Jessie Fuentes Speaks at Pedroso Center Inaugural Homecoming

Jessie Fuentes Speaks at Pedroso Center Inaugural Homecoming

On Oct. 17, 2023, the Pedroso Center (B-159) held its inaugural Homecoming event where it hosted keynote speaker Jessie Fuentes. She is the recently elected 26th Ward Aldersperson and an NEIU alum (B.A. ‘13 Justice Studies and M.A. ‘18 Community and Teacher Leaders). She was born and raised in the largely Puerto Rican neighborhood Humboldt Park before attending Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School and then NEIU. 

At NEIU, Fuentes became a prominent figure in the community and worked immensely to further the quality of representation and accessibility for the Latina/o community on campus. As a member of the Union of Puerto Rican Students and Editor-In-Chief of NEIU’s Puerto Rican and Latina/o university student publication Que Ondee Sola (QOS), she helped to create the Pedroso Center.

Interim President Dr. Katrina Bell-Jordan set the tone for the event, saying that we must “shift perspectives in a way that connects dispossession, slavery, and ongoing colonialism to our university and our community.” she reaffirms that “acknowledgement of this ongoing legacy is not enough. We must continue to work toward racial justice, equity, liberation, and community here at NEIU.”

 This was the throughline of the event: acknowledgment, organization and connection around the oppressive systems that have built this country, and a fervent push to strengthen the communities that have been most dearly impacted must be at the forefront of our minds and in the heart of NEIU’s values. 

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Solidifying this message with their brilliant poetry, QOS Managing Editor Jasmine Rodriguez’s “Another Name, the Same Mask” and QOS Copy Editor Clay Cofre’s “Men’s Help Presents: How to Be the Monopoly Man” invoked the pain and destruction that continues to arise from gentrification. They lay plain the injustices being faced by their community and condemning this pattern of gentrification and cultural erasure of native people that is so embedded in the fabric of Chicago and the U.S.   

Once their beautiful words echoed finally through our ears and Director of the Pedroso Center Dr. DeWitt Scott finished his introduction, we heard from Jessie Fuentes. 

As she told the riveted crowd, she was not only a graduate of NEIU but of Proyecto Pa’Lante, an institution on campus that seeks to provide adequate and holistic guidance to students from diverse backgrounds, especially those of Latina/o descent. 

Thinking back on her decision to come to NEIU, she remarked that at her high school’s college fair, “the only Latino that was there recruiting was the advisor from Proyecto Pa’Lante. And that’s the only table [she] wanted to walk to…[because] having that program and that person that can provide that initial sense of safety is what makes the difference.” 

Safety, accessibility and a continued connection to the communities that are underserved across Chicago – the same communities that NEIU has historically served and supported – was at the forefront of the discussion. This in tandem with an unwavering activistic spirit is the way forward for NEIU, according to Fuentes, and is reinforced by the vigor of the crowd. 

Fuentes took the crowd through her trajectory as a student, leader and now Alderperson. She was a first generation college student from a difficult upbringing, aided by the programs NEIU offered; though they were, by her own indictment, less than perfect but far greater than elsewhere. She jokingly quipped that “DePaul ain’t in the hood telling young people of color, ‘This institution belongs to this community, you belong here’…that cultural competence made a world of difference.”

Organizations and programs like the Pedroso Center are for students like her. “Products of colonialism, young people who were living in poverty, young people who were living in communities that were rapidly being gentrified, but did not have the language nor the tools or the structure to articulate their lived experiences, and more importantly, to fight.” 

As Fuentes explained, Angelina Pedroso – whom the Center is named after – was “unapologetic about what it meant to be a Latina, what it meant to tell a story of colonialism and combat that very narrative, what it would mean to be self-determined and what it required…for us to dismantle systems of oppression, to call it out, to be honest of its impact, and then to challenge institutions to do better.”

Fuentes connected these struggles here in the Chicago/NEIU community with the Israel-Palestine conflict. “There is not one media outlet right now that is going to be honest with you about what’s happening; that occupation is alive and well; that forced eviction is alive and well; that the largest airborne prison in the globe is under attack,” Fuentes said. “In that narrative, your voices matter. And we need to continue to build spaces and infrastructure that allow for that organizing to organically happen without being condemned.” 

Fuentes said learning about media bias had a profound effect on her: “That’s exactly how I learned what struggle meant at Northeastern Illinois University, to organize and to be unapologetic about having the tough conversations, despite what the popular narrative was saying about us. And I also learned quickly how to radically love people in the struggle.”

Further, she said, “In an institution like Northeastern Illinois University, there’s endless opportunity to not just lead, but to be a part of system changes, to be a part of transformative justice work, to lift up narratives that folks don’t hear often…If we are going to live in this world, truly live; we need to live fighting, fighting for what’s right, fighting to ensure that the next generation can exist in the world that better serves them.”

Fuentes also addressed the educators and administrators of the world, “I want you to know that every single time a young person is not engaged or doesn’t choose to always be respectful, because they’re young, and they do young things, that it’s not about you, but everything that they’re trying to survive. And they’re not the ones that need to make a shift, you are. You need to adapt, and transform your approach.”

She also had a moment to speak about her role as an Alderperson, specifically around the issue of migrants being bussed to Chicago that may be causing a bit of strife between Chicago’s Black and Latino/a communities. She said, “In this moment, now more than ever, Black and Brown coalition is needed. And not coalition on a cause. Because we will get through this migrant crisis…[we must] create a coalition over our own longevity.”

Fuentes explained that the work does not stop at acknowledgement. Her dialogue expressed that everyone, including students, faculty, board members and administrators, must all strive to continue the work of those who have come before. Because, as she said, “the struggle to open the cultural center taught us that our struggle is a struggle in perpetuity.”

Fuentes’ former professor Dr. Durene Wheeler expressed gratitude for Fuentes and her return, saying, “Thank you for being your authentic self, every time you show up wherever you show up.”

As Fuentes puts it: “I’m proof of concept, that when we invest in our young people, when we wrap around them and when we believe in them, they will become agents of change, not just in our communities but across the world.”

According to their portion of the NEIU website, “The Angelina Pedroso Center for Diversity and Intercultural Affairs develops and provides programming and initiatives in a welcoming environment designed to educate, empower, and retain students from socially and culturally diverse backgrounds.” Stop by and show your love and support!

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