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Nina Sánchez Liberates Her Community Through Creativity

Written by on January 12, 2023

Anti-racism organizer and owner of 51st Ward Books Nina Sánchez works to make a change in her community through teaching and forging creativity.

From a young age, Nina Sánchez has been connecting with her community. Looking back on her childhood in Pilsen, she recalls her family playing an active role in building community — greeting and connecting with every family in the neighborhood.  Formative experiences such as these left an indelible mark on Sánchez, as she would go on to become a champion for cultural change in her community through the arts.

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Beginning her artistic journey with creative writing, she learned sharing her story and stories like hers has a positive impact on her community. Now, as an anti-racism organizer, Sánchez uses her creative foundation to liberate her community by modeling what liberation looks like now. 

“[Creativity] is about having faith that we can do something different, that we have within us the possibilities that we seek to bring to fruition,” Sánchez explained.

Sánchez’s passion for writing and telling stories grew into creating 51st Ward Books, named after an idealized “51st Ward” of Chicago, what she calls “the Chicago of her imagination.” 51st Ward Books is Chicago’s first dedicated bilingual/Spanish, social justice-centered bookshop for children. Through the bookstore, Sánchez now empowers her community by telling the stories she wishes she had as a child.  

“It’s really hard to find books that have anti-bias, anti-racist themes in them,” Sánchez said. “We do the work of 51st Ward Books as one way to express our creativity, but also as a way to bring justice-informed books… to Chicago’s Latinx community.”

In this segment of “This is what Chicago Sounds Like,” Nina Sánchez discusses growing up in Pilsen, why creativity is essential in community and raising her daughter in Chicago.

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

What do you do?

I have spent my entire career focusing on issues of equity, first in the education space, and then ultimately connecting the dots to all of the things I love, where I would be spending my time, even if no one was paying me to do it, but what I would be talking about, thinking about and doing, which is focusing on how we can collectively move toward a liberated present. Not a liberated future, but a liberated present. So looking, in particular, at our arts and culture institutions in Chicago, which gives so much life, and we have seen that. They’re so life-giving, they’re sustaining in ways that many of us didn’t realize before the pandemic, and that became clear in those moments. To think about, how do we evolve our way of being, so that it is aligned to a liberatory context, a liberatory framework where people of color in these institutions, connected to these institutions, can actually thrive? 

Are you from Chicago?

Soy el segundo generación aquí en Chicago con raíces en México. I was born and raised in Pilsen on the east side of the neighborhood. Around the corner from the house my mom and her six siblings grew up in. I live on the northwest side now, but my heart is always in Pilsen.Yo tambien fui a la misma escuela Católica donde has ido mi mamá y sus seis hermanos y hermanas. What I loved about growing up in Pilsen is that we knew who our neighbors were. Yo me sentía profundamente conectada a mi cultura, a mis vecinos, este barrio que te pertenecia a mi. My family played such an active role in our neighborhood through our school and our church parish. We would joke and call my dad the mayor of Pilsen, because a Saturday night wouldn’t be a Saturday night in Pilsen unless we went for a walk through the neighborhood, where we stopped at multiple houses to connect with our neighbors, play with the kids, have a drink of water and run the whole circuit through the neighborhood, ending with my grandmother’s house, who lived a block and a half from us. The adults in the neighborhood were super involved with the children, organizing games on the street, relay races, hopscotch, jump rope, all of the things. And so it was just a really rich community life, and our home was a community center. My mom hosted a Friday after-school craft club for our classmates, and we would have a snack, we would make a craft and we would then have choir rehearsal with my dad. And so it was just a really rich upbringing. 

Pilsen has changed, I still love it for many of the same reasons. Although I come at it from a different vantage point now, as someone who was displaced from the neighborhood, first by violence and segregation, and now by being priced out so that I couldn’t even buy a home here if I wanted to live here, which I really do. But I think that so much about Pilsen’s essence remains the same, that folks are rooted deeply in community. They’ve been here for generations. And, while they may sleep somewhere else, this is the neighborhood and the community where they come to feel alive and connected to their culture and to one another. 

