Ana Guajardo Carrillo

"When I first encountered racism, my mother told me to hold my head high. 'We only crossed a river,' she said. 'They crossed an ocean.'" —Ana Guajardo Carrillo, 2012

“Most people think Chicago ends at Hyde Park; they don’t even realize we’re here,” says Ana Guajardo Carrillo, founding director of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos: Immigrant Workers’ Project (CTU) on Chicago’s southeast side.

Guajardo was raised on the southeast side by undocumented immigrant parents from Mexico. At age 12, she and her family moved to a mostly white suburb. “I was called a ‘spic’ and a wetback at school and in my neighborhood for the first time,” she recalled. She kept her head held high by remembering her mother’s words: “We crossed a river. They crossed an ocean.”

Inheriting her parents’ work ethic along with their dignity, Guajardo started working at age sixteen and hasn’t slowed down since. To help pay for higher education, she served in the Illinois Army National Guard. After graduation from Chicago State University, Guajardo pursued a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute.

There she got involved with the United Farm Workers. Out of her class of two hundred people, Guajardo was the only one who went into organizing, interning with the UFCW and working with hospital workers at SEIU local 1. She then moved to Indiana to organize immigrant janitors for SEIU local 3.

The seventeen hour days and her desire to be closer to home brought her back to Chicago’s southeast side where immigrants had long faced labor abuses, from unsafe working conditions and non-payment of earned wages to the threat of losing their jobs if they complained about their employer. The immigrant rights movement was starting to mobilize in response to a new wave of immigration restrictions in 2006 and Guajardo helped to send sixty-two busloads of people to a historic Chicago rally where nearly half a million people marched for immigrant rights.

Guajardo and several other volunteers, including her future husband, tried in vain to form their first group to fight for immigrant workers on the Southside. Undeterred by the setback, she took a position with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and fought anti-immigrant racism, courageously confronting Minutemen vigilantes who were harassing immigrant people.

In 2008, Guajardo founded the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos and in the years since then, CTU’s impact has vastly exceeded its small staff and budget.

A study by the University of Illinois-Chicago found that Chicago-area workers lose $7.3 million in wages a week to wage-theft by employers. Guajardo’s grassroots work at CTU has enabled low-wage Latino workers in southeastern Chicago to recover a quarter of a million dollars in owed wages. CTU workers played a lead role in passage of one of the nation’s toughest wage-protection legislation in Illinois. Guajardo and CTU partners have developed an innovative Community Agreement that binds employers to respect workers’ rights and they are working on enforcing that code.

As mentor to hundreds of young leaders, Guajardo serves as a powerful role model for Latinas. An influential voice on voting rights and redistricting in Illinois, she is partnering with African-Americans to rewrite Chicago’s long history of worker exploitation.

Guajardo’s unwavering dedication to her community has helped to amplify the voices of Chicago’s most vulnerable workers who are loudly and clearly telling employers they can no longer violate their rights and disrespect their consumer community.

Ana Guajardo Carrillo Photo by Jenny Alexander