community members.”

Despite his activism — or perhaps because of it — Sigcho extols the power of voting and its importance, especially for young people. “If you don’t like what a politician is doing, voting is a good way to protest that.

“I’m an activist,” he adds. “I march in the streets. But voting can be another way to protest.”

The way he sees it, the major issues facing the 25th ward are gentrification, insecurity, and a lack of transparency in government.

“There’s no representation in this ward,” he thunders. “You saw what happened with that metal shredder [the city wants to build] across from Benito Juárez. Nobody in the community wants it, so why are they putting it there? Because this alderman got $50,000 to put it there.” (Sigcho’s referring to reports that show Alderman Solis received large campaign contributions from the companies behind the proposed shredder.)

Earlier in the interview, when I asked him why he was running, Sigcho brought up the case of the missing $140,000 in the 25th ward — money that was supposed to pay for arts and culture programming in the community, but which Alderman Solis seems to have misplaced.

“Where is that money?” Sigcho demands on the other end, prompting me to wonder if he’s seen Jerry Maguire.

“Security isn’t just about the physical — like there being less crime or whatever. It’s about people feeling safe.”

I turn to the issue of gentrification, namely how Sigcho plans to maintain the unique characteristics of the 25th Ward — which contains much of Chinatown — while balancing development and renewal.

“Right now the community is facing a lot of what is called ‘gentrification,’ but what is really displacement,” he offers.

I agree: displacement is a much better word to describe the policies that force working-class people out of a inner-city neighborhood in order to entice more affluent citizens and suburbanites, thus making the neighborhood more lucrative for city government and businesses in terms of taxes and disposable income. But with Pilsen already labelled one of Chicago’s “up-and-coming” communities, how can anyone stem the tide of urban removal swelling westward from Halsted?

“Pilsen has been up-and-coming for the last 10 years,” Sigcho counters, “but we have residents who have been living in the community for 20, 30 years. They lived here when things were really tough, and now we have to help make sure these people have money to stay in the neighborhood, that they’re not displaced by rising property taxes.”

To do this, Sigcho proposes the ward institute participatory budgeting, empowering residents to decide how funds are allocated in the community. A number of other wards already allow their residents to decide on how best to spend the $1.4 million in discretionary funds afforded each ward, known as “menu money.” Alderman Ricardo Muñoz of the neighboring 22nd ward has implemented participatory budgeting for the past few years, and had the 25th ward already used participatory budgets, that case of the missing $140,000 could’ve been avoided — since it, too, came out of the ward’s menu money.

I guess someone in the 25th ward thought of a funner way to spend the dough.

Echoing the bottom-up approach to governance pursued by mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” García (whom I spoke with last month), Sigcho would like to see greater communication between communities and City Hall. He thinks the closed-door style of Chicago politics is a sure way to see that the needs of citizens aren’t met, and that residents don’t feel invested in the policies undertaken by local government when voters are left out of the decision-making process.

“I’m definitely a supporter of community policing,” Sigcho adds, referring to an approach to law enforcement that seeks to build trust between police officers and their communities they serve by establishing a close relationship between the two. This relationship, in turn, makes policing much more potent by providing officers with information about what’s going on in a particular neighborhood — information they otherwise wouldn’t have available to them had they merely passed out traffic tickets and made arrests.

“Security isn’t just about the physical — like there being less crime or whatever. It’s about people feeling safe,” Sigcho says.

His advocacy for community policing is yet another area where Sigcho’s politics dovetail with García’s, and so I ask Sigcho if he’s endorsed a candidate for mayor. He tells me he met with García last summer when they discussed the potential candidacy of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and Sigcho was “excited” when García threw his hat into the ring after Lewis’ illness kept her from running. Then, like a boy boasting of his affinity to a sports hero, Sigcho adds, “I live on the same street where he grew up.”

There are various other similarities connecting Sigcho and García — they’re both immigrants, they both entered politics through activism and community organizing, for example. But perhaps the most immediate aspect the two share in common is that they’re both alternative liberal candidates facing incumbents backed by Chicago’s political machine, incumbents with stacks of campaign cash as tall as the John Hancock.

When I asked García how he planned to win against such a formidable opponent last December, he told me that, after speaking with members of communities across the city, he could “sense there’s a great dissatisfaction with the direction the city was put on, especially in the past four years.” He assured me that, based on the mayor’s sagging approval ratings among blacks, Latinos, the working class, etc., Rahm will not be able to secure the more than 50 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a runoff election in April.

Sigcho views his chances of becoming alderman of the 25th ward in a similar light.

“Another candidate may have a lot of money, but I have a lot of volunteers supporting me,” he asserts. “I have the people behind me.”

Come February 24, we’ll find out if he’s right.

[All images courtesy of: Team Sigcho]