I work with Enrich Chicago, it was started by a grassroots group of arts administrators and philanthropy, but also in cultural organizations in Chicago who really want to take a step back and think about not just matters of diversity, but really address the root cause of the inequities we see, not just in our society at large, but in the arts in particular. And that is to address systemic racism. We have gone to 50 institutions who have made that commitment, who have invested their resources, time, energy and financial resources to advance an equity agenda within their organizations. I’m really excited about the projects we’re currently doing to center BIPOC people in this question of anti racism and equity. How do we invest our resources differently? How do we continue to sustain and nurture those who have already been doing the work, that really make the city what it is, in places like Pilsen and everywhere else? And how do we consider the ways that we introduce and make changes that will benefit us today? 

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

¿Qué te llevó a querer organizar en las artes creativas? What brought you to want to organize in the creative arts?

Mi papá es músico, mi mama es una persona creativa y los creyeron participando en actividades como el coro, clases de arte, durante toda la juventud.  My creative roots are in creative writing. I was always a voracious reader. I went everywhere with a book in my hand, I’d even tried to walk into church with it. That was a hard no from my mom. But I was always such a big reader. And I started writing when I was 12. From that moment forward, I really tapped into that part of myself, to think about, not only how am I taking in stories, but how am I telling my own stories, sharing my own experiences? Para nosotros era importante traer estos textos a la comunidad porque sabemos lo difícil que es encontrarlos.

I also realized though, pretty early on, that my communities, my community, stories in the communities, other people of color, are not available in our learning institutions. And so that really led me to build my own curriculum, to seek out the stories and the people whose stories I wanted to hear and learn about on my own. Two years ago, my family and I started a bookstore que se llama 51st Ward Books, the 51st Ward is the Chicago of our imaginations. If Chicago had a Sesame Street, it would be in the 51st Ward. And that’s a Chicago free of oppression, a multicultural, multi-linguistic community, like we are now, but all together in one place as neighbors. And we started this bookstore because we were invested in raising a bilingual daughter. And finding these books is actually really hard to do, believe it or not, and it takes a lot of time and energy to find books in Spanish or bilingual books. And, moreover, it’s really hard to find books that have anti-bias, anti-racist themes in them. So we do the work of 51st Ward Books as one way to express our creativity, but also as a way to bring justice-informed books into languages, to Chicago’s Latinx community. 

Hemos existido como una librería sin paredes, una tienda mobil una tienda en linia, y tres diferentes citios donde la comunidad puede venir, ver los libros, tocarlos leerlos. Una que está en Pilsen otra en Humboldt Park, y la tercera y la más nueva que está en Belmont Cragin. 

Why do you think art and creativity is so important to social change? 

Para mi, la creatividad es algo esencial. Lo que ha hecho el racismo y el opresión es robarlos de nuestra capacidad de imaginaron un mundo nuevo. 

I think creativity is essential. And one of the things that oppression and racism has done to us, is rob us of that creativity, prevent us from imagining a new way of experiencing life and being together, to imagine what could be different if we stopped doing some of the things that are harmful to all of us right now. To be creative really means that we’re leaning into this constant sense of discomfort. To me, at its core, that’s what creativity is, because it is about that unknown. It is about having faith that we can do something different, that we have within us the possibilities that we seek to bring to fruition. When I talk about Chicago, I always talk about how the blood in my veins runs Chicago blues, that Maxwell Street of the old days, with thick socks, next to the blues musicians, next to the taqueria, etc. To the spaces in between, you know, our gleaming lakefront, and our neighborhoods all around the city of Chicago. And now, on the far northwest side of where I live, everything in between those spaces, to me, is Chicago. To me, that’s the place where creativity really thrives, where we can stretch ourselves to try new things. And Chicago has such a deep community of justice-minded people. And when I think about those people who are justice-minded, I’m drawn to that work, and it really thrives in our creative and artistic community here in Chicago. I think that those of us who are here are thriving, because we have found a way to hold all of those dimensions of who we are together, that we can find wholeness in who we are and our creativity allows us to do that. 

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Photography by Makenzie Creden

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