Voice and Belonging in the Making of La Villita

Juan Mora-Torres Publicado 2016-04-25 01:12:38

Sunday Afternoon in La Villita. Photo: José Guzmán

La Villita: “The Mexican Capital of the Midwest”


La Villita’s businesses have catered to the basic needs of the Mexican community for food, grooming, and entertainment for the past five decades. These businesses have grown hand in hand with the growth of the Latino community. With its high concentration of businesses (over 1,000 business establishments), commercial activity, and tax revenues it generates for the city of Chicago, La Villita stands out over the other Latino business districts in the Chicago metro area. In short, it is the commercial center of Mexican Chicago and the Latino Midwest.

The emergence of Little Village as the “Mexican capital of the Midwest” is closely tied to the growing purchasing power of Latinos. At the present it stands at $1.5 trillion, a figure that captures the attention of the corporate world and surpasses all Latin American countries, outside of Brazil and Mexico. La Villita also benefits from having a competitive economic advantage over other business districts in Chicago and the Midwest. It is located within a half hours drive from the furthest reaches of Chicago’s “Mexican metropolis,” a community of over 400,000 people. This specialized competitive advantage extends to the entire metropolitan area, a consumer base of two million Latinos within about an hours drive from La Villita. The Chicago metro region contains 40% of all Latinos in the Midwest. Moreover, many Mexicans from the midwestern states around Illinois flock to La Villita to shop. It has no rival in Chicago and the Midwest. The closest rival is St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota with a Latino population of 180,000 people that is spread out in different communities throughout the Twin Cities. Stated another way, Little Villita has become a large net that catches many consumers in the broad sea of the Midwest.

Based upon a first impression, La Villita would resemble any other major Latino business district in Chicago. It contains grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, dollar stores, cell phone services, pawnshops, jewelry shops, barbershops, beauty salons, photography stores, legal and tax services, and street vendors. Upon closer scrutiny, three differences appear that distinguish La Villita from other business districts. First, the high concentration of businesses within a small geographical space of less than two miles, at the most. La Villita is a pedestrian business district, unlike most Latino commercial strips that are dependent on automobiles. This feature has transformed La Villita into a neighborhood rich in street life where thousands walk everyday along 26th Street.

Second, it has a large economy that revolves around issues related to the “immigrant survival industry,” a huge economy that is called the “informal economy.” This economy is grounded on the streets: food vendors, merchandise hawkers (piñatas, t-shirts, pots and pans, fruits and vegetables, and many other products), garage mechanics, home child care providers, home repairs, among other occupations and services. This economy extends to “legal” documents. At least until the ICE and FBI crackdown at the Little Village Discount Mall in 2007, undocumented immigrants in Chicago and the Midwest flocked to La Villita to purchase fake documents. There is no data on the number of individuals involved in La Villita’s “informal economy,” but the figure could be in the thousands.

Third, La Villita has a high concentration of businesses that specialized in what could be called, in the absence of a better name, the “heritage industry,” an industry geared toward the cultural desires of ethnic communities. La Villita has become the Midwest center of the Mexican “heritage industry” that is based on apparel, entertainment (four large music and dance venues, among them La Cueva, the “oldest Latino drag club in the country”), and “ties to Mexico (transportation, packaging, money transfers, travel agencies, import and export firms).” In the last case, there are at least five bus companies operating within the Little Village area (El Expreso, Latinos, El Conejo, Tornado, and Turimex). Without having to transfer, busses take passengers from La Villita to major bus hubs in different parts of Mexico, from Monterrey to Iguala and points in between. The same applies on the round trip return. The Tornado bus line’s motto is “uniendo familias en México y Estados Unidos.” La Villita’s motto could be “uniendo Mexicanos y Latinos en Chicago y el Medio Oeste” vis-a-vis the “heritage industry.”

