Category Archives: Commentary

Some Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

The following is a brief reflection by Universidad Popular’s own Elio DeArrudah. We invite you to join in the conversation and give your own thoughts on this issue. 

About the “Day” of Love or Friendship

 Apparently, it all began when “primitive” tribes living in harmony with mother nature would  get ready to celebrate, year after year, the resurrection of life again or springtime on earth. In fact, that is what februarius was all about — the month of cleaning/fertility/pregnancy, which in the northern hemisphere, typically precedes the explosion of life all around. Interestingly, this was the time chosen by ancient Romans to pay homage to the birth of Rome or its founders.

About a millennium later (when Rome had finally become the “center” of the known universe and even Christianized itself ), the local authorities decided to don this  pagan   observance or ritual with a Catholic facade under the name of Saint Valentine’s Day.

Supposedly there had been this priest, Valentinius, determined to breach the Roman emperor’s ordinance against marrying young men  as a strategy to disarm the empire. Once married and with wife and kids, these young fellows were no longer materials any good for soldiering and marauding wars. Unapproving of (unjust ) wars, this priest was determined to subvert them all by marrying as many people as he could. Caught in the act of wedding young couples, Valentinius was hanged by the emperor’s people to pay for such a horrendous crime. Killing him that mid-February was their way to “clean” the City. As time went by, however, the hoi polloi began seen the  murdered priest as  the  true patron of love and friendship.


Since most celebrations  are dictated by State or the Church, it would be  a good strategy for critical thinking skills developers in our agencies to look at the history behind these celebrations, when both those institutions were not as dictatorial as they have become. Empires, whether Roman or Ottoman, British or American, have always loved to bully the rest of the world which explains their tendency to glamorize wars, idolize generals and worship soldiers while demonizing whoever dares to resist their moves to control and dominate them. In that sense, Valentinius the priest was no different than Martin Luther King the reverend–they both preached love and peace instead of war and hate.

While it is so easy for us to talk about this priest’s fight against the empire of his days many centuries ago, we seem not to realize that right now our  government and media celebrate wars along  with their massive killings, drones, undercover commandos and so on. Afterwards, we welcome these killers of ours as heroes deserving of our adulation and unconditional love. How can we celebrate Martin Luther King’s day or St Valentine’s day when we remain mute about (or, even worse, condone on what the preachers of hate in our mix aided by our  war mongering media) all the killings that our empire is currently doing overseas?! If we are serious enough about St Valentinius’s work or mission, shouldn’t we be preaching friendship and love all around?

American Sniper grossed over $284,752,955 More than six times the earnings of Selma (Martin Luther King-inspired movie)

 Actually, it was fascinating to see how Hollywood  launched a movie production highly celebratory of a sharp shooter responsible for  almost 200 killings in two far-away countries —Iraq and Afghanistan—that we chose to invade in the aftermath of  September 11,2001 even when none of  the 19 hijackers that wacked the twin towers were Iraqis or Afghanistanis.

The American Sniper, a powerful hosanna to one of the most lethal killers that this country ever produced, grossed over $100 millions in revenue in the very week end that we celebrated the MLK. This weird coincidence gives a pretty good sense of how messed up our values systems seem to be. This sharp shooter of about 200 people did not have, like youngsters in most countries do, to join the armed forces: He volunteered to “serve” the invading troops to  these countries that the US-led military forces wrecked for generations to come. Not surprisingly, many of those that live by the gun end up dying by the gun, as it was sadly his case.

We should stop celebrating one thing while doing precisely the opposite of it. It confuses our children and it needlessly turns the rest of the world against us. Even worse, we hurt ourselves, our economy and whatever little is still left of our moral authority. Moreover, there is never any justification for bullying anybody especially when we can embrace the love or befriending pathways toward a much more peaceful coexistence in this world.

Volunteer Voices Series: Ana Karen

Ana Karen Manjarrez interned with Universidad Popular from the Summer of 2014 to December of the same year. She had the opportunity to participate in almost all aspects of our organizations. This essay-reflection from her is published in our quarterly publication: ¡Escucha! which can be found online here:

An Internship to Remember


Ana Karen also helped facilitate an English Language Learning class.
Ana Karen also helped facilitate an English Language Learning class.

When I began doing research on nonprofits to  work with as part of my six-month field study, I knew that I wanted to intern somewhere that I felt passionate about the work that was being done.

