A bus ride opened Berto Aguayo’s eyes to the inequities between Chicago’s North and South sides.
It laid the groundwork for community organizing that put Aguayo, 25, on the front lines of peaceful protests and gatherings to unite Latino and African American communities in the weeks after George Floyd died in Minneapolis from a police officer’s callous restraint.
Before his senior year of high school, Aguayo worked as an intern in Ald. Michele Smith’s office on the North Side. He rode the Halsted Street bus to Lincoln Park from his Back of the Yards neighborhood on the Southwest Side.
“I was going through Greektown. I was going through the South Loop. I was going through all these neighborhoods,” he told me recently in a socially distanced interview in Back of the Yards.
Arriving in Lincoln Park, he noticed that the grass was greener, literally, on the other side.
“Nice lawns and no cracked concrete,” he said.
At the time, Aguayo couldn’t find the words to describe what he felt.
“But I was angry,” he said. “I was like, ‘this is not right.’ I almost felt cheated.”
People in Lincoln Park could hang around the bars past 8 p.m. without the watchful eye of police, he noticed.
“Now I know it’s the language of inequity,” he said. “Disinvestment.”
After that, Aguayo left a neighborhood gang that he had joined at 13. He got his grades up and graduated high school. He went on Dominican University in River Forest and became the student body president.
Three years ago, he co-founded the Increase the Peace Initiative with several nonprofits. Increase the Peace brings together young people who try to curb violence in Back of the Yards and neighboring communities.
Aguayo got my attention when he ran, unsuccessfully, for 15th Ward alderman last year. His grassroots work struck a chord. His work received a grant this year from the Chicago Community Trust.
He plans to attend law school in the next year or two, but I think we’ll see him in politics again. Last winter, he campaigned for Marie Newman, a progressive who beat incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski in the Democratic primary. Previously, he interned for state Rep. Chris Welch, who has become a powerful figure in the Legislature on civil and human rights issues.
When some protests after Floyd’s death became violent, Aguayo’s group helped businesses board up and guard against vandalism.
At that time, some misguided Latinos responded to the vandalism and looting by threatening African Americans in an attempt to keep them out of Latino neighborhoods. Briefly, those folks shaped an ugly narrative and undermined efforts to unite communities.
Aguayo and other community leaders took back the narrative, emphasizing a need for Black and Brown folks to stick together to fight racism.
Aguayo and Will Calloway, who is African American and a prominent figure in the call for reform of the Chicago Police Department, came together early this month to lead a peaceful car parade through the South and Southwest Sides.
They expected 100 cars, Aguayo said, but even more turned out. Mexican and Pan African flags were waved high in the air. Young kids waved from the sidewalks.
“If I was a kid, and I saw that,” Aguayo said, “it would shape my outlook for the rest of my life.”
Days earlier, Aguayo had helped organize a “Brown People for Black Lives” peaceful protest in Little Village. “It was beautiful,” he said of the packed gathering in the parking lot of the Discount Mall. “This is what solidarity looks like.”
Since then, Aguayo’s group has put together food pantries for Black and Brown communities. They have raised about $38,000 through a GoFundMe campaign for street vendors in Chicago who couldn’t earn a living during the coronavirus stay-at-home order.
We live in polarized times. But, at the grassroots level, we can look to Aguayo and others like him for signs of positive change.
Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.