The Past and Future of Mexican Chicago

The Past and Future of Mexican Chicago

In the Windy City

The making of Mexican Chicago.


Located in Chicago’s historic Pilsen neighborhood, 1831 South Racine Avenue is currently the site of a luxury shared-living complex. Advertised as having “eliminated things that make city living a challenge,” Pilsen Coliving offers its tenants private beds and bathrooms inside a completely furnished suite that they share with others. Outfitted with hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, washers and dryers, subway-tiled bathrooms, and sterile white walls, the units are cleaned every week, and basic household items are resupplied whenever they’re needed. Residents are pampered with a lavish list of amenities: The complex contains a fitness center, a theater room, a picnic patio, and a lounge area. Even though this means the residents hardly need to leave the building, they can also, if they’re feeling adventurous enough, explore a “culturally diverse neighborhood with a booming art scene, authentic fare, and exciting nightlife.”

The structure at 1831 South Racine was built in 1905 by the Women’s Presbyterian Society for Home Missions. It was christened the Howell Neighborhood House and provided services to recent European immigrants. In 1970, community activists replaced and renamed it Casa Aztlán, and it was soon a space for activists to build coalitions, rally against police brutality, organize against the criminalization of immigrants, and provide essential services to the Pilsen community. Casa Aztlán’s exterior became a canvas for muralists who created radiant pieces of art. Incorporating a dazzling array of colors and concepts, the murals that covered the outside walls were influenced by Aztec symbolism, revolutionary figures, and the militant spirit that was alive throughout the city and country. For the 40-plus years of its existence, Casa Aztlán was arguably the cultural and political capital of Mexican Chicago. The story of how a place like 1831 South Racine went from being the Howell House to Casa Aztlán to Pilsen Coliving is the focus of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification, a new book by Georgetown University historian Mike Amezcua.

Taking his readers on a walking tour of Pilsen, as well as Little Village, the Near West Side, and Back of the Yards, Amezcua chronicles how these neighborhoods, in the aftermath of World War II, became the nucleus of Chicago’s emergence as a Mexican metropolis. Whereas other important works on Latinx Chicago, such as Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas’s Latino Crossings and Lilia Fernández’s Brown in the Windy City, examine Mexicans and Puerto Ricans alongside one another, Amezcua is interested in situating the “Mexican experience” and “its everyday contests over neighborhoods, segregation, and the white defense of property rights” in a broader multiracial and multiethnic narrative. Ultimately, he provides critical insights into how Mexicans and Mexican Americans fought for inclusion—residentially, politically, economically, and culturally—in the Windy City.

In Making Mexican Chicago, Amezcua sets out to accomplish two things. First, he wants to retell the story of how Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans helped transform communities throughout Chicago. As he shows, the Mexicanization of neighborhoods like the Near West Side and Little Village was not the result of natural processes; it was the product of residential segregation, postwar immigration, and urban renewal. But it was also driven by individuals like Anita Villarreal, a real estate agent and political broker who makes an appearance in nearly every chapter of the book, as well as groups like the Mexican American Democratic Organization and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council. Where white Chicagoans saw postwar deindustrialization, capital flight, and dwindling property values, Mexican Americans saw an opportunity to turn housing vacancies and unstable neighborhoods into stable Mexican colonias during the 1960s and ’70s. By focusing on how Mexicans created their neighborhoods and, as a result, remade the city as a whole, Amezcua offers not only a tale of residential segregation but a look at how that segregation was opposed through coalition building, increased political influence, and barrio capitalism. Whether it was frustration with the federal programs of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s Democratic political machine, many Mexicans in the city began to express disillusionment with the liberal political order. For some, this led them to the militant activism of the Chicano movement. But for others, it resulted in championing small-business capitalism, homeownership, and a bootstrap mentality.

Amezcua’s second objective in Making Mexican Chicago, and perhaps the more ambitious one, is to offer a longue durée account of the xenophobic and anti-Latinx sentiments that came to the fore during Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Moving block by block through communities with rapidly changing demographics, Amezcua demonstrates that between the 1940s and the 1960s, “white ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods became incubators of anti-immigration and anti-Latino sensibilities.” Offering a portrait of the attitudes of residents, neighborhood associations, precinct captains, and aldermen, Amezcua makes it clear how reactionary politics materialized in cities long before it burst onto the scene as a national politics.

