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Cristina Pacione Zayas: From Working with Neighborhood Children to Chief of Staff of the Mayor of Chicago

Photo by Herminio Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

For just over a month, Cristina Pacione Zayas has served as Chief of Staff for Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. It is the first time that someone of Latino origin holds the position.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” she says six weeks after assuming the role. It’s about, she says, being willing to acquire new knowledge and, at the same time, bringing her work experience to the Johnson team, which she described as unique because of the diversity of people who work on it. 

“Is not just professional experience. This experience represents identities that historically have not been at the table, have not been able to be in a position of power and recentering all of that, our processes, our policy, our practices, how do we ensure that the communities in Chicago that historically have been pushed to the margins to become a part of process so everyone can live up to their greatest potential. So it’s really an honor”.

Her parents, two community organizers, met at the Boys & Girls Club in Lincoln Square. José Zayas, a Puerto Rican who came from Puerto Rico to live in Chicago’s first public housing project, Lathrop Homes, oversaw the gym, and she, Theresa Pacione, an Italian immigrant, photography teacher, worked directly with the neighborhood youth.

Pacione Zayas grew up there, seeing how conflicts with gangs were handled, learning to navigate government bureaucracies to ensure that the needs of young people were met and that, at the same time, there were opportunities to develop their talents.

Pacione Zayas grew up in Logan Square, two and a half kilometers away from Paseo Boricua. She considers it fortunate that she and her parents can still live there, since the community, mainly made up of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who settled in the 1980s, has been experiencing gentrification for several decades. Houses like the one she grew up in, which cost about $50,000, are today valued at more than $1 million.

The Importance of Working With Early Childhood

As part of her community work, Pacione Zayas found her way into the area of early childhood education.

Just before becoming a senator in the Illinois state legislature, Pacione Zayas worked at the Erikson Institute, implementing early childhood education strategies, convinced that attention at this stage of life prevents long-term problems for people and the communities in which they live. Her job was to translate into action and public policy the knowledge and research on brain science and its formation in the first years of life.

Early childhood touches all facets of life: housing, health, public safety, nutrition, education, she says about the importance of paying attention to children.

While doing that work, Pacione Zayas was called to serve on the State Board of Education, where she remained for two years. Then, in December 2020, Iris Martínez, the first Puerto Rican elected as a senator from Illinois, who had been in the state Senate for 18 years, asked her to be her successor and finish her term when she was elected to another position.

In two and a half years in the Senate, Pacione Zayas succeeded in the approval of 22 laws. Among those, the allocation of $235 million for her community and a significant investment in early childhood education.

“One thing that’s really interesting about the journey is, at least from my perspective, it wasn’t something I planned. I think it is a testament to what it looks like when a community pours into young people,” she told the CPI while still at the Senate. “I’m a worker bee. I get things done. I try to remove the barriers and continue moving forward so our community can thrive.”

When she was a student at the University of Illinois, about two hours from Chicago, she and many of her classmates understood the importance of looking at these issues in practice and not just through a theoretical lens in academia. Getting involved and participating in the work at Paseo Boricua allowed her to develop a political awareness. “Yes, we’re studying, we’re completing our degrees, but what specifically are we going to do with it in the community?”, she remembers that was the question that guided her training.

For her graduate studies, Pacione Zayas focused academically on analyzing the process that took place at the Roberto Clemente School, which the community occupied.

Photo by Herminio Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

She says “the focus of my dissertation was to look at the amazing and very cutting edge educational initiatives that ended up getting criminalized and demonized because it was so anchored in Puerto Rican history and culture and the ideology of independence and nationalism so much it was criminalized, so much so that we had FBI agents provocateurs embedded in the community that then became the star witness for this like witch hunt that claimed that the school was misusing funds and using federal dollars to push a campaign to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners.”

She recalls that the school did not excel academically, but its students, who arrived at the University of Illinois with a high level of political awareness, organized and sought to occupy spaces of representation.

“All of that, I think, grounded me in a political consciousness that we do this work not to just status climb, not to build material wealth. But to combat the erasure of our community, like materially with gentrification and then symbolically when they want us to assimilate and tell us ‘just forget about that. Your goal is to get out of the hood, it’s to go to the nice neighborhoods and get a good job’ or whatever,” she said.  


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