Carmen Velasquez first heard about the dismal conditions of healthcare in Chicago’s Spanish-speaking communities 26 years ago while attending a health conference. The working poor immigrants in Pilsen, Little Village and Back the Yards suffered from a lack of access to good hospitals. Many of them were undocumented. They were intimidated by traditional channels of healthcare and were often neglected by it due to language barriers. Velasquez, a social worker and bilingual consultant, knew she had to do something to help.
Two years later, Alivio Medical Center opened.
Alivio, which means “relief” in Spanish, is a bilingual community organization that provides healthcare to underserved Latino families. Almost everyone Alivio serves lives on or below the federal poverty level. Nearly 40 percent are uninsured and 70 percent do not speak English as their primary language.
And at Alivio, legal status is not an issue.
Under Velasquez’s leadership, Alivio has grown to serve more than 20,000 patients a year in six clinics across Cook County. Two more clinics will be opening soon.
Velasquez retired last week after serving 25 years as the center’s executive director. The Chicago Reporter sat down with her during her final days to reflect on the highs and lows of her career.
What’s the story behind Alivio?
Twenty-six years ago, I attended a health summit. I heard testimonies of people who didn’t have access to healthcare or couldn’t afford it, and the more I listened, the more I became royally pissed. Some things are unacceptable. There was a real lack of a community health center in Mexican neighborhoods and I knew I had to do something. From the very beginning I had three goals and they remain the same to this day: to be a voice of people for immigration, to provide universal, all-encompassing healthcare, and to have Spanish-speaking services. We wanted the whole enchilada.
My friend Ann Garcelon and I approached Sister Sheila Lyne of Mercy Hospital, and together we built the idea of Alivio. We received our first major funding from the Chicago Community Trust. On a snowy afternoon, my friend Vincent Allocco [the president of El Valor, another community social service organization in Pilsen] and I walked up and down Western Avenue looking for a possible venue. We were like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — he was tall and thin and I was short and chubby. We were walking and walking and finally I saw an empty lot next to a place called “Velasquez Muffler Shop.” That was it — it was like divine providence.
On January 4, 1989, we opened Alivio Medical Center, 10,000 square feet at 2355 Western Ave.
What barriers did you face before you opened the first clinic?
The Spanish-speaking, immigrant community is still being shut out of the healthcare system. The Affordable Care Act doesn’t apply to the majority of our patients, who are undocumented, so the matter of funding is always a challenge. The health care system is also constantly changing, and that means more money. When everything was being changed to electronic records, for example, we needed the means to implement that. It’s a constant challenge. There were several times when we were in jeopardy [of closing].
Then in 2000, comprehensive immigration reform was a huge possibility. But then 9/11 happened and there was so much xenophobia. The country was about to open its doors to the undocumented, but then everything came to a horrible, horrible halt. People started believing undocumented people were, in essence, a threat to this country and that we were horrible to even consider providing any kind of healthcare to them.
What are some challenges in fundraising?
Funders are not really interested in the operation of things. They usually have something specific they want to see happen, and that could be difficult to provide. I don’t want to be chasing money.
Funders, within their own board and philosophy, they say they want to focus on X. But if you want them to consider something else, you’re not in the same mindset. My job was to make them understand that what we do here impacts a full, human being. I’m not selling a car, I just want to make a difference. Of course, we get lots of no’s. But we can’t be afraid and we must ask again.
Sometimes I think, what if I was running a corporate entity instead? That would be much easier.
What would you say to people who question the merit of providing healthcare to undocumented people?
This is a social justice issue. This is not something that should be taken lightly. Anybody who says undocumented people shouldn’t have healthcare is not addressing the real issue. We’re talking about a human being’s life. That’s unacceptable. It’s a matter of social justice. Why should you let a human being live without health care?
What role does Alivio play in the community?
I think we’re more than just a health clinic; we’re a voice for our community. You know, our motto is “An active presence for a strong community.” We serve the uninsured, working poor and we still do. But we’re also advocates for immigration reform and universal healthcare.
What are some highlights from your years running Alivio?
You know, we now have six clinics and two more opening — one in Berwyn and one as part of Benito Juarez Academy — within two months. People know they can come to us with trust, and I’m just so proud to be part of this network.
Why are you retiring?
I’ve been preparing to retire for the past seven years. I’m 74 years old. It’s just time to move on. But it’s not easy to leave. It’s been very emotional.
How do you envision the growth of Alivio under new leadership?
I have no doubt that Alivio will continue to expand. We’re interested in a new birthing center and we have many requests from other communities and organizations.
What’s next for you?
I don’t have a game plan yet. I have a 95-year-old mother and I haven’t filed my taxes yet. This will be an opportunity to reflect a little bit on what I will be doing not only in terms of participating in very importation issues of the clinic but also the continuing participation in the boards I’m a part of. I’m also hoping for a little time for vacation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.