a new paradigm.
In the early 20th century, Detroit’s booming agricultural and automotive industries drew migrant workers from around the world, including many Latinos. In fact, by the end of the 1920s, there were 15,000 Latinos living and working in the city.
But when The Great Depression struck, tightening job markets sparked racial tension that led to the Mexican repatriation: A federal and state government program focused on forcibly removing anyone perceived to be of Mexican heritage, whether a U.S. citizen or not.
Over eight years, the program devastated the Latino population, removing nearly 1.8 million nationwide and leaving just 1,200 in Detroit by 1933.
Nearly 60% of those removed were U.S. citizens, one of these citizens was the grandmother of Detroit City Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López.
“My grandmother was probably a baby when her family was illegally deported to Mexico. She lived there until she was a teenager, then an aunt that was still in the U.S. brought her back. She returned to a troubled living situation and got married to escape it, but that relationship turned abusive, and she filed for divorce years later. Left with six children, the courts gave her the house where she raised my mother and my mother later raised us.”
Growing up in that community sparked the Detroit love that has defined her life since.
“The reason I love Detroit is the strong sense of community. Growing up, there wasn't any judgement for being poor or low-income. It was a shared economy — we needed help and so did our neighbors — so people would see my mom walking with six little kids and offer us a ride home and help carry groceries. My father would offer newer immigrants jobs and teach them his trade and my mom would help people fill out paperwork and interpret their mail. I think there's a really beautiful strength and humility that comes from growing up with less.”
She was also shaped by a longstanding Detroit non-profit, which ultimately inspired her decision to pursue social work.
“As a kid, I participated with Alternatives For Girls (AFG). They had afterschool and mentorship programs, which gave me the chance to connect with girls from both my own and other neighborhoods with similar struggles. I remember one pivotal moment at the AFG shelter when a woman called in who was trying to escape a domestic violence situation. I was listening to my mentor walk this woman through what to do, and I just thought it was amazing to be able to help someone simply by sharing information and resources.”
After years of working in Detroit non-profits, her track record and deep community roots helped her become the first Latina elected to the Detroit City Council.
“I was actually recruited to run for city council. There weren't many people who went out, got their degree and then returned to the neighborhood, but I worked at AFG and other non-profits doing what others had done for me — trying to be a mentor and role model for young people in the community. So people just got to know me, valued my commitment to the community and challenged me to do it in the political sector. I'm grateful and honored to have the opportunity because, for me, serving others is the highest honor.”
Today she works on a myriad of issues, including managing the impact of development on the city, particularly in some of the more vulnerable communities she serves.
“We have the opportunity to do things differently in Detroit. My vision for the city requires challenging the fundamental assumptions of development. I don't think displacement is inevitable. That's what I struggle with most. I think there’s an implicit devaluing of what and who is already here when we only talk about bringing in something bigger and better. I believe we can grow the population, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of people who have been here and have a lot of value.
Her objective is striking a balance between the interests of both communities and developers through four guiding principles: equity, access, inclusion and wellness.
“We try to assess all economic development deals using that framework. Ultimately, I think that rather than focusing on one core area, we need to strengthen neighborhoods so they become cities within the city, challenging the trickle-down economics approach that tends to cause displacement.”
That means putting policies in place that protect and empower residents.
“Many contractors and urban designers have expertise in building things around the world, but they don't necessarily translate to and align with what Detroit neighborhoods really need. Pushing to improve the Community Benefits Ordinance is one way we’ve been addressing that. It’s intended to inform residents about the power they have to design their own neighborhoods and give them a voice to express concerns and make suggestions on how to improve development. Progress has been made but there is a lot of work still to do.”
One improvement she’s working on is educating community leaders in order to help them take an active role in their neighborhood’s development.
“We’re piloting zoning workshops that provide folks with training and resources — from fundraising to grant writing to political advocacy — so they can learn how to navigate the bureaucracy and have a voice in designing their own neighborhoods to attract more of the businesses they truly need, rather than what someone thinks they need. Ultimately, I don’t want them to have to rely on someone else — it might take decades, but I believe that’s how we’ll create systemic change.”
Castañeda-López’s vision for creating a new paradigm in Detroit is inspiring, and her efforts to build bridges between government, developers and citizens are essential to creating a thriving Detroit. Indeed, only by engaging citizens in development discussions before breaking ground can we create neighborhoods that will simultaneously attract new residents while meeting the needs of the existing community. Because in the end, we’re all chasing the same thing — a fair shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if we work together, we can build a Detroit where everyone can find — and keep — their place.