Maria Cerda (1939-2020) was born and raised in Lares, Puerto Rico. After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Puerto Rico, she headed north to enter the University of Chicago’s graduate social work program. As a social worker, she witnessed firsthand the challenges which the Chicago Latino population faced and she lobbied for change. As Cerda was making a name for herself and learning how to navigate Chicago politics, she got the attention of Mayor Richard J. Daley who appointed her to the Chicago Board of Education. As the first Latina/o member of the Board, she addressed educational inequalities affecting the Latino community and secured funding for bilingual education programs and culturally responsive curricula.
Under Mayor Harold Washington, Cerda served in the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training. During the Washington administration, she was also a key figure in Chicago becoming a sanctuary city for immigrants.
Cerda took part in the Latina Feminist movement during the 1970’s and was one of the first members of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women. As a member of the bilingual advisory council for the Children’s Television Workshop, she advised the writers of Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Cerda co-founded the Latino Institute and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on Educational Research.
Why this stop? The Blue Line Damen stop is in the heart of Wicker Park. Prior to its gentrification, this neighborhood was made up of Puerto Ricans, the people who Maria Cerda fought for throughout her professional life.
Listen to Studs Terkel interview Maria Cerda on education and the importance of fostering cultural pride among schoolchildren.
Get Involved — Cerda was a key player in establishment of Aspira of Illinois, an organization which originally helped prepare Latino children for college but has since broadened its mission to operate government-funded charter schools. You can support Aspira with financial donations or by serving as a hands-on volunteer.
Women’s L Project Connections — One of Cerda’s first jobs was at Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.