Angie Reyes, a lifelong Detroiter, was born in Southwest Detroit in 1954. Among her many roles, she is a keeper of community history. While many think about the Latino community as being in Southwest Detroit, its location has shifted over time due to economic development and displacement.
The Latino community, consisting originally of Mexican and Puerto Rican descendants, was first located in Corktown. “My great-grandparents’ house is still there, but where I lived and my grandmother’s house is gone,” Reyes explains. “They wanted Corktown to be light industry because it was close to downtown. So, they bought up, very cheaply, a lot of people’s beautiful old Victorian homes and tore them down.”
Pushed out of Corktown, people started moving further west around the Ambassador Bridge. But when the Detroit International Bridge Company decided to expand the plaza area of the bridge, “a lot of the houses were going up in flames, and the fire department wasn’t really showing up.” People moved again to an area now called “Hubbard Farms,” an area back then that was mostly white and mostly Polish.
And now, that community is getting gentrified. With the redevelopment of Michigan Central Station and a second bridge being built, people are being pushed out by development and rising housing costs. “So, a lot of people are actually moving out of Detroit and moving down river… because what people used to pay $500 a month for rent is now going for 1500 dollars.”
The community has also changed demographically. “Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t even talk about immigration being an issue in our community because most people were second-, third-generation. Since then, there have been increases in immigration, first from Mexico and then from Central America.” The criminalization of immigration is now a serious issue with the expansion of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations. “They follow parents as they’re dropping their kids off at school. They have tasered and dragged people off the steps of churches. They go to people’s homes. They raid businesses. They raid restaurants. People are very vulnerable, and there’s a lot of trauma.”
Angie grew up learning lessons from the streets and from the classroom. As a child going to school in a predominately white neighborhood, she faced discrimination. She recalls “getting spit on, being called all kinds of names…and I didn’t understand where it was coming from or why, especially when I was real little. So, you think there is something wrong with yourself not understanding that it’s part of a…larger system of racism.” Her response to these experiences became life defining. “I think for most people of color who’ve been faced with things like that, you do one of two things. Either you turn internally and become very depressed and angry, or you become very radical. I chose the second. So, I made a conscious effort to learn about who I was and my people’s history and culture.”
Part of that education came from Wayne State University and the Chicano-Boricua Studies program. “It was like the first time I actually felt that…we were valued as human beings.” The other part of her education came from her community, influenced by groups like the Chicano-Boricua Colectivo, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords, as well the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. At nineteen, she was sent to cadre school in Chicago for a month. “I studied dialectical-historical materialism and organizing and, you know, Marxist-Leninist theory and then came back and taught it to other people.”
Community work eclipsed classroom work – for a while. After getting married, having four children and getting divorced, Angie returned to Wayne State and completed her bachelor’s degree. Later, she would complete a master’s degree in public health at the University of Michigan. The public health frame influences much of her current work.
After running youth programs at Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED) and Latino Family Services, Angie founded the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC) in 1997. DHDC’s work is centered on addressing root causes of social problems Latino communities face in the city. “I knew that providing services was very important, but if you don’t address the underlying issues, things were never gonna change.”
Early work at DHDC focused on gang violence. “We didn’t have gangs in our neighborhood until the late 80s, and I think that a lot of that is tied to the economy because we also had Cadillac, Fisher Body, Fleetwood, all those plants were in our community. People had middle-class jobs and lived in Southwest Detroit still. And then, all those plants closed, all those jobs went away, and young people didn’t have any hope.” The violence escalated as hope faded under the austerity and repression of the Reagan Era. “I was going to so many funerals for kids, three, four a month.”
DHDC started GRACE, a gang retirement program that was trying to get young adults out of the gang, get them an education, and get them jobs. “We had people who literally were shooting at each other one day became co-workers the next day,” she remembers. To address some of the root causes of violence, Reyes and DHDC began turning their attention to improving education for children in Southwest. Recognizing that education “was really the key,” Reyes and DHDC fought to get teachers and administrators from the community hired in schools. “Many of the principals for a long period of time…were from our community,” she explains, “which makes a huge difference because their commitment to the kids is very different.” DHDC also fought for and won the right to bilingual education, but those programs were later taken away. “Things that we fought so hard for 20 years ago, we’re right back where we started from. In some cases, worse.”
Perhaps the biggest threat to public schools in Detroit now comes from the rise of charter schools and emergency management. Michigan has some of the most aggressive laws promoting charter schools in the country. The problem is that “there’s no accountability, there’s no transparency.” Southwest Detroit has a lot of kids,“so, everybody and their brother and their sister and their cousin decided they wanted to open a charter.” Schools can open and close with no rhyme or reason. “It’s not improved education. It’s made it worse. So, it’s like this rush to the bottom.”
