Making of Puertorriqueñidad at Chicago’s YMCA

While Chicago Puerto Rican community leaders are often acknowledged for what they build independent of historically established organizations, what of those who gain tools by working within older, established organizations? Three of Chicago Puerto Rican leaders interviewed for the Notable Puerto Rican Project have contributed to both grassroots organizations as well as established institutions. While they grew up in different decades and arrived in Chicago at different ages, their contributions to the Puerto Ricans not only overlap but build on the others’. More than the time they were either neighbors or worked for each other, what draws their experience as young men wanting more for their community had been their work with the YMCA. Whether in Puerto Rico, on baseball teams when first arriving, or integrated as an adolescent, Antonio Irizarry, Roberto “Bob” Medina and Ramon “Ray” Vazquez Jr each participated in the YMCA at different points in their youth. The service and team-building they experienced sparked questions of community integration while affirming the need to grow more involved to address the social disparities their communities faced. 

For Antonio, ‘Tony’ Irizarry, lessons of discrimination and the plight of repressed Native Americans and African Americans he witnessed on the bus ride from Miami to northern California would shape a desire to do more to address social inequalities. While Irizarry first immigrated to the United States on an arts scholarship, his struggles on the way to art school and the discrimination he faced when looking for jobs shaped his interest in community empowerment. A former Boy Scout, and YMCA lifeguard, Irizarry’s resided in YMCA rooms when he first arrived in Chicago. He worked for the Y, while looking for more permanent work in Chicago. While stable work allowed him to find more secure housing, his community work organizing the parade, working with youth and promoting Puerto Rican & Latino culture would extend what he learned from his years with Y. Reaching 90, Irizarry has turned the documents he has collected over the years of his work and transformed it into ‘el museo del barrio,’ which he shares with the greater community every October.

Event honoring Antonio ‘Tony’ Irizarry’s legacy of contributions. Milly Santiago (now serving as an alderman of the ward)
hosted the event. Alderman Santiago is to Irizarry’s left while his wife is to his right. From
La Voz del Paseo Boricua.

Roberto ‘Bob’ Medina, equally invested in collecting historical papers from his and other Puerto Ricans’ political work, donated many of historical documents to us, one of them being a picture of his baseball team, one formed with young men he had met at the Y. Like Irizarry, he used the YMCA to build community through sports—not only during his childhood in Puerto Rico but also on arriving in Chicago. He took the organizing and team-building skills formed during his years playing baseball at the Y to collective bargaining for formerly US-owned Schwinn, later to ACSME and then running campaigns for some of the first Puerto Rican elected officials of Illinois. Medina’s work for the city of Chicago, working under two mayors, focused on addressing the lack of representation of Latinos among the employees for the city. His career of labor organizing, campaign directing, and equal opportunity employment advocacy extend what he practiced as a teen, trying to foster access and comfort in areas where their success and integration didn’t seem possible.

Roberto ‘Bob’ Medina at a protest highlighting Schwinn’s outsourcing to Taiwan.
Medina is in the foreground with the pale jacket, mustache and tie. 

Ray Vazquez had a similar commitment to integrating resources into his community, making positive spaces not only accessible to Puerto Rican youth but also in giving youth who had more choices that led to gang violence the opportunity to make peace. His career at the YMCA had been the platform he used to address the struggles of Puerto Rican youth. While he had worked with Irizarry and with Medina, neither had any idea of the relationship their commitment to community empowerment had to the time they had spent at the YMCA.

Newspaper clipping from Extra (2/17/1994) indicating ”[Ray] Vazquez will end his 17-year career
with the Logan Square YMCA to become a regional manager with the Chicago Park District.”

Like Medina and Irizarry, Vazquez grew up playing sports at the Y. Growing up after the foundational work Irizarry’s generation had set in establishing cultural events and Medina’s generation worked to address social inequalities, Vazquez indirectly benefited from the cornerstones both had set both because of Irizarry’s work with the parade and also because of the historic foundation Medina had set working with others to recruit more competent Hispanics to work for the City of Chicago. In establishing his career at the YMCA, Vazquez worked to break into an arena where Puerto Ricans and Latinos were few precisely because of what those resources could and, thanks to his work and collaborations, did bring to the youth he served.

While each of these leaders differ in their approach and their focus in community empowerment, each found ways to bring it back to the needs to which they had born witness as young Puerto Ricans. Albeit at different junctures of their lives, they worked to integrate Puerto Ricans and Latinos into arenas where they were not expected to lead. Beyond their careers, their community service, complemented such efforts by promoting Puerto Rican culture as critical to laying a foundation for Puerto Ricans’ positive self-perception.

These men’s relationship with the YMCA, whether short- or long-term, played a pivotal role in the activism and community empowerment to which they would each dedicate their lives. Their lived experiences also make clear that the leadership sparked by positive outlets, solidarity and teamwork remain necessary for young men to make meaning of their lives. Further, the testimonies spark the greater need to examine the manners in which integrating into institutions where Puerto Ricans are few can also serve to provide tools where leaders shape the change their community needs. That is the subject of upcoming in-depth profiles of Medina, Irizarry, and Vazquez.  

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 28 August 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.