This made  my researching difficult. After hours, days, and months of looking, I found Universidad Popular. ‘Till this day when people ask me how I found Universidad Popular I answer that it was meant to be: I had a feeling that this organization was the one that I needed to be with. Universidad Popular’s mission, strategy,and programs made me feel an instant connection with the work and population of Little Village. I wanted to intern with them, so I was set on contacting UP and moving to Chicago. After getting the OK to intern with Universidad Popular I began researching more Chicago, La Villita, and UP, to be prepared for when I would arrive. No matter how much research or books I read to get me familiarized with Chicago or UP, nothing would not prepare me enough for what I was about to experience.

Initially I was nervous and scared of Chicago because I wasn’t told the most positive things about it. Regardless of the bad press I got from other people, I knew I had to experience it on my own so when I flew into Chicago I was ready for my journey to begin. My first day at Universidad Popular was great! I felt like people were really kind and open to me being there and welcoming me to the organization. After a couple of weeks at UP, shadowing many programs, I decided to be more involved with the programs LETOS and UPrising. In UPrising, I found myself connecting with youth at a crucial time in their lives when they are exploring their identities and learning about themselves and life. I learned a lot from my interactions and conversations with the youth in the program and I thank them for their involvement because, whether they know it or not, they are youth leaders in La Villita. Being a facilitator for the LETOS summer session and the end of Fall was also an honor for me because I got to meet and facilitate a class to community members that are developing their English skills to interact with people at their jobs, their families, and even people that they might not know but interact with at a store, the doctor or during an emergency. I learned from them and felt like they were welcoming and patient with me as this was my first time facilitating a class.

Ana Karen tutored Little Village youth with their homework--spanning topics from history to culture and mathematics.
Ana Karen tutored Little Village youth with their homework–spanning topics from history to culture and mathematics.

Not only did I work with these programs, but I was also involved in attending meeting relating to Universidad Popular and got to learn more about La Villita by interacting with other organizations that work with UP. I learned a lot from the way that Universidad Popular works with one another, the community and Chicago. To put my experience in perspective I think that Universidad Popular’s     existance is a great benefit to La Villita because it shows how there needs to be more centers, resources, and visibility for the growing Latino population in the United States. I am grateful to have worked with the organization and the people that I met during my six months here, and I hope that my presence here served to show that Universidad Popular can travel to other states and serve as an example of how an organization can work with, by, and for the people.

 You can also be a part of the solution also! Multiple volunteer and internship opportunities are available at Universidad Popular. For more information e-mail us at, call at 773-733-5055 or fill out our online form here:

La Villita and Ayotzinapa: Universidad Popular Participants Share Their Thoughts

Outline of the City of Chicago in the State of Guerrero
Outline of the City of Chicago in the State of Guerrero

Little Village is the second largest Latino community in the United States. Many of us came to the United States looking for something “better,” something that Mexico could not offer to us or our families. Yet, our hearts and minds are constantly crossing “the border.” Although many of us often face the heart-wrenching realization that we cannot be physically with those we love, we know that our destinies are always tied. What happens in Mexico reverberates around the world through all Mexicans and through all of us who work to create a better world, just as the 43 of Ayotzinapa have worked for.

The choices we make here impact our brothers and sisters in Mexico. Their situation is our situation. That is a bridge across the border that no matter how high a wall, how repressive a government, how obscure the law, will never be taken down. This, in the end, is the nature of diaspora: reciprocity. And the goal? To succeed alongside those we love, to overcome barriers, to fall and rise together–regardless of where they are.

The following are short reflection pieces about the current situation in Mexico by several participants from our morning English Literacy Classes in our Learning TO Succeed (LETOS) Program. These individuals are residents of La Villita. Regardless of their place of origin, they feel and have a connection with Mexico that makes these recent events affect their lives here.

LETOS participants sharing what they wrote with their peers.
LETOS participants sharing what they wrote with their peers.


We asked a simple, broad, yet, contentious question:

How do you feel about the current situation in Mexico?

These are their answers.

Hello, My name is Rosalina.

I feel angry about the current situation in México because I want a peaceful and beautiful México. I can’t believe what the Mexican government is doing to our people. I hope that it’s not true what they say. I hope these students are still alive.

Hello, My name is Guadalupe Martinez.

I am sharing my opinion regarding what is happening Mexico. I feel sad for the 43 students and their families. I think that Peña Nieto should resign because his government is corrupt and every day I hear more and more deaths are happening. I think that this should stop because it is very sad to hear this. Corruption is in the Mexican government. Although there is corruption, México will always be a very, very nice country.


