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This week in history: Benito Juarez HS opens

The first public high school in Chicago dedicated to serving bilingual students opened Sept. 16, 1977.

Opening ceremonies of Benito Juarez High School
Students attend the opening ceremonies for Benito Juarez High School on Sept. 16, 1977.
From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On Sept. 16, 1977, the Chicago Daily News ran two photos and a short caption about the opening of the new Benito Juarez High School. The caption read:

“Dedicating the new Benito Juarez High School, Mayor Michael A. Bilandic waves a Mexican flag to the applause of student Antonio Garcia, Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, representative of the President of Mexico, and Francisco Acevedo Morga, consul general of Mexico. The crowd gathered at 2150 S. Laflin for the ceremonies Friday displays a sign saying the school was won by community struggle.”

Crowd celebrating opening of Benito Juarez High School on Sept. 16, 1977.
This is one of two photos the Chicago Daily News ran covering the opening of Benito Juarez High School on Sept. 16, 1977.
Edmund Jarecki/Chicago Daily News

Though the paper dedicated very little space to the opening, the photo above with the sign “Benito Juarez High School was won by the community struggle not by politicians,” captures the real story of how Chicago’s Spanish-speaking community demanded better educational opportunities for their children and refused to give up.

Calls for a Spanish-speaking high school in the predominately Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen began in the 1960s. At the time, most Pilsen residents sent their children to Harrison High School in South Lawndale. Underfunded and overcrowded, the school predominantly served Black and Latino students, but few teachers and administrators worked in the school and Spanish-speaking students were often sent to classes for students with learning or behavior issues. The school’s location also forced students to cross gang territories, which rightly worried parents.

In October 1968, Black students at Harrison and two other schools began staging walkouts and boycotts, calling for more Black teachers in their schools and a history curriculum that included Black history. Latino students soon joined in. On Halloween that year, both groups of students laid out their demands to the Chicago Board of Education.

“Spanish-speaking students from Wells, Lake View and Harrison high schools called for bilingual school staff members who could communicate more readily with students and parents,” the Daily News reported.

Outside the school, other Pilsen community members built support for a public high school that would serve the neighborhood’s predominately Spanish-speaking population. In March 1973, parents marched on the Board’s office to protest the closing of Froebel School, where freshmen attended before moving on to Harrison.

“The parents attempted to tell the board members that they wanted a new school in their Pilsen neighborhood, but were told that the public discussion period of the meeting had ended,” a Daily News reporter wrote on March 28, 1973.

Months later in June, parents, students and community members staged a takeover of Froebel, again protesting its closing and calling for a Pilsen high school.

Finally, on Jan. 10, 1974, the board selected a site in Pilsen for the new high school. “The new school would be built on a 212,278-square-foot site bounded by West 21st, West Cermak Road, South Laflin and South Ashland. The board instructed school officials to enter negotiations to acquire the land,” reporter Thomas E. Sellers wrote.

Later that year, the Illinois Capital Development Board approved $7 million in state grants to help CPS build three schools, including one in Pilsen.

Raquel Guerrero, a mother of nine living in Pilsen considered to be one of the three founding mothers of Juarez, told a Daily News reporter at the meeting, “The only high school we have is so large it is uncontrollable. We want a high school in our community, not to discriminate against anybody but to serve the community and to have community input and an ethnic center for parents to participate in evening classes.”

Guerrero and other activists kept the heat on School Supt. Joseph Hannon even after construction on Juarez picked up. To celebrate his 44th birthday, they “brought Mexican goodies and serenaded Hannon. He said it’s one of the nicest happenings since he became superintendent. Especially since Pilsen has kept the heat on Hannon in its quest for a new high school,” columnist Robert J. Hergurth wrote.

In the end, the hard work of Pilsen activists came to fruition when the school finally opened in 1977. Today it continues to serve its community.