In Praise of Frank Paz, Activist and Unsung Hero
Pictured from left to right are Frank Jr., Frank Paz Sr., child Laura Paz and Sarah Sayad. Photo circa 1950. (Paz family archives).
Long before many of us were born, pioneer activist Frank Paz was already fighting discrimination against the Mexican colonia in Chicago, demanding more social services for Mexican immigrants and testifying before a Senate committee that racism against Mexican workers was rampant in the steel plants and railroad yards of Chicago.
Paz, who was born on September 16, 1909 in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico, left a legacy of three decades of grassroots activism with the Mexican community. He was active from the 1930s to the mid-1950s.
Yet today his name is barely known outside of his immediate family and there is no plaque, marker or bust anywhere in Chicago’s large Mexican community that remembers his work.
Furthermore, it is very difficult today to piece together his story because only bits of information remain about him and these are dispersed among different sources. There is not a single book written about the life of this remarkable activist.
Paz, records show, entered the United States through Laredo, Texas, on May 23, 1919 as Javier Paz with his father Vicente Paz. Javier was only nine years-old and his father Vicente was 57.
Their arrival manifest says they were going “to reside “in Laredo but apparently their true destination was San Antonio, Texas, where they had planned to join the rest of the family.
The census of 1920 indicates that Javier Paz lived in the second ward of San Antonio with María Ortiz, his mother as head of the family, and sisters Carmen, Vicenta and María and a brother, George.
His father Vicente had died by then of pneumonia on January 4, 1920 due to the Spanish flu. His wife Maria Ortiz decided then to move the family north to Chicago, a large industrial city where it was easier to find work. The year is not known.
The family decided to settle in the Near West Side, near Hull House, where a Mexican colony was forming.
Later, records show, Frank Xavier Paz, by then 21 years-old, married Sarah D. Sayad in a ceremony in Chicago on August 23, 1931. She was 20 years old and born in Illinois of Assyrian immigrant parents who had immigrated from Iran.
The couple soon had a son, Frank Xavier Paz junior, and many years later a daughter named Laura Paz. Both offspring still live today. The son, a retired university professor, is 88 years-old and lives in California. The daughter is a retired public-school teacher and a well-known and respected activist who lives in the Chicago area.
Paz, whose birth name was Francisco Javier Paz Ortiz, was able to obtain a college education in Chicago despite the hard-economic times during post-Depression America. His wife Sarah is credited with helping to put him through school.
A family story says Paz first went to a small college in the early 1930s and then transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign where he obtained a degree in civil engineering.
By 1940 the census finds Paz living at 903 Newport Avenue and is listed as the head of the family. His wife is listed as Sara Paz, age 31, His son, Frank junior, is 8 years-old. His mother Mary Ortiz, age 57, is listed as an “aunt”, an apparent mistake.
Also listed there is his brother George Paz, 28, who is classified as a lodger; also, Olga Paz (perhaps George’s wife); and Frank Vidal, Augustine Medina and Raphael Garcia, all lodgers.
At this juncture, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact year when Paz first became a political activist with the Mexican community. It is said, but not confirmed, that he worked at a steel mill in South Chicago where perhaps he also helped to organize Mexican workers during the 1930s.
At the time there were three distinct Mexican colonias in Chicago. The word barrio was not in vogue then. As mentioned, one colony was in the area near Hull House where close to 2,742 Mexican nationals lived. The other two areas were Back of the Yards and South Chicago. The Mexican population of the city in 1940 was estimated at 16,000 people.
Two years later, on March 26, 1942, Paz became a naturalized citizen. It was then that he changed his name to Frank X. Paz. He was 32 years-old at the time.
Sarah Sayad, Frank Paz and Charlotte Sayad circa 1940. (Paz family archives).
In 1943 Paz, with the help of friend and leader Rafael Pérez, founded the Mexican Civic Committee, one that for the next decade would provide a voice for the fledgling Mexican community.
Claudia Roesch, in her book Macho Men and Modern Women: Mexican Immigration, Social Experts and Changing Family Values in the 20th Century United States (De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2015) tells us about the founding of the Mexican Civic Committee.
When Paz and Pérez formed the committee, the Chicago Area Project awarded them a $10,000 grant to fight juvenile delinquency and to provide civic education classes from the coordinator of the Inter-American Affairs. Roesch identifies Paz as a Hull House member and former steel worker.
