Delia Ramirez was literally born into community service.
The 39-year-old Illinois state representative and former community organizer, who’s running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the newly created 3rd congressional district, told Latino Rebels the story of how she went from being the daughter of immigrants living above a church to become one of the youngest and most effective leaders in Illinois politics.
Her parents emigrated from the same town in Guatemala, and her family lived above a church, Humboldt Park United Methodist, in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood during the first years of Ramirez’s life. Her parents agreed to rent the upstairs apartment at a reduced rate in exchange for janitorial services.
The church also provided a number of services for the local homeless population, most notably a food pantry and soup kitchen, where Ramirez spent much of her childhood.
“When I wasn’t in church, in the actual sanctuary, I was volunteering with my mom at the food pantry or at the soup kitchen,” Ramirez said. “So helping others and compassion —understanding that you don’t have to have a lot, you just have to have a giving heart and the willingness to serve— has been instilled in my DNA since the day I was born.”
Ramirez would live above the church till the age of seven and continued volunteering there even after her family could afford to move out.
“I remember being really, really young and my mom helping volunteer in the soup kitchen, and she’s making these big pots of pasta and soup to feed a hundred people—mostly men who were homeless,” she recalled. “My mom tells me that, instead of me wanting to be in the kitchen with her and helping her prepare or helping serve, I just wanted to sit with the people. I wanted to sit with these men, with these women, who had not been looked at, talked to, and really had someone who had ate with them in a long time. These were people who were chronically homeless. People saw them as charity and some as less than people. And (my mom) said, ‘You just wanted to sit and eat with them.’
“I guess I’ve always loved food,” Ramirez laughed, “but that experience for me was like, I just wanna be with them. I wanna know more about them. What happened that they’re now sleeping in the shelter? What happened that they don’t have a kitchen of their own or food of their own? And that curiosity, coupled with compassion, I think comes from both my parents, and they saw it displayed at a very young age.”
At the age of 17, while still a senior at Sabin Magnet School in nearby Wicker Park, she worked as the “mail lady” at the church, a role that encompassed much more than the title suggests.
“I managed mail for about 2,000 people who had no permanent mailing address,” Ramirez explained. “I would run from class, literally as quickly as I can. Think we got out of class at 3:05, so I would be there by like 4 p.m. in Logan Square. And I was distributing mail and managed the numbers of how many people we’re feeding and sheltering as part of the reporting that the agency needed.”
It was in her role as mail lady, Ramirez recalled, that her understanding of the plight of the homeless and her ability to help them began to expand.
“I was 17 and, you know, people would come in to pick up their mail, and they’d sit at the chair in the little office, and then, you would talk,” she said. “‘So you need help with work? Have you talked to the caseworker?’ These are the questions I’d have, and I’m a senior in high school—what do I know?
“‘We don’t have internet on the computer, but let me see at school if I can pull some job leads for you.’ I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Ramirez continued. “And then asking the caseworker, ‘Can I help you? Can you do a referral? ‘Cause I think they’re eligible for public benefits. I think they need food stamps.’ So, again, that sense of how do we do more and see the humanity beyond charity—those were the common themes in my life.”
Ramirez graduated from high school and became the case manager. “I became the position of the person I kept asking ‘Why can’t we do more?'” she explained. “And at 19, I became the program director.”
She enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), known in the city for breeding students with social consciousness. Though small, the school boasts a number of illustrious alumni, including former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), the first Latino member of Congress from the Midwest—Ramirez hopes to become the first Latina member of Congress from the region.
While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in justice studies, she was still working full-time as the program director for Humboldt Park Social Services, which by then had grown out of the smaller, faith-based program run by the church. Ramirez recalls sitting in class or studying on campus while coordinating with the group’s executive director.
“While I’m in class, I’m trying to figure out how to help the executive director with payroll,” she explained. “How are we expanding programming? Did the case manager do this? What happened to the front desk coordinator?”