Amezcua’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood account of the Mexicanization of Chicago begins in the Near West Side. Here we see how the processes of demolition and deportation united to dispossess Mexicans of their hard-earned victories in the city. Although the impacts of liberal New Deal and postwar housing policies were most harmful to Black communities, their segregationist implications also divided formerly multiethnic and multiracial neighborhoods. The Near West Side was one of them. During World War II, slum clearance and urban renewal emerged as a lucrative avenue for private and public profit. Together, City Hall politicians and downtown businessmen engineered novel arrangements for “exploiting public policy to revitalize areas for private profit and to redirect the increasing flow of capital that was streaming out to the suburbs in the postwar years.” The product of this partnership was state legislation like the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act and the Relocation Act of 1947 and the Urban Community Conservation Act of 1953. These laws led to the creation of governmental bodies like the Chicago Land Clearance Commission (CLCC), which had the power to appropriate private property through eminent domain, demolish the buildings, and sell the land to private developers—all while circumventing federal antidiscrimination policies.

By 1956, Amezcua tells us, the CLCC had slated the Mexican Near West Side for demolition to make way for the Harrison-Halsted project. In 1959, with the project now in progress, it remained unclear to residents and small-business owners what the bulldozed areas of the Near West Side would eventually become. Creating more confusion was the fact that City Hall continued to deny bids from private developers seeking to build new residential and commercial properties in the area. In September 1960, the reason for this became clear: Mayor Daley had offered the Harrison-Halsted site to the University of Illinois for its Chicago Circle campus. Rezoning this area for a public university allowed the city to take advantage of millions in federal dollars appropriated for urban renewal projects, and it sent a powerful message to downtown businessmen that the city was intent on “revitalizing” the Loop district and its environs. From 1959 to 1964, eminent domain displaced nearly 5,000 Mexicans in the area.

The history that Amezcua tells in Making Mexican Chicago is both inspiring and agonizing. The story of Refugio Martinez is one example: After emigrating from Tamaulipas, Mexico, to Chicago in the 1920s, Martinez witnessed the horrors of Mexican repatriation during the Great Depression, when local and federal agencies scapegoated ethnic Mexicans, regardless of their citizenship status, for the country’s suffering economy. The result was the removal of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many of whom were US citizens. During this period, Martinez joined leftist circles in the city and began organizing to counteract some of the most severe consequences of the Depression. Eventually, he helped form a chapter of El Frente Popular Mexicano, an anticapitalist and antifascist Mexican organization, and he became a founding member of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee. Martinez and other Mexican Near West Siders presaged the ethos of militant labor organizing and radical thought that would become central to the later Chicano movement. They also ended up the targets of harassment by police and immigration officials for nearly two decades. From the beginning of his interactions with law enforcement, Martinez found that his immigration status as a noncitizen was wielded against him. In 1941, he received his first warrant for arrest and deportation. By 1947, his supporters had created a national defense committee and rallied against the unrelenting harassment and persecution he was being subjected to. In 1951, after Martinez was tried for violating several laws, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials arrested him and began deportation proceedings. Although he challenged the deportation case, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, the ruling for his deportation was upheld. Martinez died from a stroke in May 1953 as he was on a train headed back to Mexico.

While the INS’s pursuit of Martinez ended in his deportation and death, the agency’s harassment of him was only the beginning of what would become an even larger government offensive against Mexican communities. Operation Wetback, sanctioned by President Dwight Eisenhower and Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and led by INS commissioner Joseph Swing, began in June 1954 as a militaristic mass-deportation drive that sought to detain and expel those who’d entered the country without legal authorization or a labor contract. In Chicago, the federal and local agents of Operation Wetback started their work on September 16, 1954—Mexican Independence Day. “On this day of jubilant celebration,” Amezcua writes, “when people were more likely to be outside of their homes, agents began rounding up busloads of people, detaining them in Cook County Jail, and deporting them two days later.” In addition to the INS’s mobilization of agents from around the country to carry out its Chicago campaign, Operation Wetback also required improvised detention facilities and transportation for the deportations. Amezcua details how postwar deindustrialization served as a backdrop for the operation, with the INS repurposing out-of-use manufacturing warehouses and industrial facilities, like the city’s Studebaker Corporation Plant, for the detention and eventual deportation of unsanctioned Mexican immigrants. Together, the twin forces of deportation and urban demolition dispossessed Mexican Near West Siders of their families, homes, jobs, community organizations, and, in the end, their dignity.

From Halsted Street and the Near West Side, Amezcua moves to Ashland Avenue and the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Known for its slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants and made famous by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, by the mid-1950s Back of the Yards was at a turning point. As the decentralization of the meatpacking industry set in, Back of the Yards residents, community leaders, politicians, and real estate agents sought to preserve and restore the neighborhood’s importance to Chicago, but each had their own understanding of what was worth preserving or restoring. Destiny Manor, a suburbanized residential subdivision, exemplified the conflicts over the neighborhood. Destiny Manor was presented as an example of the promise of local conservation projects and self-help resilience, but its real aim was to preserve a white neighborhood and keep Black home seekers out. It is in his discussion of Back of the Yards that Amezcua makes most visible how Mexicans were situated between white and Black Chicagoans. By strategically using Mexicans as a buffer, white property interests applied segregationist tactics that “reinforced the color line by Browning it with Mexican enclaves, creating a solid zone that separated white Back of the Yards from Black Bronzeville.” Their goals were clear: limit Mexican settlement while maintaining the outright exclusion of African Americans.

