Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month was September 15-October 15. To celebrate, the CAC interviewed architects who are making an impact in Chicago, in the profession and in their community.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Linda Chavez moved to Chicago planning to stay only a few years but fell in love with the city and its architecture. She received her Master’s in Project Management from Northwestern University before starting at JGMA as it was launched. After a few years, she moved to Gensler in the education practice area, where she worked on projects she was passionate about like designing community centers. Linda recently spoke with CAC Director of Education and Experience Angela Esposito about the transition to US life, working as a woman in the field, and obstacles she has faced in her journey.
Tell me a little bit about you.
I’m Mexican born, born and raised in Guadalajara. I grew up there with my family – I’m the fourth of four siblings. I grew up in a house with a single mom, and I was always very interested in art and music. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an architect until I was very close to applying to school. But now I am an architect. I love my profession! I wouldn’t want to be anything else. I’m super passionate about it—just going to look at buildings. I’m married to an architect too, so the two of us go on road trips just looking for architecture everywhere, and in all of the unexpected places. We’re super into the details, and we look into the weird, quirky stuff—everyone always looks at us like we’re crazy!
I moved to Chicago a couple of years after graduation. My husband moved here first, so I joined him. At first, we were only going to stay for a couple of years but then we started to love the city. Obviously, we love the architecture of the city and the possibilities that it brought us. Now, we’ve been living here for 15 or 20 years.
During the 2008 recession, there was not a lot of work for architects, and especially not for an immigrant with no network of any sort. So, I decided to get my masters during this time. I went to Northwestern, did my Master’s in Project Management, was there for a year and then met Juan [Gabriel Moreno, president of Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects] through a friend of ours, and then I started working with him. He started the firm in August 2010 and then I joined at the beginning of October 2010. That was right when I realized that I am not just an architect, but I love to do education with community-based organizations.
So, I was with Juan’s firm for a couple of years and then because I can’t stay put in one place for a long time, I went to Gensler, where I joined the education practice area. I worked with them for seven years, and it was an awesome experience. I think one of the proudest buildings I’ve done is the Columbia College student center. There, I was the project architect. We finished that building in 2019, so I was with that building for three years. I called it my baby! Obviously, it’s not just me who worked on it though. It’s a gigantic team of people doing all types of things.
Where did you go to undergrad?
I went to undergrad in my hometown of Guadalajara.
So what made you and your husband want to come to the US to practice?
The transition was really hard, no doubt about it. We always wanted to travel, and his brother was living here, so he came here for a year, and I visited a few times. Everything is beautiful here. Guadalajara is a beautiful city with great weather and architecture, but we always wanted to see what’s happening elsewhere.
The start was hard, with immigration papers, but also how do you network? I found a job in the newspaper doing shop drawings for a steel fabricator. I was drawing with them for a year and a half, and that’s where I met some of their residential architects, and that’s how I learned. I’ve been lucky to cross paths with so many wonderful people who have opened doors for me.
You’ve mentioned that one of your passions is education, building community centers and working on projects that mean something to you.
Yea, so I worked on the Institute of Health and Sciences – it has all these colors inside—which was a fun project to do. Then I worked on the Acero Schools. And then NEIU El Centro.
Being a female and Latino, I’ve been criticized for my accent more than once, and I’ve been pulled out of projects for that. It’s hard, and we have to acknowledge this issue and say more about it. We know the statistics about how much women make compared to men, but the lowest paid demographic is the Latino woman, and we only make like 63 cents for every dollar a white man makes.
It's actually 54 cents.
See, it’s unbelievable. And if you ask me, I can totally say that it’s true. It might not have happened where it’s 54 cents to the dollar, but it’s probably happened where it’s something like 77 cents. It’s just the facts. How do we put a spotlight on this? How do we get more Latino women licensed? Because I’m not even a licensed architect, since my bachelor's degree is from Mexico. I tried to bring my education to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards [NCARB]. Remember, I have a bachelor's degree that took 5 years, I have a masters and those credits were not enough for NCARB to say that my education can be accredited. I’m still missing English, and one other credit, which would take me a year in school and $10,000 to do it. So I’m doing it through experience, but then I have to get all the paperwork transferred from Mexico—it’s just a bunch of obstacles.
And it seems like unnecessary obstacles
Yea, and I’ve been in my profession for like 15 years at this point. So how come it’s still this hard?
It’s interesting when you look at the statistics, because in colleges and universities, the Latinx community is one of the fastest growing demographics in the field of architecture. And I see it for myself in the Girls Build! program we run here at the CAC. We obviously don’t screen applicants, it’s first come first serve, but traditionally at least a third of the class ends up being Latina, because those are the girls that are reaching for the opportunities right now. And I think that people like you have kicked the door open for the next generation of Latina architects.
And there is so much to still do! How do you balance these inequalities? I was having this conversation with my nephew, who is 25 and works in software development, and he said that he doesn’t see this. But that’s because he’s a man. These biases are very subtle, and you won’t notice them until you’re made aware of them.
The hoops that you’re jumping through to get your education accredited here, most people would have just thrown up their hands and given up, had there not been one of the opportunities you had. But you don’t hear those stories. You hear the success stories, but you don’t hear about the struggles.
Exactly. It’s definitely a struggle. People don’t talk about crying in the bathroom because you didn’t get the offer that you wanted, or even that you didn’t get the salary that you asked for. Or even that you got denied your request to work from home when you’re a new mom and you’re just trying to be with your baby for a few extra hours. Being a mom in this industry is its own challenge.
But I think in my generation, women are getting into positions of power, and they’re able to push the boundaries and normalizing motherhood. We owe it to the next generation of moms in this industry. Women shouldn’t face setbacks because they decided to be a mom.