Publication Date

December 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The history of Chicago’s rise as a national railroad hub, industrial powerhouse, commodity center, and diverse, culturally vibrant global city is, unmistakably, Latino history. So are the city’s histories of labor exploitation, interethnic struggle, police violence, segregation, and economic and social inequality.

Chicago’s Latino communities formed as a result of international, national, and regional migrations not unlike the better-known Great Migration of African Americans during the early 20th century, if not in that scale then in terms of the harsh conditions that led Latinos to seek better lives there, and their lasting impact on the settlement of communities with deep roots in the city.

Latinos came directly to Chicago from Latin America and the Caribbean. They migrated to Chicago after stops in Texas, Florida, or New York. Or they went first from these places to farms and cities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana, eventually making their way to Chicago to pursue other, hopefully better opportunities. Many also returned from whence they came, transformed by their experiences in the city. Chicago thus became the heart of the Latino Midwest.

Latino experiences in Chicago have been chronicled by a range of authors, artists, performers, and scholars, perhaps most famously by Sandra Cisneros in novels such as The House on Mango Street and Caramelo. Carlos Eire, in Waiting for Snow in Havana, and Achy Obejas, in Days of Awe, wrote beautifully and movingly about Chicago’s Cuban American diaspora.

Scholars from the early 20th century forward have explored Chicago’s Latino communities. The University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield studied Mexicans in Chicago during the 1920s. The Berkeley economist Paul S. Taylor studied Chicago’s Mexican migrant communities during the 1930s. Puerto Rican Chicagoans became the subjects of Elena Padilla’s ethnographic work in the 1940s. The pace of scholarly production has quickened ever since. Recent groundbreaking works include Mexican Chicago, Performing Piety, The Near Northwest Side Story, Latino Crossings, and Working the Boundaries, with others about to appear.

Yet studies of Latino Chicago remain marginal to both Latino and Chicago history. Studies of the Southwest, Florida, and New York still dominate Latino history, and other so-called minority histories of early Native American communities, African Americans, and eastern Europeans have figured more prominently in histories of Chicago. But as Chicago’s Latino population continues to grow, and as historiographies become more transnational and comparative, we should, to paraphrase historian Vicki Ruiz, think of Latino history as Chicago history.

Today more Latinos live in Chicago than all U.S. cities besides Los Angeles and New York. Like most other places with large Latino populations, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans are a significant majority. Chicago, in fact, has been the leading destination for Mexicans outside of the Southwest. Major concentrations of Bolivians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Peruvians, and Salvadorans also live in the city, making it one of the most diverse Latino population centers in the United States.

Latinos have spread across the city and its suburbs, but they have concentrated in particular neighborhoods. Mexicans settled on the city’s south and west side, in Pilsen and Little Village. Puerto Ricans first lived on Chicago’s north side, in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Uptown. During the 1960s, the gentrification of those neighborhoods pushed them west to Humboldt Park. Ecuadorians settled on the north side as well, in Logan Square, Albany Park, and Lakeview. The most recent demographic trend among Chicagoland Latinos is the growth of suburban communities in Cicero, Naperville, and Schaumburg.

Latinos began to arrive in large numbers during the first decades of the 20th century. Spanish explorers reached the area during their explorations of the upper Midwest. No more than 50 had settled there by the mid-19th century. While a Mexican consulate opened in Chicago in 1884, the first wave of Latino migration coincided with Chicago’s rise as a national railroad hub and city of agriculture and industry. Later growth spurts occurred during the 1920s, and then from World War II forward. While university students, doctors, and engineers represent the class diversity of Latinos migrants, most have worked as wage laborers.

The growth of Latino communities paralleled the city’s rising labor demands. Mexicans during the early 20th century worked for railroad companies, factories, and farms surrounding the city. They worked at steel mills in South Chicago, and at meatpacking companies in Back of the Yards and on the Near West Side. Many replaced European immigrant workers, whose entrance into the United States was restricted as a result of World War I and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Since the late 19th century, Mexicans and other workers had fierce advocates like Lucy Parsons and Guadalupe Marshall to help organize and participate in labor actions from the Haymarket Riot in 1886 to the Republic Steel Mill strike in 1937.

After a decade of depression, World War II renewed the city’s need for workers. Mexicans arrived as participants in the Bracero Program, a wartime emergency labor agreement between the United States and Mexico initiated in 1942 and continuing until 1964—well after the war—because of ongoing demands for cheap labor. During the war years alone, more than 15,000 braceros worked in Chicago. Other Mexicans in the city were former braceros who left the guest worker program for better paying industrial jobs, which could be equally exploitative.

Puerto Ricans settled in Chicago during the World War II era as well, recruited by U.S. labor agents stationed in Puerto Rico. Men worked in factories, while many women worked as domestics. Many were overcharged for their airfare from Puerto Rico to Chicago, were too young to work, and worked in poor conditions. They nevertheless arrived in large numbers. In 1950, only 8,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the entire Midwest, but by 1960, 32,000 lived in Chicago alone.