Saul Alinsky is an important figure in Back of the Yard’s trajectory. Readers may be more familiar with Alinsky’s contributions to the Community Service Organization and its role in training Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Yet before that, he cofounded the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in 1939, which sought to promote local social democracy and cultural pluralism. Amezcua is fair in his assessment of Alinsky and his BYNC cofounder, Joseph Meegan, along with the shortcomings of the group. Since Mexicans in “Las Yardas” already occupied the areas immediately around the stockyards, real estate agents and community leaders encouraged them to purchase homes within those boundaries. As they tended to be in the most dilapidated part of the neighborhood, those properties were also the most likely to be condemned and razed by city or community officials to attract new industries. In the 1950s, the BYNC backed a rezoning of the Mexican Back of the Yards that would eventually become part of the 1957 Chicago Zoning Ordinance, which stipulated that new construction in Las Yardas would be limited to manufacturing plants or wholesale retail. Amezcua sums it up: “Making Las Yardas smaller through rezoning was…intended to squeeze out undesirable elements and bring in new industries and businesses that other parts of the district did not want, all through Latino dispossession.”

By the mid-1960s, the battles over integration and open occupancy had transformed Chicago into a center of political turmoil. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched their 1965 nonviolent crusade to achieve fair and open housing in Chicago. With the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War, and mere months after King’s assassination, violence erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention when protesters encountered wholesale force at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. But more subtle transformations—both acts of resistance and of reaction—were at work as well. New Mexican neighborhoods emerged in other parts of the city as a result of the displacement of Mexicans from areas like the Near West Side and Back of the Yards, and white suburbanization created ample vacancies too. The confluence of these less perceptible changes was how South Lawndale was rebranded as “Little Village,” and eventually became “La Villita.”

Amezcua analyzes the structural elements that shaped these developments in the postwar central city, but he is also carefully attuned to the actions of individuals. If people are at the heart of Making Mexican Chicago, then there is no single person more responsible for the changes to La Villita, and possibly even to Mexican Chicago, than Anita Villarreal. Born in Kansas, Villarreal came of age during the Great Depression and was a committed New Dealer who believed in the value of urban democracy, the rights of immigrants and workers, and the necessity of fair access to housing, which led her to community organizing in the 1930s. While there are plenty of examples of Villarreal’s commitment to immigrant workers’ rights, a particularly salient one was her assuming guardianship over the daughters of Refugio Martinez following his arrest, deportation, and death. Not only were Martinez and Villarreal friends, but they shared the experience of being targeted by Cold War–era immigration enforcement. In Villarreal’s case, she was hit with a federal indictment in 1957 for producing fraudulent documents and falsifying information on behalf of immigrants. Emerging from this ordeal as a critic of state interference in people’s lives and with a renewed commitment to expanding residential access for Mexicans, Villarreal stepped away from her earlier battles against urban renewal and city planning and turned to entrepreneurship, homeownership, and machine politics.

Villarreal relocated her real estate business, Agencia Villarreal, to South Lawndale, far ahead of La Villita’s ascent as the Mexican commercial capital of the Midwest. With a real estate license in hand, she went house to house, storefront to storefront, and block by block in her efforts to expand the Mexican residential and commercial presence in Little Village. Needless to say, she also made a small fortune for herself and her family. Villarreal sold her potential clients on achieving the American dream of single-family homeownership, while also emphasizing the opportunities for small businesses that could cater to the swelling Mexican and Mexican American presence in the neighborhood and the region. From supermercados and taquerias to tiendas de vestir, Little Village became a one-stop shop for Mexican consumers.

Villarreal’s methods for transforming this neighborhood were controversial, particularly as she was accused of being a “blockbuster”: someone who peddled fear to white families in order to fuel their desire to sell their houses and flee to the suburbs. Meanwhile, her role in shaping La Villita’s economic and civic affairs made her a precious ally to Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party. As Amezcua notes, it would be wrong to assume that the segregated neighborhoods, exclusion from white financial institutions, limited political representation, and urban uprisings of the 1960s would naturally push Mexicans to the left. The political leanings of Mexicans in postwar Chicago were infinitely more complex than that. Many did gravitate toward the Chicano movement and a militant protest politics that fundamentally challenged the city’s institutions, but others in La Villita turned toward what Amezcua calls a “bungalow conservatism” that favored small-merchant capitalism, further investment in private property, and party machine loyalty.

