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Young political activists dedicated to understanding residents’ needs

Edwin Robles, 24, wasn't deterred when he lost a Cicero school board election in April. He's gone on to help form Rizoma Collective, a budding grassroots organization made up of young activists.
Edwin Robles, 24, wasn't deterred when he lost a Cicero school board election in April. He's gone on to help form Rizoma Collective, a budding grassroots organization made up of young activists.

BERWYN – When 24-year-old Edwin Robles lost a school board election in April, he didn’t lose sight of his overall goal to help his hometown of Cicero and surrounding communities such as Berwyn, Lyons Township and Stickney.

In fact, he gathered his campaign team and a few other people along the way, including his opponent, Esteban Rodriguez, and they went to work.

The end result is Rizoma Collective, a budding grassroots organization made up of young activists who are dedicated to understanding residents’ needs and encouraging them to participate in local politics to build a better, stronger local government.

Robles said his organization’s mission statement is built in its name.

The word “rizoma” is Spanish for “rhizome,” a plant stem that shoots out its roots beneath the soil. There’s a theory, Robles said, coined by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychoanalyst and activist Félix Guattari called rhizome politics, which looks to create “an equal playing field that no matter if you’re an elected official or not, the power balance is consistent.”

And there’s something important to note about this theory.

“While it grows underground, every now and then, it does grow above ground,” Robles said. “With every little outburst that grows above ground, those are supposed to represent small political movements.

“Sometimes, you don’t see one little outburst as a big deal, but when you continue to see a small outburst here and there, it creates something bigger. If you’re a farmer, you’re going to want to address this root that’s creating these little outbursts.”

From where Robles and Rodriguez are standing, the root of the issues in Cicero are buried deep within its 162-year-old history.

Cicero is an industrial neighborhood tucked at the border of Chicago’s West Side. It’s home to more than 82,000 residents, and almost 90% of the population is Latino.

Rodriguez, 31, a Cicero native, said the town has undergone – and is still going through – many changes, from economic development to its demographics. And there are various issues that fall under these large umbrellas.

For instance, the presence of commercial companies and big-box stores takes away from “investing in Cicero,” Robles said. He added that Cicero is full of small-business owners and mom-and-pop shops that need to be supported. At this point, it’s about figuring out the problem before they can lock down a solution.

As for Cicero’s growing Latino population, having the proper area resources is key, Robles said. There are immigrant families that need to be uplifted as they navigate through their daily life. Whether it comes to citizenship, education, work or transportation, there needs to be a place where they can go to find a trusted individual and ask for help.

Tony Benevides, a member of Rizoma, said that Cicero should take a step and become a sanctuary city like Berwyn as a way to send a message of equality, especially for the undocumented immigrants who live in fear.

Rodriguez added that Rizoma hopes to create a civically engaged community and ensure that every resident is a part of “every single conversation and that they’re present in the decision-making.”

That includes young people such as themselves and their peers. They need to know that they can make a change on their block, in their community and in their future, the organizers said.

Benevides, 30, a lifelong resident of Cicero, said that the only way to help the youth is to create a safe place where they feel like “they belong here” and that their voice could be heard.

For Robles, he said it can be overwhelming to map out the future. To be an activist, to be a part of Rizoma and to encourage change, it’s hard to find that footing. But what keeps him going is seeing his colleagues and friends come to their Monday night meetings at the Cicero Public Library after a long day’s work ready to talk about the next move. That, he said, is the silver lining.

“I feel like we’re transforming Cicero for the better,” Robles said. “That’s our plan.”

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