Becoming a Community Leader
When the executive director stepped down in 2004, the board of directors asked Ramirez to become interim executive director while they found a replacement. Only 21 years old at the time, Ramirez remembers her trepidation.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll be your interim, as long as you find a permanent executive director. I’m not ready to do this,” she recalled.
After a few months in what was supposed to be a temporary position, during which time the board hired a firm and conducted an extensive search vetting multiple candidates, the board president called Ramirez to formally offer her the position as permanent executive director.
“They couldn’t find anyone else to do it for $25,000 a year,” she said. “It was an organization that was severely underfunded, was in the process of transitioning from a volunteer-based, faith-based agency to a professional organization and had just finished a strategic planning process that called the organization to do a 360-degree conversion—to move from charity to actual, tangible solutions to homelessness.
“And there I was at 21, and I said, ‘Uh, I can’t do this. I’m only 21,” she recalled.
But in the end, “coupled with the sense of conviction and responsibility for an organization my church had started,” Ramirez said yes to becoming the new executive director and ran the nonprofit for nine years—while finishing her studies at NEIU and taking on the role as president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
The first thing she did as executive director is open a community center on Armitage Avenue —initially named the Center for Working Families, later renamed the Center for Changing Lives— and expanded the organization beyond emergency services to provide job training and placement, housing assistance, and financial coaching.
“Feeding and sheltering people is critical—we must do it—but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Ramirez explained. “You have to address what are the root causes of homelessness.”
Ramirez stepped down as executive director for the Center for Changing Lives at the ripe old age of 30 and worked for a number of nonprofits. She became president of the Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), which advocates for permanent, quality, stable housing for Latinos in the Chicago area.
Around the same time, she was named deputy director of Community Renewal Society (CRS), which Ramirez describes as a “privately-funded nonprofit doing organizing and policy work to address racism.”
She also joined Common Cause Illinois, a pro-democracy group whose slogan is “holding power accountable. Ramirez’s work focused on campaign finance reform and voting rights, and she was soon named the deputy director there as well —“the first Latina in that position,” Ramirez noted.
Headed for Springfield
It was through her work with Common Cause that she first heard the call to run for public office.
The opportunity came in 2018 when State Rep. Cythia Soto, who had represented the district since 2001, announced her plans to step down.
“I’m asked, ‘Cythia Soto’s retiring—you need to run,'” Ramirez recalled. “No politician called me to say that—not one. A bunch of people in the community—people who I had met through Logan Square Neighborhood Association, LUCHA, (redevelopment organization) Bickerdike, people who had met through (community group) Blocks Together, through Center for Changing Lives, through Spanish Coalition, my neighbors, people I had helped shelter 15 years prior. And they just kept calling and saying, ‘You have to run.'”
Ramirez says she was reluctant in the beginning, happy with where she was at professionally, in control of a nonprofit organization with the power to effect policy changes.
Privately, she was also going through a divorce.
“I must’ve said no 50 times. And I said no because I felt like my community wants me to be a leader that’s gonna help transform from the inside, but I don’t wanna go into an inside that’s filled with rotten people. And that was really how I felt,” Ramirez said.
Then someone told her: “You gotta ask yourself where do you have the most power and authority to make the most difference now: as deputy director of CRS, or as a state legislator that understands the need because you’ve personally experienced it and your family continues to experience it, and understands how government works because you ran nonprofits, you’ve done policy work, you’ve actually led teams and organizing, and you are someone who will bring us with you to Springfield.'”
“It took me a while, and it was the scariest decision to make,” Ramirez recalled. “But honestly, Hector, it was the best decision I made. In three months as a state legislator, I did more for housing than I had done in 17 years in the field.”
Ramirez’s 2018 campaign for the Illinois House was backed by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) and his soon-to-be successor Jesús “Chuy” García, as well as a number of labor unions and progressive organizations including the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois AFL–CIO, SEIU Healthcare, United Working Families, and Our Revolution Illinois. She won the four-way Democratic primary with 48 percent of the vote and ran uncontested in the general election that November.
