Frank Martinez, founder of the Latino Real Estate Investors Council

Latinos have been a part of Chicago’s ethnic quilt for nearly as long as the city has existed. The first Latinos, mostly of Mexican origin, arrived in the city in the late 1800s. But their numbers remained small well into the 20th Century.

This started to change in the 50s and 60s as waves of Puerto Ricans and then Cubans began making their way to Chicago for both economic and political reasons. Immigration really took off after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.

Under the new law, “gateway cities” like Chicago started to see large flows of people arriving from far-flung places all across the globe. While Mexicans comprised the largest immigrant group to Chicago, immigrants from across Latin America were drawn to the city and established roots here.

In just a few decades, Chicago’s Latino communities grew from the low tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands. Like previous waves of immigrants, Latinos clustered in tight-knit communities, largely in the neighborhoods that other Chicagoans (of mostly European descent) were starting to abandon. It is no coincidence that this out-migration was happening at the same time that the city’s industrial economy was collapsing. This economic upheaval created an opening for these new immigrants who wanted a foothold in the United States, but who were not welcomed or simply could not afford to live in more advantaged communities. By and large, the Latino immigrants to Chicago took the housing that nobody else wanted.

This is how Pilsen and Little Village became heavily Mexican and Humboldt Park became the center of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Other out-of-favor neighborhoods across the city also saw big increases in their Latino populations, including Rogers Park, East Chicago, West Town and Logan Square.

But in Chicago, nothing ever stays the same for very long. By the beginning of the 21st Century, the “back to the city” movement was already well established and gaining momentum. The flight of Chicagoans to the suburbs had stalled, and the trickle of people heading back to the city turned into a stampede. A new generation suddenly decided that they wanted nothing to do with their parents’ suburban lifestyles. The newly popular neighborhoods were on the North Side Lakefront and around the Loop office district. “Gentrification” was on, and it would prove to be as transformative in the city as “white flight” had been a generation earlier.

Over the past decade, Latino communities in Chicago have experienced what can only be described as a political coming-of-age.

For many Latinos, a handful of the formerly affordable and centrally located neighborhoods that no one else wanted were suddenly a hot commodity. Hordes of young, well-educated and higher-income newcomers were moving in, looking for urban excitement and easy L-commutes to their Loop jobs. It is also true that many of these newcomers were white, adding a racial dimension to this transformation.

Given the relatively recent growth of the Latino population in Chicago, the undocumented status of some fraction of this group, and the dispersion of these newcomers across multiple areas of the city, it is not surprising that Latino communities are under-represented at all levels of city, county and state government.

But that has started to change. Over the past decade, Latino communities in Chicago have experienced what can only be described as a political coming-of-age. After years of living more or less under the radar screen, Latinos began to organize and get involved, giving rise to the first real flexing of Latino power in local and state politics. And many of the recently elected Latino Aldermen (and women), County Commissioners, State Representatives and Senators, etc. have a pronounced left-of-center tilt in their politics and beliefs.

It is no accident that four of the six self-described Democratic Socialists on the Chicago City Council are Latinos and represent neighborhoods that have experienced massive gentrification. These same Aldermen are also at the forefront of efforts to pass rent control, Just Cause Eviction protections, and a wide range of other tenant-friendly (in their view) legislation.

But it would be a mistake to believe that a few prominent Socialist Democratic Aldermen and women speak for all Latinos in Chicago. The political views of the approximately two million Latinos in and around Chicago is a lot more diverse than certain politicians would like us to believe. The multiplicity of views reflects the diversity of Latino communities in Chicago which represent many countries, ethnicities and cultures.

This brings us, finally, to Frank Martinez and the Latino Real Estate Investors Council (LREIC). Frank is a great example of the diversity of the Latino experience in Chicago. Frank is the child of political refugees from Castro’s Cuba who first came to the United States in the early 60s when Castro took power and started purging and persecuting anyone in Cuba who disagreed with his political views and revolutionary ideals.

It would be a mistake to believe that a few prominent Socialist Democratic Aldermen and women speak for all Latinos in Chicago.

This experience explains why Frank is skeptical of the brand of Socialism being espoused in Chicago and firmly believes this is not a model that anyone in the United States should want to follow. Frank will point out that, even today, Cuba remains one of the poorest and most repressive societies in the Western Hemisphere. Like many other Latinos in Chicago, Frank wants nothing to do with the Socialist ideology and anti-housing provider legislation that is currently being pushed by the Democratic Socialist politicians who claim to represent him.

