La Villita: “The Mexican Capital of the Midwest”

Juan Mora-Torres Publicado 2016-04-04 07:45:08

Part I/III


Community and business boosters have proudly designated Little Village as the “Mexican capital of the Midwest.” They declaratively note that with over 1,000 businesses, 26th Street is the largest commercial source of tax revenue in Chicago after the posh Magnificent Mile. Indeed one cannot help but be impressed with Little Village’s commercial activity. It is hard to find a Latino business district in the U.S. that can match Little Village’s commercial vibrancy and rich street life. Furthermore, it has the largest Mexican population of any barrio outside of the Southwest and is the host of Chicago’s Mexican Independence Day parade, the largest Latino parade in the Midwest. (In this case, no important politician in Chicago dares to miss walking in the parade, especially during election season).

Unlike adjacent Mexican Pilsen, which emphasizes political activism and artistic production at the center of its unfolding neighborhood narrative, the prevailing narrative of Little Village places the business community at the center. In short, the comerciantes have been the anchor of the Mexicanization of Little Village. This narrative closely follows the “immigrant success” story of this country. Accordingly, these individuals left their respective homelands in search of upward mobility and a better life. Driven by hard work and a strong desire to succeed, they picked themselves from their bootstraps and built hundreds of thriving businesses. In doing so, these small Mexican businesses generated millions of dollars in tax revenue for Chicago, created thousands of jobs, improved the quality of life in Little Village, and became civic leaders. A growing list of economic sociological studies on ethnic entrepreneurship in Little Village have endorsed the immigrant success story.

Other sociological studies have boosted this narrative in a less direct way. They do so in using Little Village as either a reference point or contrast to North Lawndale, an African American community that has been the object of various sociological studies on the making of “ghettos.” Separated today by the “Pink Line,” the elevated train, both communities shared many commonalities as of 1950. After that they parted ways. Before their parting, both communities had vibrant commercial districts, a stable mixture of white ethnic working and middle class residents, and a high percentage of home ownership. Many residents were employed in neighborhood enterprises such as International Harvester (located on Western and Blue Islands), Sears, Western Electric (43,000 employees), Sunbeam and Zenith. After 1950, these enterprises closed their doors at a time when these neighborhoods were undergoing rapid demographic changes. North Lawndale went from being an overwhelmingly white ethnic community to African American in the 1950s. At a slower pace, Little Village, formerly known as South Lawndale, became predominantly Mexican from 1960 to 1980.

These studies seek to explain how Little Village became a “success” and North Lawndale a “tragedy” after the deindustrialization of both neighborhoods. Business activity is used as a measurement in these diverging trajectories. Compared to the beehive of commercial activity and increasing population in Little Village, North Lawndale not only lost thousands of residents and 75% of the business establishments during the 1960s. By the 1980s the commercial activity in North Lawndale had been reduced to “48 state lottery agents, 50 currency exchanges, and 99 licenced bars and liquor stores, but only one and bank and supermarket for a population of some 50,000.” In comparing the “prosperity” of Mexican Little Village and the “decline” of African American North Lawndale, sociologists offered various interpretations, from higher degrees of racial segregation and ghettoization to the social composition and organization of its residents. In these explanations, Little Village’s business community receives a considerable amount of credit for preventing their neighborhood from heading in the path of its northern neighbor.

So far, no other competitive account has challenged the dominance of Little Village’s business narrative. With that as the case, the history of how Little Village became the “Mexican capital of the Midwest” is far from being told. Therefore, this history needs to refrain from examining La Villita in isolation from the rest of Chicago, but, rather, locate it as one of the foundations in the ongoing “Mexicanization of Chicago.” Such a task requires a new understanding of the “real” and “imaginary” boundaries that have shaped our understanding of space in Chicago, placing Little Village within the larger framework of the post-1965 “Mexicanization and Latinization of the U.S.,” and bringing into the narrative other social actors besides los comerciantes.

