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Little Village Activist Manuela Garcia, Fierce Advocate For Neighborhood Schools, Dies At 96

Manuela Garcia was admired by her family and neighbors for advocating for others, and particularly for her role in the 2001 hunger strike to push for a Little Village high school.

Manuela Garcia fought tirelessly for the betterment of the Little Village neighborhood. She died at 96 late last month.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — Manuela Garcia was a beloved resident in Little Village, best known for her community advocacy and willingness to fight for others.

Garcia died last month at 96 after having a stroke, her family said. The education advocate’s been honored in Congress and the area’s alderman is looking at designating a street in her honor.

Garcia’s granddaughter, Andrea Guzman, said it’s been hard in the weeks since losing her grandmother. But she’s reflected on the lessons she learned from Garcia and shared with her own children the kind of strong woman she was, Guzman said.

Garcia raised Guzman from the time Guzman was a small child, which gave them a strong relationship, Guzman said. On Mother’s Day 2001, when community members launched a hunger strike to try to force officials to fulfill their promise to build a neighborhood high school, Guzman and her grandmother joined it together.

The two weren’t planning on participating in the hunger strike, but Guzman was inspired after hearing from the organizers, she said.

“I’m like, ‘Grandma, I’m going to join the hunger strike.’ And she’s looking at me like, ‘No, we’ll support it, right?’ And I was like, ‘No, I think we need to do it.’ And so we did it — together,” Guzman said.

The hunger strike, which lasted 19 days, forced officials to take action and build the school: Little Village Lawndale High School. Garcia didn’t know it at the time, but her great-grandson would eventually be a student there, Guzman said.

“I have so much honor, so much respect for my grandmother today,” Guzman said. “Sometimes we shortchange ourselves, and we don’t think that we can do so many amazing things, but she always wanted me to not be embarrassed or ashamed of who I was. And eventually I got the message, but it’s all her. It was just her inspiring me and pushing me and just kind of being my rock and my example of grit and resilience.”

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Andrea Guzman said she was raised by her grandmother Manuela Garcia, and credits her with pushing her to be a strong woman.

Ana Maria Garcia, Manuela Garcia’s daughter-in-law, said she admired Manuela Garcia’s passion for education. She remembers her mother-in-law getting to know school officials and calling other parents to tell them when the next school meeting was, she said.

“She was able to really claim public spaces for women and children in Little Village, and she did it without even realizing that she was doing it,” Ana Maria Garcia said. “I see her almost like a keeper of culture, a keeper of memories.”

Garcia’s reputation as a fierce community advocate gave her opportunities to speak with many local and state officials, including former President Barack Obama as he campaigned for a seat in the Senate, her family said.

One of Garcia’s sons, Frank Garcia, said his mother “blossomed” into the activist she’s remembered as during her 50s and 60s, after primarily being a mother and employee at General Motors. Despite not having had the chance to pursue an advanced education for herself, she became a strong advocate for education and other social issues, he said.

“An education is not an absolute requirement to get involved in your community to do things,” he said. “And I think she exemplified that, she epitomized that, because here’s a woman without much education, and yet she had audiences with politicians, with local people, with a future president.”

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Manuela Garcia had the opportunity to engage with many local officials, including one who would go on to become president.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said he rallied with Garcia and the other hunger strikers when he was a young activist. She was a “giant” in the neighborhood, and he even included her in campaign ads when he was running for alderman, he said.

“I can remember her knocking on doors for the high school, fighting for the community,” Rodriguez said. “She was a pretty amazing human being.”

Rodriguez said he hopes to have a street in the neighborhood honorarily named after Manuela Garcia, either on the block she lived on or in front of the high school.

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Manuela Garcia was featured on a campaign flyer for Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd).

Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former Little Village alderman who still represents the area, honored Garcia in Congress last week, calling her “a force to be reckoned with.”

“Manuelita will be remembered for her devotion to the youth of La Villita,” Chuy Garcia said. “She knew that when you invest in youth, we invest in our future.”

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