A short time later, however, the Chicago Area Project dropped the Mexican Civic Committee due to Pérez’s apparent “radical political ideology”.
Despite the setback, Paz and Pérez continued on with the committee and sought donations from the Rotary and Lions clubs.
Paz then recruited “Mexican origin professionals such as teachers, university professors and church and labor union representatives” to join the committee and in this manner, it continued its work until 1948, according to Roesch.
Luis Leal, the late Mexican and Chicano literature professor who lived in Chicago during those years before moving to California to teach Chicano literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1976, worked with Frank Paz in the committee.
Leal knew Paz well and was in charge of the education section of the Mexican Civic Committee and considered Paz a good friend.
Leal later became director of the Center for Chicano Studies in Santa Barbara. He died in 2012 at the age of 102.
Writer Marc Zimmerman and historian Mario T. García interviewed Leal for the book The Mexican Experience in Chicago: Early Memories and Echoes in Our Time (Chicago: La CASA, 2018).
In one part of the interview Zimmerman asked Leal about the work they did in the Mexican Civic Committee.
“First and foremost, it was to help Mexicans—a Mexican who had an immigration problem, a problem with the police or whatever it was—we tried to help them. Individually Mexicans came to find help,” said Leal.
Zimmerman then asks Leal if they could find lawyers at the time to help Mexican immigrants.
“Lawyers and doctors,” answers Leal, who had attended the University of Chicago and had taught at the University of Illinois and Urbana Champaign.
Leal concedes in the interview that Paz was very political and was voted by the membership to direct the committee.
Later in 1944 Paz travelled to San Antonio, Texas, to appear before the Fair Employment Practices Commission which was investigating job discrimination against Mexican workers in the country. Senator Dennis Chavez, of New Mexico, questioned Paz during the hearings.
“In American democracy there is no room or place for racial discrimination. Our people, as other speakers have already said, do not want special privileges. All they want is the right to enjoy full citizenship,” Paz said.
Paz told Senator Chavez about one Ramón Martínez, who has been working for twenty years at a steel mill in Chicago and was put in charge of a group of Mexican workers because he spoke their language. However, he was being paid $50 less a month than other white foremen. When Martínez complained, he was told that it was because he was not a citizen and later because he had no high school diploma.
Paz testified about another case, that of a young Mexican American veteran named Villar who had returned from the war after serving in the Pacific with the United States Army for three years. He applied for work at a streetcar company but was told that it was their policy not to hire workers from a minority group because “we don’t know whether that would work so well if you were to work in the street railway industry.”
The Mexican Civic Committee continued with its work until 1948 when it dissolved, perhaps due in part to the interference of Mexican consul general Mario Lacio Ponce, whom Leal, in the Zimmerman-García interview, said tried constantly to wrestle control away from Paz.
“Ponce not only wanted to control the rules but to give more importance to recently arriving Mexicans than to those who were already here. We were also concerned about those coming in, but we were also considering larger questions that affected all Chicago Mexicans in every way,” said Leal to Zimmerman and García.
In January of 1948 Paz published a twenty-eight-page report “Mexican Americans in Chicago: A General Survey”. At the same time Paz founded the Mexican American Council of Chicago (MACC) with a new emphasis on integrating the Mexicans into the fabric of American society.
The following year, Paz and various other social service agencies organized a conference on May 22, 1949, to discuss the status and needs of the growing Mexican American community in Chicago.
“For the conference Paz drafted a thorough account about the abuse and exploitation Chicago Mexicans faced in the labor market, in housing and health, and even in relationship to their supposed friends in the struggle for their rights. Paz even showed how organizations like Hull House and several churches failed to involve Mexicans on their boards and administration, so that Mexicans had little input into decisions made about them. It was a very frustrating situation,” Leal told Zimmerman and García.
Paz opened the conference and directed his criticism at the institutions that he believed were averting their eyes to the problems of the Mexican community. By then the Spanish-speaking community had grown to 35,000 Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.
As Paz began to speak, one of his targets was housing discrimination against Mexicans.
“There is no neighborhood, that I know of, which has a publicly announced policy which says ‘We do not rent to Mexicans’ yet it happens. Could it be accidentally that we find ourselves congregated in particular districts?” said Paz as quoted by historian Lila Fernández in her book Brown in the City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
After founding the council, Paz was able to renew his ties with the Chicago Area Foundation and also obtained office space at the sprawling Hull House complex led by founder Jane Addams, a friend of this Mexican organizer.
