Chicago's Clemente H.S.:

Government Witchhunt Targets Puerto Rican Activists

Revolutionary Worker #952, April 12, 1998

March 4, 1998--Twenty-one state troopers line a small auditorium in the State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago. It is Day One of a special hearing organized by a committee of the Illinois House of Representatives.

A police spy, Rafael Marrero, is the center of attention. He claims he got close to the top leadership of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueño (MLN)--a Chicago-based Puerto Rican independence organization. Marrero got himself a position as liaison between Chicago's Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Clemente High School.

Marrero makes false claims that the Local School Council of Chicago's Roberto Clemente High School allowed the MLN to use money from federal low-income education funds--so-called "Chapter 1" funds--to finance political activities. He singles out the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and its executive director José López, saying they were in control of much that happened at Clemente. Marrero offers no evidence for his claims.

Some spectators jump to their feet. They denounce this witness and the entire proceedings. They are quickly removed, and the charade continues.

Welcome to the witchhunt.

The Battle Over Clemente

The Roberto Clemente Community Academy sits near Humboldt Park in a heavily Latino area of Chicago. It has over 2,000 students--mostly working class, predominantly Puerto Rican and Mexican, but also Black, Central American, Vietnamese and white.

The school came into existence in 1973 following spirited student protests against racism. In the late '80s, more protests led to the election of a Local School Council (LSC) and a series of progressive reforms were carried out. The old curriculum was changed to reflect the culture of the students and community. Clemente students went on trips to Mexico and Puerto Rico. Internationally known musicians and artists performed, spoke and held workshops with students--including the Ballet de San Juan, noted author Piri Thomas and musician Edwin Colon Zayas.

Parents were hired to monitor the school--instead of bringing in cops or security guards. Local lawyers offered legal help to students and parents. "Satellite" classes were set up off-campus for students having difficulty staying in school.

These programs were financed with federal funds.

Attacking Progressive Education
and Puerto Rican Culture

Now these progressive innovations are being portrayed, in the Chicago media and the state hearings, as corruption, neglect of students, and the intrusion of "politics" into the educational process.

According to Rafael Marrero, the trips to Puerto Rico were indoctrination in pro-Independence politics. The hiring of parents at the school was portrayed as corruption. And the tours by respected Latino artists were portrayed as a "scam" to secretly fund pro-Independence politics of the MLN.

These false charges carry a threat of future indictments against members of the Local School Council and activists within the surrounding Puerto Rican community.

Yet, despite the seriousness of the allegations, no one with a favorable view toward Clemente's programs was invited to speak. Though José López was accused of all kinds of things at this hearing, he was denied the elementary right to defend himself or the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. "The lies that I heard," one community activist said to the RW, "were just incredible."

In fact, all these accusations are old, and have been thoroughly refuted point by point. There was nothing "under the table" about any of Clemente's programs. All had approval from the city's Board of Education. The student trips were heavily publicized in the community, complete with press conferences to welcome students home.

At the recent hearing, the complaints of many witnesses were little more than crude American chauvinism. Imagine--the Local School Council did not provide U.S. flags in an ROTC class! Imagine--the Clemente curriculum treated Puerto Rico as a nation, with a distinctive culture and history! Imagine--Puerto Rican writers replaced white-Southern novelist William Faulkner in literature classes. Imagine--school walls carried a mural calling for the release of Puerto Rican independence fighters who are held in U.S. prisons!

One witness complained that members of the Local School Council dared speak in Spanish in front of her (even though, by her own admission, she was provided with an English translation).

In the media reports, such "charges" were made to seem scandalous--as if the students' education at Clemente were neglected in favor of "politics" and "scams." But, really, the innovations at Clemente have been quite fine and quite educational.

This committee is investigating abuses that never happened, and crimes that do not exist.

One teacher (who we will call Luis) discussed the situation at Clemente in detail with the RW. He said that the approach at Clemente had been to honor all the different cultures represented in the student body. "Just the idea," he said to the RW, "that a trip to Puerto Rico, or these performers, would have no educational value to the kids, is racist in itself. Who are they to judge what a cultural experience is? To me it's just sickening."

The Anti-People Regime
at Clemente

In 1995 Clemente H.S. was put under "financial probation" by the Chicago Board of Education. The next year, "academic probation" was imposed. A new school administration was imposed on the school--with a new "interim principal" and a constant flow of overseers. They brought with them a heavy conservative emphasis on test scores and standardized evaluations. New policies are in place to raise the school's test scores by pushing out kids who have poorer grades.

Luis told the RW: "It's all based on rote memorization, very little critical thinking. It's boring. It's `keep the kids busy' work. It has nothing to do with expanding their intellect." He added "What it's doing literally, is taking education back 40 years to the '50s."

Now, instead of being greeted by parents, the students face metal detectors and hostile rent-a-cops. Luis said, "It's like this whole robot mentality. It's a really sterile, really cold environment, where before it was a very human, very affective environment."

"For the first time we can remember, there were no celebrations during Puerto Rican week," Luis pointed out. "Students in the bilingual program next year will be cut down by 75 percent. The Vietnamese bilingual program will be eliminated."

The media and hearing witnesses charge that Puerto Rican activists brought "politics" into Clemente. But what is wrong with students discussing the struggle for independence in Puerto Rico? And why is it not considered "political" to remove bilingual programs and Puerto Rican culture from the curriculum, or to demand only English be spoken in the school council meetings?

The real issue is not politics, but which politics.

More Hearings and
Attacks Are Planned

After two days of testimony, the house committee hearings were recessed until later in April.

It is natural to ask why these hearings are happening at all. Why in a city famous for massive corruption, is someone trying to find scandal in the hiring of a few community parents or the funding of cultural events? What is the real agenda behind the false charges and manufactured outrage?

The answer is that Clemente High School and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center are important centers of activism and organization within Chicago's Puerto Rican community. Wealthy local forces have plans to gentrify that community and want to prevent any organized resistance among its current residents. And, meanwhile, powerful forces nationally are making new moves to impose statehood on Puerto Rico and intend to break up existing pro-independence organizations within the U.S. The RW plans to examine these forces and their motives more closely in a future article.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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