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This week in history: Carmen Velásquez fights for health care

Here’s a look at how Carmen Velásquez has been fighting for better health care access for immigrant and Spanish-speaking Chicagoans for decades.

Carmen Velásquez stands outside the Alivio Medical Center
Carmen Velásquez stands outside the Alivio Medical Center on West 21st Street on Sept. 24, 1993.
Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/Chicago Sun-Times

As published in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News:

On Sept. 22, 1993, President Bill Clinton delivered a primetime speech outlining his plan for health care reform. He cited health care security as one of his top principles.

“Security means that those who do not now have health care coverage will have it, and for those who have it, it will never be taken away,” the president said. “We must achieve that security as soon as possible.”

But that security wouldn’t extend to undocumented immigrants, and that horrified Chicago activist and health care provider Carmen Velásquez.

“I’m scandalized,” she told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter two days after Clinton’s speech as she stood outside the Alivio Medical Clinic in Pilsen. “This is a basic human right.”

For decades, Velásquez fought to better the quality of life for Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities of Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards. Throughout her long career, she founded a health clinic, opened a restaurant and fought for non-English-speaking students on the Chicago Board of Education.

Before Alivio opened in January 1990, Latinos on the South and Southwest Sides faced numerous barriers when trying to access health care, Sun-Times reporter Graciela Kenig wrote in an October 1990 profile of the new clinic. A needs assessment commissioned by Alivio and conducted by the Latino Institute found that 40% of Latino residents in all three Latino-majority Chicago neighborhoods lacked insurance, Kenig wrote, and even among those who did have insurance, “an additional 20% did not have coverage beyond hospitalization and 25% had no family coverage.”

Another barrier: language. A lack of Spanish-speaking medical personnel caused fewer Latino residents to seek health care, officials told Kenig. All staff members at Alivio were bilingual and bicultural.

By giving Pilsen residents a local community clinic, Velásquez hoped to encourage Latinos to seek medical care regularly, not only when a problem became an emergency.

“Our purpose is to change lifestyles, not just to give shots,” Velásquez, the center’s executive director, explained to Kenig. “We offer patient education and counseling as well as workshops that promote good health habits.”

But health care wasn’t Velásquez’s only passion. She and co-owner Rosario Rabiel opened Decima Musa Restaurant at 19th and Loomis streets in 1982, which became a haven for Mexican and Chicano artists, writers and creatives. In 1988, Sun-Times columnist John Stebbins profiled Velásquez — and she didn’t hold back.

“Stupidity makes me angry. Ignorance makes me angry. A------s make me angry. People who don’t respect other people make me angry,” she told Stebbins, who credited her with raising hell and the city’s consciousness. “You get angry when you run into that stuff just because you are a Mexican, or a female or a little darker than others.”

Stebbins described Velásquez, who had just finished serving on the Chicago Board of Education, as “a political volcano that erupts along society’s faults” and “a Renaissance woman” — one who was “fighting trench warfare against the social ills that multiply in the forgotten parts of the city.”

At the time of the interview, the multi-talented activist had already raised $3.1 million for then-Project Alivio. “In our neighborhoods, you see storefront clinic after storefront clinic. There is quantity, but where is the quality?” she asked.

Mayor Richard J. Daley nominated Velásquez to the Chicago School Board in 1974, which meant she had to give up her state position and the $16,200 salary.

At the time, she told Chicago Daily News reporter Walter Morrison that she was facing a big challenge in becoming a member of the board. “It’s time-consuming and energy-consuming, but we will try,” she said.

Her big focus? The board’s “inadequate” bilingual programs.

Officially, Velásquez retired in 2014. Her restaurant closed in 2018, but she remains a passionate advocate for her community.