Chicago’s new elementary school – the Dr. Jorge
Prieto Math and Science Academy – pays tribute to a long-time Evanston resident and a pioneer in family
medicine. Last month at the northwest-side school, Mayor Daley joined in ribbon-cutting ceremonies with Luz Prieto, the widow of Dr. Jorge Prieto (1918-2001), and seven of their nine children.
The Prieto Academy is at 2231 N. Central Ave. in Belmont Cragin, a largely Latino neighborhood – a fitting memorial to the late Dr. Prieto, a Mexican-American who lived in the United States for more than 60 years and spent his entire professional career helping immigrants.
Although Dr. Prieto practiced medicine primarily in Chicago, Spanish-speaking residents at home in Evanston also sought his care and could often be seen lined up outside his door.
The Prietos moved to Evanston in 1956 and stayed close to 30 years. In the 1960s Dr. and Mrs. Prieto marched for open housing in Evanston, usually with the whole family in tow. They were among the co-founders of the Evanston Latino Association. They backed the United Farm Workers Midwest grape boycott after Dr. Prieto went to California to march in support of the UFW grape pickers, mostly migrant workers seeking a contract with growers.
His son Jorge recalled “the time Cesar Chavez stayed at our house.” But it was the many visiting farm workers that Mrs. Prieto remembered. “For weeks the farm workers ran the North Shore grape boycott from our house
on Asbury,” she said. “Their office was my kitchen table.
And every weekend we’d go out with the kids to picket stores.” Around that time, Dr. Prieto also co-founded the Illinois Migrant Council to help migrant workers obtain health care.
The Prietos first lived on Seward Street, where Dr. Prieto played football with his kids in the vacant lot behind their house. That is, he did “until we broke his ribs,” said his son. Then the family moved to 1242 Asbury Ave. From there the children – Luz Maria, Jorge, Carmen, Dr. Francisco, Tony, Carlos, Miguel, Margarita, Lupe – began fanning out on their own life paths. Two sons followed in their dad’s footsteps: Jorge Jr., an orthopedic surgeon in Evanston, and Francisco, a family practice doctor in California.
Dr. Prieto’s own father had been a well-known congressman and governor in Mexico, very different from the medical career he began with his new bride in 1949, serving tiny, isolated towns in Mexico. Only a year later he moved to Chicago to serve Mexican immigrants here, starting with an internship at Columbus Hospital. By 1952 he had opened his own practice in a former convent, a run-down building across from St. Francis of Assissi Church at Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street. St. Francis had been a Spanish-speaking church since the 1920s, and its impoverished Maxwell Street neighborhood had more than enough immigrants to occupy Dr. Prieto, who became famous not only for his skill and compassion but also for his long hours and willingness to make house calls.
House calls were unpopular among most doctors at that time, but Dr. Prieto explained in his autobiography that even though they require more time than office appointments, “they will always be one of the best, most effective ways of establishing the trust relationship so necessary between us and our patients. They are also probably the best way to understand, not just the disease, but the person suffering with the illness. They teach us how our patients live and how their families react to illness, to health, to death and the threat of death.”
Dr. Prieto carried this personal philosophy into his next jobs: in 1970 as Cabrini Hospital’s director of community medicine and in 1974 as Cook County Hospital’s chairman of the family practice department, a post he accepted only on the condition that he could train his medical students out in the neighborhoods. By the time he left County in 1985, he had established three clinics in poor black and Latino communities. One of those clinics, at 2424 Pulaski in Little Village, is now called the Dr. Jorge Prieto Family Health Center.
The clinics were hugely popular with County trainees and patients. One patient put it this way: “The first thing Dr. Prieto asks you is, ‘Where does it hurt?’ – not, ‘How are you going to pay?’”
The trainees carried Dr. Prieto’s work far beyond Chicago. Dr. Patrick Dowling, who trained at County with Dr. Prieto and now works in Los Angeles as head of family medicine at UCLA Medical School, has said, “Dr. Prieto inspired and trained a generation of family physicians to work in underserved communities all over this country, Africa and Latin America.”
In 1985, Dr. Prieto was appointed president of the Chicago Board of Health. He held this post until 1987 and continued to preach the value of continuity of care, meaningful connections between Chicago doctors and their communities and the importance of bringing health care to underserved areas.
When Dr. Prieto retired, he wrote two memoirs:
• “Harvest of Hope: the Pilgrimage of a Mexican-American Physician” (1989) tells how his father, a leader in the Mexican revolution, was exiled to the U.S. 1923-33, sending the future Dr. Prieto to live in Texas and Los Angeles, where he saw firsthand what he considered the deplorable conditions endured by migrant workers. The book traces how this concern became his life work.
• “The Quarterback Who Almost Wasn’t” (1994) tells how the 15-year-old Jorge Prieto, now back in Mexico, contracted rheumatic fever but refused to let his damaged heart keep him from playing football, a game he learned to love in L.A. He eventually became a star quarterback in high school and college, winning what his wife described as the Mexican Heisman trophy.
By the end of his career, Dr. Prieto had rubbed elbows with movers and shakers across the country, from Cesar Chavez to the president of Notre Dame, from Mayor Harold Washington to President Clinton. He was a consultant to Catholic bishops and U.S. senators. He was awarded four honorary doctorates, including one from Notre Dame.
Numerous honors came his way but, at heart, his family says, he was still an unpretentious man, a family man, a doctor who believed in family medicine and a former athlete who loved his football. No doubt he would relish the idea that the new Prieto Academy shares a parking lot with nearby Hanson Park Stadium, where many a high school football game has thrilled the community.