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Ravaged By Mexican Earthquakes, Calles Y Sueños Founder Needs Help

By Ariel Cheung | September 20, 2017 6:14am
 The founder of Chicago's Calles y Sueños organization is launching earthquake recovery efforts in Mexico, and friends of the Pilsen-based group are trying to raise money to help him.
The founder of Chicago's Calles y Sueños organization is launching earthquake recovery efforts in Mexico, and friends of the Pilsen-based group are trying to raise money to help him.
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Provided/Magdalena Rodriguez

PILSEN — Still reeling from the aftermath of the strongest earthquake to hit Mexico in a century, the founder of the influential Calles y Sueños cultural group in Pilsen is already looking to rebuild — but he needs help.

It's been nearly a decade since founder José David Quiñonez, 70, moved to the Juchitán District in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the area in southern Mexico hit hardest by the Sept. 7 earthquake. The 8.1-magnitude earthquake created a tsunami and shook buildings as far away as Mexico City, 400 miles northwest of the earthquake's epicenter.

It struck just two months after Quiñonez had discovered a new home for himself and what he hoped would become the location for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec branch of Calles y Sueños, which he founded in Chicago in 1990.

"Until the earthquake, this commercial space in [the town of] Ixtepec had seemed like the perfect space," Chicago Calles y Sueños organizer Magdalena Rodriguez wrote in an email. "José David was thrilled to think that he had finally found his forever home."

Chicago's Calles y Sueños, which relaunched in June after closing in Quiñonez's absence, has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Quiñonez as he looks to repair his Ixtepec building and assist other Mexican cultural centers that have previously partnered with Calles y Sueños.

After nine days, the campaign had raised $1,310 of its $4,000 goal.

The affected centers include La Casa de Arte y Cultura de Jutchitán, where Quiñonez first hosted a cultural exchange program with Chicago in the late 1990s. La Casa was destroyed in the earthquake.

"José David couldn't contain himself; he broke down and cried," Rodriguez wrote of Quiñonez when he reunited with the La Casa director. "[But] despite the destruction, he left Jutchitán feeling more determined to get on with his cultural work."

La Casa de la Cultura de Juchitán has partnered with Calles y Sueños since the 1990s. This month, it was destroyed in earthquakes in southern and central Mexico. [Provided/Magdalena Rodriguez]

To make matters worse, a second quake roiled central Mexico Tuesday, adding another estimated 79 deaths to the 90 killed two weeks earlier.

"It's like Sodom and Gomorrah, like God is angry at us," a Mexican government employee told The New York Times on Tuesday. "Now is the moment when solidarity begins."

In her attempts to rally support for Quiñonez, who still returns to Pilsen regularly, Rodriguez recounted his experience waking up to the earthquake shortly after moving into a three-story commercial building with plans to renovated the neglected property.

Quiñonez woke to rubble falling on his head and raced for the single exit in his underwear. As the earth shook beneath his feet, Quiñonez made it downstairs to the ground-floor exit, only to realize he didn't have the keys he needed to get out.

"For a moment, José David stood frozen at the locked door, frightened that the building would collapse on top of him, imagining that this would be the end of his life," Rodriguez said. "Terrified, he scrambled in search of his keys, all the while experiencing repeated aftershocks."

Quiñonez plans to build a second exit, but that will take months and quite a bit of money, Rodriguez said. Quiñonez also lost many of his books, artwork, videos and equipment — collected over decades — which were damaged in the quake.

The money raised will go toward building a staircase and second exit, redoing the walls of the Isthmus Calles y Sueños, replacing the electronics Quiñonez lost like his camera and projector and helping La Casa.

In the days since the first quake, Quiñonez has been unable to return to his home, terrified of being trapped indoors and haunted by the traumatic disaster.

"The reassurance from the engineer's inspection hasn't helped to alleviate his anxiety," Rodriguez said. "He is still sleeping in a tent, staying in various courtyards."

Calles y Sueños, which means "streets and dreams" in Spanish, had a powerful impact on teens and young adults living in Pilsen in the 1990s, Rodriguez said. The key was Quiñonez's focus on including all Latinos, unlike nationality-based spaces like the Mexican Fine Arts Museum or the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Quiñonez, himself from Honduras, "always kept the space open, and it especially attracted Latinos who had migrated during the '70s and '80s when there was a lot of oppression in central and South America," Rodriguez said. "People who had actually suffered under dictatorships who had been censored as artists or writers or journalists."

At Calles y Sueños, culture was a source of education and a door to encouraging dialogue between people across ethnic and racial lines. To stay affordable, the center rarely charged visitors and didn't seek out major donors, although it did ask for donations at the door.

It was the first place in Chicago to put together a Día de los Muertos celebration in 1985 and host to exhibits of art by imprisoned Latino artists.

And with Quiñonez leading the charge for so many years, its time for Chicago to return the favor, Rodriguez said.

"If you have ever had the pleasure of experiencing the life-changing power of cultural events at Calles y Sueños or cherished José David's selfless dedication to promoting Latino arts and culture," Rodriguez wrote, "Now is the time to support him in his time of need and distress."