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Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia on Chicago, Immigration and His Roots

Image: Samantha Hernandez, Jesus \"Chuy\" Garcia, St. Patrick's Day, Chicago
Samantha Hernandez 17, left, of Hanover Park, Ill., poses for a selfie with Chicago Mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia right, during the St. Patrick's Day parade in Chicago, Saturday, March 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)PAUL BEATY / AP

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has thrust the Chicago mayoral race into the national spotlight by forcing incumbent Rahm Emanuel, once the top adviser to President Barack Obama, into an April 7 runoff.

While a recent poll shows Emanuel with a double-digit lead, Garcia’s bid has generated national attention and some excitement in the Latino community. As part of our reports on Chicago's mayoral race, NBC News interviewed the Mexican-American candidate on his family background, the campaign, how he's received in the Latino community and how his political career inspired his own family to become more politically engaged. We edited and condensed the interview below for brevity and clarity:

NBC: Your father came to the U.S. as a "Bracero," did you and your siblings immigrate too?

Garcia: I’m one of four (I lost a brother when he was 33); I’m the youngest. We all immigrated here.

NBC: You are an immigrant, but you are not from the era of Latinos who arrived in the 1990s and 2000s. Do you see yourself as a bridge between more recently arrived U.S. Hispanics and Latinos who are born here or whose families have been here for generations?

Garcia: Someone pointed out to me that I’m not just an immigrant, that I’m a "1.5 guy" and I said, 'what does that mean?' They said 'because you came so young you reflect what subsequent immigrants and young people have experienced.'

I do connect well with the immigrants from the 50s and 60s and I think I was the recipient of a lot of the oral history that only now is being documented in books and publications that wasn't around when I grew up. Of course with technology I can have a connection with what young people are thinking today.

NBC: You speak Spanish, right? Has it been hard to retain it?

Garcia: I was getting close to losing it (Spanish). I was not real proficient in it when I was in high school. It took my brother embarrassing me in front of other Spanish-only speaking friends and family to really kind of press me to keep it. What was key was taking Spanish courses in college. It really opened the world to me again about the language and then I got back to reading and writing and grammar and then literature. Spanish literature was “Wow! Look what I’ve been missing.”

NBC: How old were you when you became a citizen?

Garcia: I became a citizen in, I think 1979. I voted for the first time in 1980, in the presidential election; I was still in college. I was working as a paralegal at legal assistance in Chicago.

What really opened my eyes to the need to register to vote before Latinos had become active in politics was in 1977. The Illinois state Legislature was considering several anti-immigrant, anti-Latino bills in the state Capitol in Springfield and we wound up having to go down there to lobby and advocate against the passage of those bills that would have, for example, passed employer sanctions at the state level for undocumented immigrants [and] denied public education to undocumented children in Chicago public schools. Another would have even cut the possibility of emergency room treatment to immigrants, so we went down there and that was sort of my first taste as to how powerless and invisible we were to legislators in Springfield.

My parents, in part, became citizens after I was elected, after I won my first political office because they felt really bad they couldn’t vote for me, even though they could have become citizens earlier. So it took that to really motivate them. Of course both of them became citizens and wound up having the first opportunity to vote for me when I first got elected alderman in 1986.

NBC: In the race, you are portrayed as more of the neighborhood guy and Rahm Emanuel as the corporate guy.

Garcia: The race is (against) somebody who favors only the central business district. In order to have a global city, a true great city, you have to have great neighborhoods. Rahm Emanuel has disregarded the neighborhoods. I won’t disregard the neighborhoods. It’s not a question of either or, you need to have both to achieve that status … In the debate, we were asked what’s the one project you think would help to further the city … I pointed out to one severely undeveloped asset, which is the port of Chicago … The mayor had a press conference two years ago about what he would do with it, all the potential that it has … nothing has happened.

NBC: There were criticisms after you released your financial plan that it was vague or lacked specifics. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Garcia: There are plenty of specifics. Here’s the issue: The mayor has been critical of my plan. His backers don’t like my plan because I talk about opening the books as the first step in determining what our true financial picture is.

Chicago has one of the most closed policies in the country. I want to open the books so taxpayers can ascertain our true financial picture. That hasn’t been done. I want to conduct audits of the finances, because that’s how we are going to get to a true financial baseline...I think Chicagoans deserve the truth. I can’t look, at this point at time, Chicago taxpayers in the eye and say they are going to have to shoulder a set of revenue increases because we don’t know what the true baseline is.

NBC: On immigration, you do have in Chicago the non-cooperation with ICE and an immigrant integration program. Are those things you support and you think Rahm has done right?

Garcia: Those are easier things to be for, they are sort of political imperatives now if you want to get re-elected in a place that has as many Latinos as Chicago has. It doesn’t show a whole lot of courage.

NBC: Are your contributions picking up? Are you seeing anything nationally yet?

Garcia: We are. I have trips planned to LA, Washington, D.C. and New York because there’s support and solidarity there, folks who want to pitch in and make it happen … There’s also one in Denver.

NBC: What’s it like when you are on the campaign trail; how do people react to you knowing you are Latino?

Garcia: People are very excited, very enthusiastic. Everyone wants a picture. Everyone wants a “selfie.” It’s quite moving, of course. People feel a real sense of pride. It’s sort of a coming of age, I think, that people feel.

NBC: Do the abuelitas (grandmothers) call you mijo (a term of endearment) and that sort of thing?

Garcia: They hug you. They grab you by your neck. They kind of massage your shoulders, you know. They grab you and feel good about it. I think it sort of represents their best wishes and aspirations for their children, as they reflect on coming to this country; many of them having to wait until their papers, their green card, the wait for citizenship, having to pass the test...There is a lot of enthusiasm.

NBC: Whatever happens, how do you feel about getting more Latinos in public office? Do you think your candidacy means anything in that arena?

Garcia: I do; I think a lot of people are looking to Chicago to see if we can score a historic opportunity. I think it underscores the growing importance of the Latino vote in other cities and in other parts of the country, in the new South for example, and I think it is bringing home to both Democrats and Republicans the fact that the community is serious about being heard, that the Latino vote is strategic and that we cannot be ignored anymore.