But unlike many other like-minded Latinos in and around Chicago, Frank did not sit idly by and do nothing. Instead, Frank and a group of like-minded Latino leaders in the housing industry decided get organized and push back against the Socialist ideology others in his community were advancing. Newly formed LREIC is the result, and will act as a mouthpiece for the many Latinos in the Chicago region who want market-based solutions to housing problems – not the insidious public take-over of privately owned housing the Democratic Socialists are pushing.

Frank’s personal history is, in many ways, representative of the immigrant experience in America. His family arrived from Cuba with nothing and had to start from scratch in a new land, learning new traditions and a new language. Frank’s father was a true entrepreneur, buying and operating a grocery store, restaurant and a small apartment building in Rogers Park, and a gas station in Logan Square. So, from early on, real estate played an important role in Frank’s family and gave them their first foothold in building new lives and successful careers in this country.

Frank and a group of like-minded Latino leaders in the housing industry decided get organized and push back against the Socialist ideology others in his community were advancing.

Frank was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Roosevelt University in 1990. He started his career in Hospitality Management, but shifted to real estate in 2005, buying, fixing and re-selling small residential properties. In 2013, Frank obtained his Broker’s License. In 2015, he obtained his Managing Broker’s License and continued to invested in multifamily properties on the city’s South Side.

Frank has a passion for real estate and loves to help people, whether this is through real estate investment, or just finding someone the right apartment to call home. He shares a commitment to equity and social justice with his left-leaning peers, but disagrees strongly about what is needed to achieve these goals. Frank believes the market system works, but needs to be more accessible to more people from all backgrounds and walks of life.

New York Times Photo

All of these motivations led Frank to the conclusion that a new organization representing Latino business people and investors needed to be formed – if for no other reason, than to give voice to the many Latinos who do not want to see the Democratic Socialist agenda come to pass. For every story you will hear from tenants’ rights groups and left-leaning politicians about cruel landlords and displaced tenants, Frank can point to hard-working Latinos who scraped to buy a house or a two-flat, gradually building equity and creating wealth for themselves and their families.

To the thousands of Latinos and other immigrants who have managed to buy a home or a small rental property, the rise of the Democratic Socialist movement is just as alarming as it is to any other property owner. The only difference is that, up until now, the Latino property owner has not had an appropriate outlet for their views or concerns.

LREIC is intended to change that. Frank and fellow Board Members Sonia Del Real (Third City Consulting), Robert Marin (Northwestern Mutual), and Rafael Leon (Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation) decided the time had come to give this important constituency their own voice in this debate and create an organization that would promote market-based solutions to the housing problems that impact our city and our region.

A new organization representing Latino business people and investors needed to be formed – if for no other reason, than to give voice to the many Latinos who do not want to see the Democratic Socialist agenda come to pass.

Although LREIC is only a few months old, it is already off to a great start. Frank, Sonia, Robert and Rafael service as Chairman, Vice Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary, respectively. They are recently joined by new Board Members Felix Gonzalez and A. Valerie Acosta, both real estate lawyers by profession.

The new organization will build on the earlier efforts of the Chicago Latino Investors Organization (now disbanded) that was started by Cleo Aquino. Ms. Aquino is also actively involved with LREIC.

Frank believes the success of the new organization will depend on its ability to attract members, provide relevant training and education, and create the important relationships needed to put ideas into policies that can get the votes to become law.

LREIC currently has twelve members, but the goals for the organization are much more ambitious. The LREIC Board would like to see membership rise to 100 or more, and wants the organization to represent his entire community, not a specific neighborhood or geography. The Board is working to bring in other prominent Latinos in the real estate industry, either as new Board Members, or to play some other role in the fledgling organization. Paul Roldan (Hispanic Housing Development Corporation) is among this group of prominent real estate professionals who are actively looking to support the new organization.

Frank believes the success of the new organization will depend on its ability to attract members, provide relevant training and education, and create the important relationships needed to put ideas into policies that can get the votes to become law.

Frank and his colleagues have lofty goals and ambitions that will require a lot of work and tenacity to achieve. But Frank points to his own family experience, and to his personal struggles with Leukemia which he has twice faced – and twice beaten. This is to say, Frank is a fighter and not someone who is easily deterred when faced with a challenge.

Frank and his colleagues are willing to put in the effort to get LREIC up and running. They all believe the results will be well worth the effort, and an important expansion of the coalition-building needed to counter the tenants’ rights groups and left-leaning politicians who seem to be getting all the attention, but whose ideas will hurt, not help, the communities they claim to represent.