Ramirez, who just turned 39 on Thursday, has been representing her community in the Illinois House of Representatives ever since, where she is an assistant majority leader, a co-founder and the secretary of the Progressive Caucus, and vice-chair of the Housing Committee, a committee that didn’t exist when Ramirez first entered the statehouse but one whose creation she pressed the House speaker for since Day One.
In 2021, thanks to Ramirez’s efforts, Illinois became the first state in the nation to provide healthcare to all low-income seniors regardless of immigration status. In the same year, Ramirez introduced a bill, signed into law by Gov. J. B. Pritzker as the COVID-19 Emergency Housing Act, which established a set of protections for people struggling to pay their rents and mortgages during the pandemic.
She also helped pass a bill to create an elected school board in Chicago.
Ramirez credits her earlier work in the community for her success in the state capitol.
“The advocates working on housing in Springfield had been my partners and colleagues for decades,” Ramirez explained, quickly clarifying that it hasn’t quite been “decades” —“I’m not that old”— but that “it feels like it.”
“No one can negate my experience in running a shelter, running housing organizations, what gentrification looks like, what tenants are going through, and how to incentivize landlords to provide affordable housing. I quickly became the housing expert in Illinois,” she said. “My number-one focus is housing stability. Everyone does everything else, and I’m gonna support it —all these issues are critical— but housing has to become a priority.”
Ramirez believes there’s a need for more grassroots organizers—“in the statehouse, in the Senate, Congress, and in the White House.”
“You need people who understand the issue,” she explained, “and they bring people with them and organize people and organize money.”
First Latina Congresswoman from the Midwest?
Illinois’ newly formed 3rd congressional district is heavily Latino by design—“43 percent Latino,” according to Ramirez, who as a leader in the Illinois legislature helped create the district. Essentially, the district was shaped from the north half of Rep. García’s notorious U-shaped district that targeted the predominately Latino communities on Chicago’s Northwest and Southwest sides.
Due to general population loss during the last census, Illinois lost one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. “And we would’ve lost two districts if it weren’t for Latinos,” Ramirez insists. “(Latinos) had a 500,000 population growth.”
For decades, Illinois only had one “Latino-influenced” district: the 4th, created after the 1990 Census and represented by Gutiérrez and then García. With the formation of the 3rd district, Illinois now boasts two Latino districts.
Four Democratic candidates are competing for the open seat, with the primary election scheduled for June 28. Republican Justin Burau is running unopposed, but his chances of winning the heavily Democratic district are slim to none.
Perhaps the biggest name in the race —and therefore Ramirez’s main rival— is Ald. Gil Villegas, who in May won the endorsements of Gutiérrez and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, the highest-ranking Latino elected official in the state.
Villegas leads Ramirez in fundraising, having raised $781,979 to Ramirez’s $418,977 as of March 31, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
For her part, Ramirez has been endorsed by Reps. García and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the Progressive Caucus PAC, Emily’s List, Mijente, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the Working Families Party, among others.
Ramirez’s reasons for running for Congress now are similar to her reasons for running for the state legislature back in 2018.
“It was easy for me to stay in the (state) House, and maybe someone else will run. But I’ve never done the easy thing,” Ramirez said. “It’s not easy. My husband and I wanna have a baby—these are the sacrifices one makes, and this is not the luxury of seven, eight hours of call time. I come from the working class. I have a mother that makes minimum wage and on Medicaid—that’s how little she makes—and a father who’s going through depression and with no pension benefits.
“I come from the people, and it was anything but easy to say yes. But I understood that it’s so much bigger than me,” Ramirez added. “While my name’s on the ballot, all these people are running with me. And that’s what I’m seeing in the fundraisers, in the volunteers, in the people that froze their butts door-knocking to collect signatures to get me here—that they wanna see their champion and the person that’s going to take them to Congress.”