My name is Victor,

I would like to talk about the 43 students that were massacred in Mexico. It isn’t just regarding the 43 students, it is concerning Mexican history, a bloody history. This event made us remember the largest students massacre in Latin America. I’m talking about Tlatelolco, October 2nd, 1968, at plaza de las tres culturas. Since this date until now, for students, it’s a sensitive topic. Everyone who is young is revolutionary, and the students have memory. This isn’t just about the 43 murders, this is about repression.

My name is Rosa Gamez,

The boys were captured in Cocula, Guerrero. I’m feeling very impotent because of this event. The Mexican police force is intolerant. The government should have people who are professional in all aspects working as police.The teachers are there to help students become better persons. I would like to send the student’s parents hugs and I hope they find their children soon. God bless them.

Hello, My name is Yazmin Mendoza.

43 students in Mexico fought for liberty and respect. The family and friends of these 43 are still fighting for them to return alive, and the president Enrique Peña Nieto doesn’t do anything to fix this problem. Everyone must fight for Mexico to become free. We should all fight to free Mexico from all this corruption.

I am Salvador. This is what I think about this issue:

It’s really bad. I feel sorry for their families and I don’t understand why the government doesn’t do anything. I am tired of hearing every day on the news what I know are just lies from the Mexican government.


Why do we Celebrate the Day of the Dead?

LETOS participants preparing their altars for the Day of the Dead Celebration
LETOS participants preparing their altars for the Day of the Dead Celebration

The following writings are short essay/reflections from Universidad Popular’s Learning to Succeed English Tutor group. These individuals have been with Universidad Popular for several years, advancing their knowledge of the English language through all the levels of our Adults English Literacy program. This year, we’ve presented them with the challenge of helping their fellow community learners in their process of learning English. Every Wednesday and Thursday they receive training for tutoring and teaching-learning while at the same time refreshing English skills in an intensive 3-hour advance English learning group. 

These essays are their contribution to Universidad Popular’s 2014 Day of the Dead Celebration, which took place last October 29th in our community hall. The multiplicity of perspective and the depth of analysis and research presented here is but a small example of the wonderful minds that walk through our halls everyday and that fill our amazing community. 


-Miguel Alvelo


Our tradition started a long time ago.

An essay by María

In Mexico we celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 2nd. This day is very important for a lot of Mexican Families.

Our tradition started a long time ago. In many of the cultures that composed ancient Mexico such as the Mayas, Olmecas, Mexicas, etc. the dead had a very important place in society. When the Spaniards came to Mexico the tradition of the Day of the Dead already existed, but the Spaniards incorporated the catholic religion into it along with other ideas. Then started the mixing of traditions and now this celebration is different from the old days.

All the things we use for this celebration have different meanings.

The idea of making altars come from people thinking that the dead can come back on this day. Families build the altars in different ways. Some altars are made with 7 levels, or steps. Each step has different items.


 Before we start the altar, however, we first need to sweep the area with aromatic herbs. We need to clean in 4 directions: North, south, east, and west.

To make the altars we can use cardboard, or wood to make our 7 levels or steps.

First, we make the last level. It’s bigger than the others. One by one we complete the 7 levels, each smaller that the other. Then, we cover them with a black or white cloth.

  • On the first step we put the picture of a religious image or our favorite picture of the dead.
  • The second step is only for the souls in purgatory.
  • On the third step we put salt for the children in purgatory.
  • On the fourth goes the “pan de muerto.” This bread is decorated with red sugar to symbolize blood. Sometimes, the bread is made for the relatives of the dead as a means of consagration.
  • The fifth step is for the dead’s favorite food, fruit, and beverages.
  • The sixth step is for a picture of the dead.
  • And on the seventh we put a cross.

Other offerings are also put on the altars. Often times, 4 candles are used to make a cross.


The elements of the altar are purple and yellow chains made with Chinese paper. This symbolizes the union between life and death. “Papel picado” also means happiness for life. Flowers are used to welcome the soul. white flowers symbolize the earth and purple flowers mean sorrow. The fired up wick of the candle symbolizes the spirit’s ascension and also serves as a guiding light.

The family of the deceased stay awake all night waiting for the spirit to come back and enjoy the food they’ve prepared for them.

Today, this celebration is changing and does not carry with it the same faith than in the old days. Some people don’t understand much about it. Sometimes this celebration seems to be more about competition and making money than about remembering those who are gone. Other traditions are mixed with these days, such as Halloween, and every time more Mexican are preferring to celebrate them instead of the Day of the Dead. But I hope this tradition doesn’t die. I hope that it passes from generation to generation around the world–wherever Mexicans live.


The tradition has changed.

An essay by Mario Flores

In Mexico people celebrate the Day of the Dead in November.

