Magda Castañeda: An original Chicana of 18th Street rests in power

Just two weeks ago, lifelong activist Magda Ramirez Castañeda was in the center of a packed Pilsen Alliance office during a rapid response training that Little Village residents were holding as a result of the heightened immigration detentions under Trump.

Castañeda was telling the young people to be fearless with ICE, and to put “whatever means” they had available toward the defense of the most vulnerable people. “Put on your angry face, put your body on the line if you have to; I’ve even used my wheelchair to get in between. White people use your white privilege…”

Today the activist community is heartbroken as the word spreads that Castañeda passed away yesterday due to health complications. The details of her death and funerary arrangements are still developing.

In 2015, Castañeda gave an interview to the now-defunct Chicago Voz (aka Pilsen Portal) and here we are going to share an excerpt of that conversation.

The unequivocal Chingona spent her early years in Texas, then settled with her family in the Taylor Street community that was displaced by the University of Illinois-Chicago. She said to have experienced her first incidents of racism toward herself and her African-American friends from none other than Catholic Church clergy.

She became politicized when her father, who was formerly a labor organizer in the mines of Coahuila, would get home from his job as a welder and recount stories of La Migra showing up to Chicago factories, causing havoc and snatching undocumented workers, never to be seen again.

The activist rallied tirelessly for the removal of former Ald. Danny Solis, demanded justice for Ayotzinapa, supported a Civilian Police Accountability Council, the Casa Aztlan mural restoration, and condemned the gentrifying forces of City Hall and private interests.

Castañeda, 69, was the co-author of the book Chicanas of 18th Street. She is survived by her compañero Mario, two children, four grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

Her family will organize a “Celebration of Life” memorial in Pilsen in the following weeks, and are asking anyone who has photos or videos of her, or who would like to perform a tribute, can email magdacelebration@gmail.com.

Read more about her life. Excerpt:

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

As a young woman, Magda went to live on 17th and Laflin and was one of the first Latinas to set foot in Circle Campus at UIC.

She joined the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) based in what is now Harold Washington College. OLAS helped to fill three busloads of educators, activists and youth that made the trip to Colorado for the Chicano Youth Conference in 1969 [exactly 50 years ago], she said. Back then, Pilsen faced a gang problem, police brutality, la migra, and poor city services, but the aftereffects of that seven-day conference would forever alter the course of the neighborhood.

That week, the Brown Berets from the West Coast took over a church in Denver and participants spent “all day learning nuestra cultura, doing art, writing poetry, watching teatro, it was a mesh of things,” she said. “More than anything, it was all raza.” 

Ritually, the youth would raise their fists in the air and cry Chicano Power. “I was enthralled, I was proud,” she said. 

Although she was born in Mexico, she didn’t feel fully accepted neither here nor there. So when the Chicano Movement came along, she and others like her were ready to embrace it. It was about “uniting los mexicanos de allá y los mexicanos de acá,” she said.

Their return to Pilsen set off a series of Chicano-conscious initiatives, from public art to providing social services to seeking political power. Casa Aztlan went from functioning as a community clinic to “an anchor” where Mexican Americans congregated and organized. 

“For me, every day was Chicano day,” she remembered. The notion of Chicanismo was more or less confined to the Pilsen neighborhood, but the muralism and organizing principles perforated the Little Village community, especially as it pertained to the mobilization of Harrison High School. Brown youth in Chicago became proud of who they were.

At UIC, Magda advocated for a Latino Studies program. “When we decided to take over the building because we didn’t have Latino Studies, they were not our friends for sure,” she said. “As with many services our people have gotten, they don’t give them to us because they feel it’s the correct thing to do. We pushed them to do things,” she pointed out. 

She thinks universities have never shown good will to Latino communities. UIC “now owed the children of the people that they displaced an opportunity to go to school,” she said.

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

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

She approached Leonard Ramírez, a professor who was the head of the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services (LARES) program at UIC, and asked him to be the editor. Each of the six women had a lifetime of experiences to share and they held strong opinions where they didn’t always agree. With his academic background, Leonard’s role was to give a structure to that dialogue and give it a historical context. 

“We must’ve driven him crazy, there were moments when we wanted to give up and throw away everything,” Magda said. She now carries extra copies of the book wherever she goes.

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

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

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

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

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