One of the most striking features of 26th Street is the large number of apparel stores, mainly quinceañera and Western wear (norteño/vaquero) stores, two businesses that cater to the “heritage industry.” Little Village contains close to forty quinceañera stores. There is a reason for this high concentration of a specialty stores: every year somewhere around 400,000 young Latinas turn 15 years of age. There are no figures that indicate how many of these young women have quinceañeras and how much money is spent on this type of event (dress, catering, music, flowers, choreographers, limousines, hall, video, photography). Estimates on the cost for a quinceañera range from $5,000 to $20,000. If half of these young Latinas have quinceañeras (200,000) and spend $5,000 each, it would equal one billion dollars, which is a conservative estimate, yet one that demonstrates the value that Mexican parents place on this symbolic coming of age cultural event. The overall theme of quinceañeras in the U.S., from economics to symbolic meaning, is calling for a sociological or anthropological study.


Casting for Alborada quinceañera magazine on 26th Street. Photo DNA


The large number of quinceañera stores is a representative example of how La Villita has benefitted from the growing purchasing power of Latinos and having the competitive advantage over other Latino business districts in Chicago and the Midwest. The large number of stores means that a family could walk down 26th Street and enter any of the many quinceañera stores to compare dresses and prices. In this scenario, quinceañera stores attract clients from throughout the Chicago metropolitan area and from as far away as Kansas City, Detroit, and Indianapolis. Perhaps there is no other place in the U.S. (or for that matter, Mexico) that has such a high concentration of quinceañera stores within a single business district. Shopping for quinceañeras has a ripple effect. A day or two of shopping means eating, drinking and entertainment in La Villita. Perhaps one day a comerciante might come up with resources to open a hotel on 26th Street.

La Villita is the advanced scout of the Mexicanization of the Midwest. For that reason alone, it merits studies that focus on La Villita as a complex neighborhood made up of a variety of Mexicans and not only the business community. One of this rare studies that takes up this challenge is the work of two acclaimed urbanologists, William J. Wilson and Richard Taub’s There Goes the Neighborhood (2006), a study of four communities in Chicago. The value of this book is that one of its aims was to examine the impact of Latino immigration in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Recognizing that Latinos were changing the face of Chicago, the authors used Little Village as the main representative of an immigrant neighborhood. Although this book has passed as groundbreaking in the study of contemporary urban communities, the main weakness is the lack of knowledge on Latinos and Mexicans on the part of the authors (no book review pointed that out). Passing for knowledge and praised by many, including two U.S. senators, the book paints a disturbing picture of La Villita.

Wilson (a Harvard professor) and Taub (University of Chicago) enlisted advanced graduate sociology students to do their fieldwork for this book. Given that the materials for this book “are quite sensitive,” Wilson and Taub used pseudonyms for the communities. There was no need for pseudonyms considering that anybody who knows Chicago and has basic research skills would not have a hard time figuring out the real names of these communities. In any case, Little Village was given the pseudonym of Archer Park. (Two of the three remaining neighborhoods had growing Latino population, including Dover (Brighton Park), a community in which Latinos made up 77 percent of the residents, and Belway (Clearing), a neighborhood situated south and west of Midway Airport). Unable to find a Latino graduate sociology student to do their fieldwork on Archer Park/Little Village, the authors enlisted three students. Apparently, these “ethnic outsiders” had the advantage of observing community “behaviour or actions with fresh eyes.”

The chapter on Archer Park has the title of “A Taste of Mexico in Chicago” and starts with a description that the community “exuded a distinct Latin aura.” The unnamed commercial district, meaning 26th Street, “featured rows of shops specializing in Mexican products such as tacos and tortillas” while “salsa music” boomed throughout the neighborhood. Based on their interpretations of the fieldwork on Archer Park, Wilson and Taub stated that Archer Park was a “stepping stone” community, a place that did not inspire permanent residency. The residents, made-up of transients, largely Mexican immigrants, lacked an “attachment or loyalty” to Archer Park. The residents eagerly waited for the opportune moment to “exit” to better neighborhoods (therefore not using “voice,” a metaphor for civic participation geared at improving the community). As transients, the residents “invested little effort in the social organization of the neighborhood with the hope of improving the quality of life.” Lacking loyalty to the neighborhood, the end result was a “paucity of community organized life and absence of local leadership.” Of the four neighborhoods, Archer Park was the poorest and had the lowest degree of civic participation.