The “imagined” boundaries are those that the University of Chicago’s Social Science Research Committee established in 1920 when it mapped Chicago into 75 “Communities Areas” (two others were later added), among them South Lawndale and North Lawndale. Unlike the electoral maps that constantly undergoing change, the boundaries of the “Community Areas” have, so far, been cemented. In regards to these fixed and established boundaries that serve no contemporary importance, Little Village’s white ethnic civic and business leaders feared the encroachment of the African American “ghetto” into their community. They sought to distance South Lawndale from North Lawndale in the 1950s and 1960s, including ending the Lawndale name association. In the mid-1960s South Lawndale was renamed Little Village. The knots binding South and North Lawndale became untied, especially after the African American rebellion (riots) of 1968. Starting in the 1960s, Mexicans began to take over large stocks of housing that became available due to the gradual exodus of ethnic whites to the suburbs. Their moving in preventing the spread of the “ghetto” into Little Village. The end result was the creation of two segregated communities, which became separated by the “real” boundary of the Blue Line (now the Pink Line). Residential segregation does not necessarily mean the absence of contact though, as Mexicans and African Americans attend the two high schools in Little Village and have worked together in independent electoral campaigns, such as the 1983 election of Harold Washington.

While Lawndale became two distinct communities with “real” boundaries in the 1960s, the ties between Little Village and much poorer Pilsen (Lower West Side) became stronger. It should be noted that Pilsen had one of the oldest housing stocks in Chicago and lower rents. Much of Pilsen was regarded as “blighted” in the 1960s, a more polite terms for “slum.” In spite of the differences in the quality and costs of housing, a strong case could be made that poorer Pilsen and wealthier Little Village were constituted one large integrated community during the 1960s, that is if the fixed boundaries established by the Community Area are removed. To start, the same types of populations settled in both communities: Tejano farmworkers who abandoned the Midwest migrant trail and Mexicans who had been displaced from the Near West side, mainly due to the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Many of them arrived in Pilsen and then left for Little Village. More importantly, Pilsen and Little Village served as two of the three main ports of entry for the early waves of Mexican immigrants arriving in Chicago (the other was West Town in the near northside), especially after 1965, the year that initiated the second Great Mexican Migration began (the first Great Mexican Migration took place from 1900 to 1930).

The second Great Mexican Migration involved over 16 million people from 1965 to the present. In terms of historical comparisons, only the German and Irish migrations of the 19th century might rival the magnitude of the Mexican migration in the transforming the face of this country. Propelled by the ups and downs of the Mexican economy, this migration began slowly, gained steam in the 1980s (at this point Mexicans became the largest immigrant group in the US for the first time in history), and peaked in the early 2000s. It then slowed down due to the 2008 economic depression, the difficulty of crossing the U.S.-Mexican boundary, and the campaign of mass deportations. Although the second Great Mexican Migration is national in scope, the “Mexanization and Latinization of the U.S.” has been more intense in specific areas. In the 1990s Chicago, for instance, became the largest Mexican city in the U.S. after Los Angeles. (Today close to 2 million Latinos live in the Chicago metropolitan area).

The rapid Mexicanization of Pilsen and Little Village was one of early products of the second Great Mexican Migration. Between 1960 and 1980, the combined population of both neighborhoods grew from less than 7,000 to 90,000, peaking at 110,000 in 1990. During this time, Pilsen became the first Latino majority community in the history of Chicago in 1970. Little Village followed suit in 1980 along with two other communities in the near north side. In the 1990s other communities in Chicago’s southwest became predominantly Mexican, such as Little Villages’ southern and eastern neighbors, Brighton Park and Cicero, a suburban city.

As a product of removing fixed boundaries, a new picture of Pilsen and Little Village appears. If the Eisenhower Expressway is removed as the boundary separating Little Village from Brighton Park and Archer Heights, what appears is a larger Mexican community. The same applies when the empty lots and warehouses are removed as the boundary separating Little Village and Cicero. If we continue to remove more neighborhood boundaries from our imagination, a new sense of space appears in the Southwest of Chicago and adjacent suburbs: a Mexican city of over 400,000 people co-existing within a larger city. With this in mind, no one can dispute that Little Village’s 26th Street has played the role of being the commercial heart of Chicago’s growing Mexican metropolis.


March for Peace in La Villita. Photo: José Guzmán

Juan Mora-Torres Associate Professor of Latin American History at DePaul University. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Wayne State University (Detroit). His research and writings focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, Mexican migration, popular culture, working class formations, and Mexicans in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border (University of Texas Press, 2001). The Making of the Mexican Border won the Jim Parish Book Award. He’s currently working on Me voy pa’l norte: The First Great Mexican Migration, 1890-1940. Mora-Torres is the Board President of El BeiSMan.


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