When I was in Mexico, my grandmother celebrated this day in November. She did it to remember her sons. She cooked bread and some food, light candles, and stayed awake until midnight. At midnight, according to tradition, is when dead people return as flies.

People also go to the graves of the dead, light candles and pray on their tombs.

Nowadays that tradition has changed because people like me have immigrated to other countries. For example, when I got married we used to light candles during the first few years and we also went to church. But after a few years, we stopped. in this country not many people celebrate the Day of the Dead. The tradition has changed.


…when I started the English classes at Universidad Popular I saw for the first time the beautiful decorations and traditions

An essay by Tomasa

I do not celebrate the Day of the Dead because in my country no one does.

Now, when I started the English classes at Universidad Popular I saw for the first time the beautiful decorations and traditions  they did.  The only thing I worried about was that the smoke from the candles in the altars was making me dizzy. My teacher at the time, Annabel, took us to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen where we saw a lot of altars with nice decorations.

I think it’s important to celebrate this tradition because it is a special day to remember our family who have passed away. There is a catholic tradition behind it that begins with the first day of November, celebrating “all saints day,” and the second day of november, celebrating “the day of the dead.”

I feel this tradition has changed because young people have lost interest in our original customs. They are influenced by the traditions of this country–where they were born, or where they grew up.


The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and give tribute to people who were a part of this world.

An essay by Minerva Vazquez

We celebrate the Day of the Dead because it’s a Mexican holiday and, of course, we’re Mexican. This tradition comes from our ancestors.

My family used to celebrate this special day to honor our deceased loved ones. We decorated an altar with bright colors, candles, pictures, and a lot of food. We used orange, red, purple, and yellow ornaments. We used candles to illuminate our dead’s way. We put some pictures of persons who had passed away–these could be our relatives or friends. My grandmother cooked different kinds of food. She cooked every meal that was the favorite for each person who had died, but she also prepared sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and mole.

I have been celebrating the Day of the Dead since I came to Chicago, but not exactly like we did in my hometown. I light some candles and pray a rosary. I think by doing this we’re contributing to keeping alive this wonderful Mexican tradition.

This celebration is important because we have the opportunity to remember our loved ones who have died. It is much like “Memorial Day” in the U.S. because both holidays honor people who have passed away. In Memorial Day, the U.S. honors men and women who have died in military service, and in the Day of the Dead we (Mexicans) honor our relatives and friends who have passed away.

Although it is a good time to gather together and show respect for our loved ones, on the other hand we also have a reason to a family party. This is good! Don’t you think?

This celebration comes from the catholic celebration of “All Souls, and all Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd. There are some traditional activities that take place at the cemeteries, for example: cleaning the tombs, then placing a paper flower crown  or a vase of wild cempaxuchitl. This holiday is from far away in southern Mexico.

The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and give tribute to people who were a part of this world. What about marking your prints in all people’s hearts and when the time comes you will be remembered with bright colors, your favorite food, some wild marigolds, or at least with a fragile light. I personally believe that each of us celebrates the Day of the Dead one way or another.

The Wind Behind the Windy City: Chicago Media Lies About our Impoverished Neighborhoods

A Commentary by Miguel Alvelo: Universidad Popular Member.

Right before our first summer block party of 2014 on July 24 Universidad Popular received news that ABC7 would be swinging by to report on our collectively planned event. Excitedly, we prepared to greet the news reporters and show them the best that Universidad Popular (UP), its partners, and our community had to offer. The event was a thorough success. Thousands of residents participated, and we were able to showcase a portion of the wonderful things we do every day at our community center. We thought the news would reflect these efforts, the positive energy that surrounded the event, and would highlight the people—our community members who were at the center of planning and facilitating the party—but we failed to see that their agenda was very different from what we expected.

When the news reporter Ravi Baichwal[i] asked UP’s Abraham Celio “So, what usually happens on this street when there’s not a block party?” he replied with the truth: “well, on a normal day you’ll see members of the community walking into our center to participate in yoga, zumba, computer classes, etc; you’ll see youth getting ready for a bike ride around the neighborhood, or working on building and maintaining our sidewalk community garden…” The reporter, seemingly unhappy with Abraham’s response insisted on asking the question again: “Yeah, that’s great, but… what really happens on the streets on a normal day?” Abraham was taken aback by the clear twisting of the question and the insistence on getting a response that fit hidden intentions. He replied once more with the truth and remained firm in explaining what the real issues were in the community, why we believe they need to be addressed and how we were doing that. Needless to say, that part of Abraham’s interview was not used in the final report. Instead, the reporter continued asking others until he coerced the response he was looking for from one of our youth.