In short Little Village’s residents are disorganized and lack the civic engagement to improve the overall quality of life in their community. This conclusion denies political agency to the residents of Little Village. An “ethic insider,” somebody who knows the neighborhood, would not have had a difficult time challenging this conclusion. The “insider” would have provided plenty of examples that demonstrate grassroots civic participation in Little Village, including the independent electoral movement of the 1980s that freed the neighborhood from the control of the Regular Democratic Party, the Mother Day’s hunger strike of 2001 that led to the establishment of a much needed high school, and the contemporary artistic explosion that young people are engaged in such as Villapalooza, a festival that highlights local musical talent. Moreover, he or she would highlight a community rich in local organizations, from sports to block clubs.

A different picture of La Villita appears when the political struggles, the artistic movement, and the number of community organizations are mixed together, one that is different from the image that Taub and Wilson painted. This alternative picture would highlight “voice” rather than “exit.” One may even push it further to make the claim that Little Village is one of Chicago’s neighborhoods with the greatest degree of civic participation and activism, at least more so than any of the other three neighborhoods that Taub and Wilson studied. In his encyclopedic book, Chicago: Ward by Ward (1998), David Fremon noted that Little Village changed from a neighborhood that was a bastion of the Regular Democratic Party machine in the early 1980s to one that “now hosts perhaps the most efficient independent political organization in the city.”


Jesús "Chuy" García and Bernie Sanders on 26th Street. Photo: NBC news


A history of civic participation and activism would challenge the narrative that the business community provides the leadership in La Villita. Such as history would show that relations between activists and business leaders have not been warm as both have competed for community leadership, starting in 1981 when the Centro de Acción Social Autónoma-Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA-HGT) led “el Contingente del Pueblo (the People’s Contingent)” down 26th Street during the Mexican Independence Day parade, an event sponsored by the local chamber of commerce. Rodolfo “Rudy” Lozano, Jesús “Chuy” García, and five others, were arrested during the parade for marching without a permit.

The activist-businessmen conflict continued during the 1980s, revolving around who was going to represent Little Village in city hall. Local activists formed the Independent Political Organization (IPO) and supported the candidacy of Harold Washington for mayor and Rudy Lozano for alderman of the 22nd Ward, mainly composed of Little Village, in 1983. Lozano ran against Frank Stemberk, an unceremonious alderman (1971-1986) whose main claim to fame was offering a $1 bounty per dead rat. After the political assassination of Lozano in 1983, “Chuy” García emerged as the leader of the independent political movement in Little Village, winning the 22nd Ward committeeman race in 1984. He won the 1986 race for alderman, defeating two established local businessmen, one of them backed by Stemberk and Ed “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, the leader of the anti-Harold Washington city council faction. During this heated aldermanic campaign, one of García’s opponents accused him of being “100 percent communist, if not 110” and the other of being “too radical” to represent the 22nd Ward.

In spite of these charges, García had become the political face of Little Village and one of the faces of independent politics in Chicago. For that reason, the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), a group sponsored by Mayor Richard Daley, targeted García. He lost his Illinois Senate seat in 1998 and returned to community organizing, building a large community service organization from scratch. He made a political comeback in 2010 when he won a seat in the Cook County Board of Commissioners, defeating a candidate backed by the HDO. In 2015 he challenged Rahm Emanuel for mayor of Chicago.

In the mayoral election García’s strategy focused on painting the election as a duel between David, a “real” Chicagoan from Little Village, and Goliath, a powerful, moneyed “outsider” sent by the Washington, D.C. establishment and Wall Street to “oversee” Chicago. The election pitted Emanuel, the neoliberal mayor (privatizing the government’s public sphere and letting the market pick the winners and losers, resulting in growing inequality, the main cause for the rise of the “angry voters” in both political parties), and García, the populist New Dealer (in the tradition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (1933-1945) policies of government intervention in the economy, pro-labor measures, and creating social safety nets). García’s political agenda emanated from Chicago’s ailing neighborhoods, such as Little Village, one of the poorest communities in Chicago. Although García lost to Emanuel, a strong case could be made that this election served as the dress rehearsal for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary duel between Bernie Sanders, another New Deal populist, and Hillary Clinton, a neoliberal just like Emanuel. Sanders won all the Latino majority wards in Chicago, including Pilsen and Little Village, in the 2015 Illinois primary except for two.