If Little Village became home to a Mexican conservative colonia, Pilsen’s identity revolved around cultural production and leftist politics. “The Chicano Power movement,” Amezcua writes, “manifested into a cultural and artistic renaissance that intersected with the politics of placemaking.” Over a nearly 10-year period that began in 1968, this renaissance was made visible through vibrant political murals like Metafísica, Hay Cultura en Nuestra Comunidad, Racismo por KKK, Che, and América ‘77. These visual changes to Pilsen’s built environment went hand in hand with the liberation of community spaces and the proliferation of political organizations. Mexicans and Chicanos transformed Howell House into Casa Aztlán and St. Joseph’s into El Centro de la Causa. Brown Berets stood guard at Casa Aztlán; members of the Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA) organized around the issues of INS hypersurveillance and deportation roundups; and the Latin American Alliance for Social Progress (ALAS) reclaimed the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.

Even though these developments of the 1960s and ’70s resulted in a beautified landscape, an increasingly politicized community, and a newfound sense of belonging, the threat of displacement was never far away. City planners and politicians never abandoned the impetus to remake the city around a central business district that could bring back white taxpayers and freeze suburban flight. Proposals like the 1973 Chicago 21 plan sought to build a “Super Loop” that would cut through Pilsen in order to create an expanded downtown that would offer luxury condos, shopping, and recreation. Much as in the earlier efforts to “revitalize” the city, Latinx and African American residents were the most vulnerable groups and were excluded from the discussions.

One theme that emerges in Amezcua’s book is how the different factions of Mexican Chicago—from the machine politicians in La Villita to the radicals in Pilsen—shared a political vocabulary and similar institutional critiques, even if each had a different vision for the city. While the Coalition to Stop the Plan 21 launched direct-action protests, it also utilized the skills of activist “barrio planners” who were trained by community organizers and scholars of redlining, urban planning, and urban politics. These collaborations resulted in the 1976 Pilsen Neighborhood Plan, which incorporated the perspectives of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants and offered an analysis of the impacts of further encroachment by developers into the neighborhood. But this was not the only technique used to challenge decades of disenfranchisement. Individuals like Charlie Gómez were also disillusioned with the Democratic machine’s control of resources, the scarcity of Latinx appointments in City Hall, and the continued denial of loans to barrio residents and business owners. Gómez and other pro-business Latinx Republicans appropriated the vocabulary of “self-determination, Brown Power, and Brown Capitalism” to influence the future direction of Pilsen. “In their view, the barrio’s renaissance would happen through Latino business power,” Amezcua writes. The story he tells is not one of innate political solidarity among Mexicans in Chicago. Yet it does show that as the specter of displacement threatened Latinx communities across the city, groups with competing agendas for how best to challenge it ended up having a lot more in common than they might have otherwise thought.

In Amezcua’s telling, the making and unmaking of Mexican Chicago has always happened simultaneously. Ever since the first arrival of Mexican and Latin American immigrants in Chicago, Latinx communities have created and are continuing to create new neighborhoods and cultural centers. But they also do so, Amezcua notes, as a response to “federal and municipal disinvestment, economic restructuring, the immigration carceral state, political disenfranchisement, and predatory corporate reinvestment.” While Making Mexican Chicago captures the history of neighborhoods like La Villita and Las Yardas, it also offers critical insights about the making and unmaking of Latinx communities in other cities, from Boyle Heights to Brooklyn.

As urban renewal has turned into gentrification, the struggle for Mexican Chicago continues today. The radio station WBEZ recently reported that between 2011 and 2020, Chicago’s 60608 zip code, which includes Pilsen and parts of neighboring Bridgeport and McKinley Park, witnessed its median household income rise over 43 percent, the largest increase in the entire city. The area’s ballooning median household income, which went from $39,976 to $57,183 during this 10-year period, coincided with a 17 percent decrease in its Latinx population and a 28 percent increase in its white population. Storefronts that once housed panaderías or carnicerías now serve the pour-over coffee and overpriced cocktails favored by the creative class. But Mexican Chicagoans are still determined to maintain their presence in neighborhoods like Pilsen. Just as Casa Aztlán’s murals in the 1970s became symbolic of self-determination, cultural pride, and Midwestern placemaking, Pilsen Coliving’s physical whitewashing of those murals represents displacement and gentrification. Yet even in the face of the rapid transformations occurring in Pilsen, murals like Hector Duarte and Gabriel Villa’s recently completed Fight to Stay continue to be created. Emblazoned across the Pilsen Cooperative Housing building (not to be confused with Pilsen Coliving), this mural reflects the efforts of community members to combat gentrification and resist the encroachment of wealthy developers, and it reemphasizes the rootedness of Pilsen’s Mexican community. Despite the threat that gentrification poses to the presence of Mexicans in the central city, works like Fight to Stay are reminders of the lengths that activists and community members have gone to make, preserve, and remake Mexican Chicago. If Fight to Stay is any indication, then perhaps revolt can once again lead to renaissance.

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