Since the first state takeover of DPS in 1999, emergency management has devastated the city’s school district. The elected school board was disempowered by emergency managers appointed by the governor. Schools were closed without concern for the impacts on the community. When emergency management started, there were 3 high schools in Southwest Detroit: Western, Southwestern, and Chadsey. “First, they closed Chadsey, and they expected all the kids to go to Southwestern.” Then they closed Southwestern and all the kids are supposed to go to Western. “Western is now way overcrowded. There’s like 2,400 students in that school that was designed for half that.”
School closings are devastating for communities. DHCH does a lot of door-to-door outreach and voter registration. This is the basis for a before and after comparison. After closing Chadsey, “not only were those voters gone, just from the time of the last election to that one, their houses were gone, was just empty. So, that whole community was devastated after that.”
The Coalition of Future Detroit Schools Children was intended to address both the problems of charters and the legacy of emergency management. Angie was a leader on the steering committee for the coalition. Within a tight 90-day time frame, a diverse, bi-partisan, group that included charter schools, DPS, teachers, administrators, business and community members, put together a series of substantive recommendations. “And then, nothing happened, for over a year.”
Legislative opposition to the recommendations was deeply rooted in racism. “A lot of the conversations that were happening in Lansing were really disgustingly racist…The people were, [saying] ‘It’s those peoples fault. They did this to themselves. They’re lazy. The parents don’t care about the kids. That’s why the school system is so bad…No! It was under the control of the state [emergency management]. They made all the decisions about the education [now] they were blaming the victims.”
In the final legislative package, the Coalition won some major victories. First, there was an acknowledgment that the district’s debt was a state responsibility and that the state had to pay to retire the debt. Second, there was an end to the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), “which was a state takeover of the state takeover, which is a really bizarre thing.”
Finally, the Coalition won the return to a democratically elected school board to govern the newly created Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD). “I think we have a pretty decent school board that has been really working hard, and we were able to get an actual educator running our schools in the district as opposed to a retired business person or somebody trained by the Koch brothers.”
The legislation was not a complete victory. The legislature rejected efforts to address the inherent lack of transparency and accountability in charter schools. The Coalition recommended the creation of a Detroit Educational Commission (DEC) that would have the power to better rationalize the opening, closing and location of schools. After intense pressure from the charter school lobby and the DeVos family, the recommendation was defeated.
The Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children was probably one of the more effective Detroit coalitions in recent history. “Coalition work is probably the most difficult kind of work to do,” Reyes reflects. “We spent a lot of time up front focusing first on our core values.” These core values have to be constantly reinforced and returned to. “There were times when people got into really heated arguments and were reminded about these are our core values…children are most important. Egos have to be set aside. Your institutional interests have to come second.”
In addition to education, DHDC is involved in a broad range of issues impacting the Latino/a community. These include, gentrification, affordable housing, immigrant driver’s licenses, the census, community benefits agreements associated with the building of the second international bridge, environmental justice and health impact assessments.
Throughout this work, there is a deep understanding of the dual realities of trauma and healing. “How do we address the collective trauma? Trauma doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens because of the environment that young people and their families are growing up in. So, we have whole communities who are experiencing trauma.” For Reyes, healing from collective trauma is an imperative for creating healthy and thriving communities which requires addressing the root causes of trauma, including systemic oppression and exploitation.
Sometimes just surviving is its own act of resistance when oppressive forces seek a community’s destruction. “Part of what I’ve told kids for many decades, particularly when there was a lot of gang activity, is that there are people who have plans for this community. The only thing in the way are the people who live here. So, how you get the people out of the way is you destroy a community, and the easiest way to destroy a community is to destroy the young people. That’s the future, right? So, I told them by not getting involved in gangs and this activity is a form of resistance because you are not playing into the plans that some other people have for us.”
That said, healing is not accidental. Healing permeates all of DHDC’s work. “In the Spanish, it’s like, ‘La cultura cura,’ and means in English that the culture cures because spirituality and culture are one and the same thing for most people of color.” Music can play an essential role. “We use a drum as well for healing . . . the drum was the heartbeat of our communities.”
She was asked: What gives you hope? “What gives me hope though is the young people who I see coming up who have that same passion and knowledge, and that it’s changing even around the world. The millennials that everyone complains about? They’re my hope.” This stems from a spirit of Detroiters to fight. “People from Detroit have a tremendous amount of tenacity and don’t give up easily and are not afraid to speak out, and I think that’s one of the things I’m very proud of–and I’m talking about Detroiters as a whole. We work really hard and don’t give up easily.”
Angela Reyes, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, June 15, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.