No one can deny the contributions that the business community has made in making Little Village the “Mexican capital of the Midwest.” Thus far, the prevailing narrative of Little Village has prioritized the business community as the main force in shaping the identity of the community. This narrative has been seconded by other sociological studies, as noted in part I of this article. To begin with, there are two problems with the notion of business and community. First, the meaning of a business needs to be questioned because it could include a major restaurateur and a street food vender, and the distinctions among both are wide.

Second, Little Village, is a complex community made up many different types of Mexicans, among them “business people,” from the established comerciante to the elotera. It has, to the present day, been an overwhelmingly immigrant and working class neighborhood. It is a neighborhood of people laboring in construction, landscaping, hotels, restaurants, janitorial services, manufacturing, among other occupations such as jornaleros (day laborers), garage mechanics, and home care providers. La Villita is also a community ridden with social problems, from poor schooling to poverty. One-third of residents live below the poverty level. Of the 77 Community Areas that make up Chicago, Little Village has the city’s third highest hardship index for the 2008-2012 years. This index is based on indicators such as overcrowded housing, people living below the poverty line, and per capita income. These problems are not going to dissipate in the immediate future, regardless of who wins the presidency. Besides the many social problems that residents face on a daily basis, La Villita is and has been a community in conflict with itself: gang warfare over turf, comerciante and vendedores ambulantes (street vendors) tensions over space, local businesses exploiting their employees, landlord and tenant issues, electoral competition between different factions of the Democratic Party and so on.

La Villita, as a Mexican neighborhood, has a history that is over 50 years old. In the 1970s it became the second neighborhood to have a Mexican majority in the history of Chicago. In the 1980s it became the “Mexican capital of the Midwest.” La Villita has been shaped not only by its commercial activity, but also the immigrant and working class culture of its Mexican residents. The political struggles waged by the residents has also shaped Little Village. Their “voice” in improving the community’s quality of life has created a strong sense of “belonging” to Little Village, a loyalty that is crucial for the identity formation of two generations of residents. The current cultural “renaissance” of the younger generation is an expression of the meaning of “belonging.”

At the present, it is a community undergoing major demographic changes. It contains one of the youngest populations in Chicago, half of whom are under the age of 25 and are predominantly U.S.-born. The other half is made of immigrants, mainly from Mexico. They are the parents of the younger generation who are inheriting La Villita. Stated another way, La Villita presents a preview of what is next to come for the Latino community: the rapid transition from the immigrant to the U.S.-born generation in the ongoing Latinization/Mexicanization of this country. Just like the case of quinceañeras, this meaning of this demographic transition that is taking place before one’s eyes is calling for a serious study.

More than any sociological study, Robert Plant’s musical video “Angel Dance,” a song written and first performed by Los Lobos, captures the essence of La Villita as a community. In this video, which is also a tribute to Los Lobos, Plant, the former front man of Led Zeppelin, tours La Villita on foot and car. Accompanied by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos, the video provides a snapshot of the rich street life of La Villita and the residents: the food vendors, street musicians, an immigrant drinking at a bar, a young girl modeling a wedding dress at a quinceañera store, families sitting on their stoops conversing with neighbors, and the many young people who have converted the streets and alleys into a playground. These are the people who have made La Villita into their community. In lieu of the destruction of the traditional working class neighborhoods that is currently taking place in Chicago and elsewhere, the video highlights how the residents of La Villita resist this outcome for their community. In their daily acts they are sustaining and reproducing community and culture. In doing so, La Villita resists its death as a community declaring by its actions that poor people have the right to live in the global city of Chicago.



La Villita: “The Mexican Capital of the Midwest” Part I/III

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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