When political tides crashed against Mexican workers—as during Operation Wetback in 1954 and 1955, which expelled millions of Mexicans from the country—Puerto Ricans became convenient solutions to labor shortages because they were U.S. citizens, a less convenient fact that made them harder to deport. Throughout their history in Chicago, Latinos have held a diverse array of jobs, working in factories, on railroads, and as domestics; in retail, hotel, and garment industries; and as proprietors of restaurants, travel agencies, and grocery stores.

If labor demands led to the growth of Chicago’s Latino communities, so did hemispheric experiences of civil war, colonialism, and Cold War detente. Chicago’s Mexican population grew during the 1920s as a result of Mexico’s Cristero Wars, which forced many religious leaders to flee the country. The colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico facilitated the importation of laborers from the island, and Colombians arrived during the late 1940s and 1950s as refugees from civil war. Cubans migrated in the years leading up to the 1959 Revolution; during the 1960s as participants in Operation Pedro Pan, which airlifted Cuban children to the United States; and in the 1980s and 1990s as balseros, or boat people who arrived on U.S. shores in rafts. Finally, during the 1970s and 1980s, Central Americans sought sanctuary in Chicago as refugees from countries torn apart by war.

Latinos in Chicago continued to engage the politics of their home countries even after their arrival. Mexicans during the 1930s organized a chapter of the leftist group, El Frente Popular Mexicano. Chicago’s Cuban diaspora formed an exile outpost against the Castro regime. During the Sanctuary Movement, Casa Guatemala formed to support Guatemalan refugees, while Centro Romero—named after the martyred bishop from El Salvador, Oscar Romero—offered aid to all Central Americans. Since the late 20th century, Mexicans have formed Hometown Associations as support networks for migrants from the same area as them, and as a formal means of pooling resources to send home to Mexico. Since 2006, Mexicans in Chicago have been able to vote in Mexican elections, leading candidates to campaign in the city.

But Latinos have been active forces in local politics as well, struggling against discrimination, violence, and inequality. They voiced their positions as members of several political and social organizations. Women formed Mujeres Latinas en Acción to deal with education, reproductive health, and family issues. Mexicans established the Mexican Civic Committee, Mexican American Council of Chicago, and Casa Aztlán, as well as local chapters of national organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Centro de Acción Social Autónoma. Puerto Ricans established ASPIRA Inc.; Ecuadorians organized the Ecuadorian Lions Club; and Colombians formed Colombianos Unidos Para Una Labor Activa. The Young Lords Party was dually founded in Chicago and New York. The Weather Underground and the SDS convention stand in for sixties activism in Chicago, while the histories of these Latino groups remain comparatively unknown.

These are only a few examples of Latino political engagement, demonstrating a long tradition of participation in Chicago’s civic society. Latino groups worked in areas including labor, immigration, health care, education, and segregation. Often they responded to particular episodes of discrimination and violence, including the deportation of Mexicans during the 1930s and the 1966 Division Street Riots, which protested the shooting by police of a young Puerto Rican man. Later efforts to end police brutality led to Chicago’s first Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1978.

Beginning during the late 1970s, Latinos more actively engaged Chicago’s electoral politics. Irene Hernández became the first Latino elected to office in 1974, when she became the Cook County Commissioner. Latinos also played an important role in multiracial coalition building during Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign, and then Latinos like Rudy Lozano held posts in his administration. Miguel del Valle became the first Latino Illinois State Senator in 1987, and the first Latino City Clerk in 2007. Today, U.S. Senator Luis Gutiérrez is a fierce advocate for Latinos in Illinois and across the United States, both legal and undocumented.

Latinos also have helped to make Chicago one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the United States. The National Museum of Mexican Art, established in 1987, is one of the best Mexican and Mexican American art museums in the United States. The streets of Pilsen, Little Village, and Humboldt Park are filled with Latino-owned shops, restaurants, and churches. Beautiful murals adorn the walls of homes and businesses in these neighborhoods. The women of Teatro Luna write and perform explorations of Latina identity and history. Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, and Día de los Muertos. Every July Colombians celebrate Colombia’s Independence Day, and in August, Ecuadorians celebrate Ecuadorian Week.

Even as Latinos become increasingly integrated into the fabric of life in Chicago, realities of poverty, police brutality, poor living conditions, and educational disparities continue to shape their experiences. But we’re living in a period of great change, and hopefully the result will be greater justice and equality.

Chicago demographics are shifting rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the Latino population of Illinois doubled; Latino communities grew faster, in fact, than all others combined. Voter turnout among Latinos has surged; Chicago’s May Day rallies inspired hundreds of thousands across the nation to march in support of immigrant rights; Elvira Arellano’s refuge in the United Methodist Church made Chicago the center of a New Sanctuary Movement; Latinos struck in 2008 to demand their fair treatment by Republic Windows and Doors; and in part because of Latino political pressure, Illinois became the first state to pass a DREAM Act that grants undocumented immigrants government-funded college scholarships. Latinos, therefore, certainly will continue to shape Chicago’s present and future, just as they have its past.

Geraldo L. Cadava, Northwestern University, is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee. Originally from Tucson, he teaches borderlands and Latino history. Harvard University Press will publish his book about post-WWII Arizona and Sonora, titled The Heat of Exchange.