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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Meet Jessie Fuentes, The First Woman And Youngest Alderperson To Lead The 26th Ward

Fuentes won the election to replace Ald. Roberto Maldonado, who held the seat 13 years. The 32-year-old community organizer said she'll have more of a "grassroots" approach to leadership than her predecessor.

Jessie Fuentes won a majority of the vote Tuesday, sealing her first term in City Council.
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HUMBOLDT PARK — Jessie Fuentes made history when she won Tuesday’s election.

Fuentes will be the first woman to lead the 26th Ward. The 32-year-old community organizer will also be the ward’s youngest leader and the first queer Latina to step into the role.

The 26th Ward “has always been run by men, and never by an LGTBQ candidate. We literally broke glass ceilings last night,” Fuentes said in an interview with Block Club.

“I believe that this win is an accomplishment for every woman, every LGTBQ individual doing groundbreaking work across the city of Chicago. To be able to have our interests and needs represented in City Council is a huge win for us.”

Fuentes won 54.4 percent of the vote Tuesday, beating two challengers and sealing her first term in City Council. She will replace Ald. Roberto Maldonado, who dropped out of the race earlier this year after 13 years on the job.

The incoming alderwoman said she felt “super humbled” and “extremely grateful” after the win.

“Given the family and upbringing that I come from, being in a place where I’m the first queer Latina elected to the 26th Ward is a win that I will never forget for sure,” Fuentes said.

Credit: Facebook
Jessie Fuentes (middle in gray) with supporters.

On the campaign trail and as a community leader before running for office, Fuentes has talked openly about her struggles growing up in Humboldt Park — and the steps she’s taken to overcome those challenges.

Fuentes’ childhood, mostly spent on the west side of Humboldt Park’s namesake park, was marked by poverty, drug addiction and violence. At a young age, her father was sent to jail for drugs and weapon possession.

“My parents were struggling with drug addiction. That dictated their behavior as parents, it obviously dictated my experience as a young person to handle situations in a healthy manner. At a young age, I turned to resolve issues with violence,” Fuentes said.

Finding it difficult to cope, Fuentes moved out of her parents’ houses when she was just 15. She was expelled from Carl Schurz High School after getting into a fight at school, an incident challenger Julian “Jumpin'” Perez highlighted in an attack mailer paid for by the Chicago police union.

Things turned around for Fuentes when she transferred to Humboldt Park’s Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school for historically underserved kids, she said.

Fuentes said she started writing poetry, joined an anti-gentrification grassroots campaign called ¡Humboldt Park No Se Vende! and learned about her Puerto Rican roots, a formative experience that set her on a different path.

“For the first time I learned about why my parents turned to drugs — because they were also coping with pain from their childhoods,” she said. “I immediately understood that if I wanted to be different from my parents, I’d have to overcome generational trauma.”

Fuentes went on to become the dean of students at Albizu Campos and then at nearby Roberto Clemente Community Academy. She also worked as the program director at youth center Café Teatro Batey Urbano, also in Humboldt Park.

Most recently, Fuentes was the director of policy and youth advocacy for the Humboldt Park-based Puerto Rican Cultural Center and co-chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda. At both organizations, she advocated for Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican community locally and abroad.

Through it all, Fuentes centered young people, inspiring kids who grew up like her to make healthy choices, she said.

Fuentes said she will continue that work as alderperson.

“I want to make sure that we’re building a community that allows young people to understand that their decisions don’t have to define them, they can be part of understanding the harm they cause and be agents of change in their community,” she said.

‘Very Different’ From Maldonado

Helping working families stay in gentrifying Humboldt Park will be among Fuentes’ top priorities in office, she said.

“So many of our families are putting their homes up for sale and moving because of the increase in property taxes,” Fuentes said. “Our families deserve to stay in the community they have called home for decades. There’s a lot of work to do there.”

Fuentes will also focus on boosting public safety with youth programming “that’s rooted in restorative justice practices and culturally competent curriculums” and providing help and support to the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in the ward, she said.

She plans to join City Council’s Progressive Caucus.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Jessie Fuentes giving remarks at a community meeting for the “Teachers Village” project in Humboldt Park.

Maldonado endorsed Fuentes in early February after announcing his retirement from public office.

As a community organizer, Fuentes worked closely with Maldonado, often appearing alongside him at news conferences. But Fuentes is quick to differentiate herself from the veteran alderman.

“I’m a very different candidate than Roberto Maldonado,” she said. “I’m grateful for his support and leadership … but we are two very different types of leaders. I’m a coalition builder, grassroots organizer, an activist. Those characteristics will not change because I go to City Council.”

During his tenure, Maldonado faced criticism from some residents who believed he only worked with select groups of people, including the long-standing Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Fuentes’ former employer. Maldonado admitted in a farewell letter he struggled to find common ground with “newcomers.”

Fuentes said she’s committed to making sure all voices are heard. She plans to hold community forums across the ward to better understand the needs and desires of residents in each pocket of the ward, including new precincts in Belmont Cragin and Hermosa.

“We have a vibrant Black population, Latino population from places across Latin America, we have our white brothers and sisters who have become allies in our community. To see such a vibrant district of folks coming together and wanting to build community cements my feet to the ground,” Fuentes said.

‘A Lot Of Need, And A Lot Of Work To Do’

For decades, the 26th Ward has been led by a man with traditional political roots.

Maldonado was a Cook County commissioner before becoming alderman. Before him, there was Billy Ocasio and Luis Gutiérrez. Ocasio is now the embattled leader of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, while Gutiérrez served in Congress for 26 years.

But this election cycle, voters opted for a candidate who broke the mold.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) looks on at a City Council meeting on Dec. 14, 2022.

Fuentes is a creative who enjoys writing poetry and listening to music. Country artists such as Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs are among her favorites, but she also likes soulful music like blues and jazz, she said.

“I’m a poet, so lyrics mean a lot to me. There are some phenomenal writers in the country genre,” Fuentes said.

When she’s not busy running a campaign, Fuentes likes to spend quality time with her wife, Becky, a social worker and professional dancer, she said. Fuentes said they’ve made it their mission to visit every supper club in the city.

Fuentes and her wife own a two-flat in West Humboldt Park, an investment property they rent out to tenants, but they’re looking for a single-family home in the 26th Ward where they can put down roots, Fuentes said.

Even after her struggles growing up, Fuentes said there’s nowhere she’d rather be than Humboldt Park, the neighborhood that “saved her life.”

“There’s so much beauty in the 26th Ward, everything from Puerto Rico Town to the historical designation of the Puerto Rican flags — our wins in being able to sustain such a vibrant community,” she said. “We also know there’s a lot of need, and a lot of work to do.”

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