Ravi clearly states: “make no mistake, what’s happening here now is not how it usually is.” The report explicitly and implicitly continually says that this is “a block normally dominated by gang members.” It implies that there is a constant fear amongst residents that they might get shot, or that something bad will be done to them. The sad realization is that ABC7 wasn’t there to report on the event; they were there to gather footage and interviews for a “report” that was already written and for questions that they had already answered.

While media bias[ii] is not “news” (no pun intended) to critical thinkers, it is sickening to think that it is done so purposefully and explicitly. Renowned scholar and urban policy analyst Peter Dreier demonstrates such blatant bias in his article entitled “How the Media Compound Urban Problems[iii]” by revealing that two-thirds of all news in the 56 U.S. cities he studied focused on reporting violent crimes. Most of these crimes that are reported about are focused on inner-city areas and predominantly show non-whites as the perpetrators of the majority of crimes.

Chicago is sadly a common case study for negative racially biased reporting. In one such study performed by J. Ettema and L. Peer[iv], they looked at two distinct neighborhoods: a poor, black neighborhood, and a white, middle-class neighborhood. They found that reporting about social problems, crime, and drugs was overrepresented for the poor, black neighborhood (2/3 of stories), whereas the stories on the white, middle-class neighborhood were predominantly positive and only mentioned crime and drugs on about 1/4th of the reports. Honestly, one doesn’t even need to perform a peer-reviewed study to see such bias in our local media’s reporting. A simple google news search shows a clear bias toward reporting that violent crimes are a part of daily life in our impoverished and non-white neighborhoods.

Here’s our headquarter’s neighborhood: Little Village.screen-capture

Here’s our new sister headquarters: Chicago Lawn.


And here’s Wicker Park:


And Lincoln Square:


The news media does not just “report” facts. They broadcast “the news,” in essence: what is important and what is not. As these screenshots show it’s also not simply about “what sells”—the argument that only dramatic or violent news are what viewers seek and want to consume falls by the wayside here. If this was the case, we’d see violent news reporting dominating every neighborhood report. There’s a clear bias showing that non-white neighborhoods are dangerous, violent, and “poor.” By saying that crime is the norm in our impoverished neighborhoods and not mentioning other realities, they create stereotypes that translate into real disadvantages in terms of investment, resource-allocation, and policy creation and implementation.

As a resident of Little Village and as a member of a community organization who seeks to reach community empowerment through participatory learning I’ve felt the need to publicly talk out against this horrible and gross misrepresentation of our block, our youth, and our neighbors. In many ways, our “impoverished” neighborhoods are richer than most of their wealthier neighbors. They are filled with working class people who, in spite of meager earnings and long work hours, dedicate whatever time is left to them to improve their lives, their families, and their community. Our neighborhoods are filled with mothers and fathers who organize, lead, and learn from each other; who plan block parties, who get together every night of the week to gain skills that will help them communicate better with their families and those around them. Our neighborhoods are filled with people who truly want to overcome every single barrier that is put in front of them; who have sacrificed all selflessly for the benefit of the future: our children, our youth. It is exactly the youth who are always being targeted by the real gangbangers: the police, the media, the politicians, and above all—the wealthy individuals and interest groups who control them.

I reject and protest these assumptions that our youth are crime-prone individuals that are in dire need of “outside aid” or “salvation.” Focusing on these stereotypes of the “poor criminal” does nothing to help our youth. It only helps perpetuate perceptions that encourage further disinvestment and dis-empowerment. At Universidad Popular we understand that the best way to address the problems of violence, crime, and poverty in our neighborhoods is by empowering residents; block-to-block we facilitate discussions, provide services, and are a safe space where all can gather, learn from each other and plan a safe, healthy, strong, and just community. A series of one-time city block parties will do nothing to lower gang activity, prevent violence, or address the real root issues that are the cause of these problems. We believe in a year-long/life-long project of community empowerment that constantly evolves based on the needs of our communities. We collaborate with whomever shares this goal and vision with us, with whomever is willing to help us out in whatever way they can or want. But, we are not beholden to the whims of a few powerful individuals that need us from time to time to improve their political standing and we are definitely not beholden to the half-truths others say about our community.

[i] The report from ABC7:

[ii] Another media bias resource:

[iii] Dreier, Peter. 2005. “How the Media Compound Urban Problems,” Journal of Urban

  1. 27:2. 193-201.

[iv] Ettema, James and Limor Peer. 1996. “Good News from a Bad Neighborhood: Toward

an Alternative to the Discourse of Urban Pathology.” Journalism and Mass

Communication Quarterly. 73:4. 835-856