There is an interesting anecdote that Leal told historian Mario T. García about the visit of author Cary McWilliams to Chicago in 1948 when he was researching his book North from Mexico. The story appears in the book by García titled Luis Leal An Auto/Biography (University of Texas Press, 2012).
“He came to Hull House and interviewed me and Frank Paz. In his book he mentions Paz. I don’t think I made an impression on him,” said Leal.
Asked what questions McWilliams asked, Leal responded “He wanted to know what was happening in the community.”
In North from Mexico, McWilliams briefly mentions Paz in section two of chapter 15 on page 280. The topic is grassroots democracy and the Unity Leagues and service clubs being organized in the 1940s throughout the Southwest.
“In Chicago, the Mexican Civic Committee organized by Frank Paz, functions in much the same way. What these activities foreshadow, of course, is a great awakening of the Spanish speaking people of the Southwest which I feel will mature within the next two decades,” wrote McWilliams, whose book would become required reading later during the height of the Chicano Movement.
By the mid-1950s, Paz, the organizer, apparently, got a job offer from a company or city government in California and moved to the West Coast to start a new phase in his life. Martin Ortiz, another leader, took over the Mexican American Council after Paz left for California.
Ortiz had moved here from Whittier, California, and in 1958 returned there and eventually founded the Center for Mexican American Affairs at Whittier College. He died on January 12, 2009 at the age of 89.
Frank Paz and his daughter Laura Paz circa 1966. (Paz family archives).
Frank’s daughter, Laura Paz, said she once visited her father out West and he showed her some of the highways he had designed in California.
Laura said her father was a kind and gentle person and acknowledges that she inherited her political activism from him. However, she said, she still has mixed feelings about him for having divorced her mother, Sara Sayad, when she was only seven years-old. “It would have been nice to have him around and struggle together,” she said for this article.
Frank X. Paz died in the city of Los Angeles on December 3, 1972 due to stomach cancer and was buried in a cemetery in Whittier, California. He was 63 years-old and had spent almost three decades helping his compatriotas.
Looking back, it is interesting to note that Frank Paz apparently faced no repression for his work on behalf of the community unlike other Mexican leaders of the time.
This was not the case with Refugio Martínez, a Mexican labor organizer who was active in Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s. He had come from Tampico, Tamaulipas, in 1924.
Martínez worked at the Swift and Co. packinghouse in Back of the Yards until he lost his job during the Great Depression. Due to his organizing skills, he began to work with the Unemployed Councils during those dire times.
Martínez also worked with the Frente Popular Mexicano, the Mexican Civic Committee and the University of Chicago Settlement House.
Perhaps his greatest contribution, according to the Illinois Labor History Society, was as an organizer with the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee starting in 1938 when he began organizing the workers at the Swift packing plant.
Later during the McCarthy era, Martínez was red-baited by the government and was deported in 1953. Already ill, he died one day after arriving in Mexico, at the age of 48.
Guadalupe Pérez Marshall was also a leader who was targeted for deportation in the early 1950s during the McCarthy era. Under the Walter McCarran Act, she was being processed for deportation but she instead fled to Jamaica.
She later returned to Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, México, where she died in 1985. Her involvement in Chicago had been dramatic to say the least. As a Hull House volunteer social worker, she had gone to South Chicago on May 30, 1937 and became an unwilling eyewitness to the events of the Memorial Day Massacre where ten unarmed striking workers were shot dead by police.
Marshall herself was hit on the head by a policeman as she tried to flee but later managed to tell what she saw to the La Follette Committee during the hearings on June 30 and July 1 and 2, 1937.
Today’s Mexican community should strongly consider starting a Mexican Social Activists Museum in Chicago in order to chronicle the stories of its many forgotten activists. This would help to firmly establish our historical footprint in Chicago.
The project, of course, should start with the stories of Frank X. Paz, Refugio Martínez and Lupe Pérez Marshall, three unsung heroes of yesteryear who deserve to be rescued from our forgotten historical past.
Antonio Zavala is a journalist and writer from Chicago. His two published books are Pale Yellow Moon and Memorias de Pilsen.