Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago (Part III)

Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago (Part III)

Luis Leal (1907–2010)


An interview conducted, by Marc Zimmerman, with Mario T. García, June, 2002, introduced, edited and translated by Zimmerman 2005 - 2018.




Early Mexicanist Researchers in Chicago: Robert Cuba Jones, Robert Redfield, Oscar Lewis and Others

Marc Zimmerman: Maybe we should continue this conversation, by focusing on what you remember about early writings about or related to Mexican Chicago, most of which were produced by non-Latinos at the University of Chicago, where you were taking classes and living in International House….
LL: Well, International House was the center of Latino intellectual life at the University. That’s where Gamio had gone before my time, and that’s where all those academics who wrote about Chicago Latinos and Mexicans also lived or came to meetings. I myself got to know all the famous university guests from Mexico, and also where I got to know mexicano border researchers like Américo Paredes, Jorge Sánchez, and Carlos Eduardo Castañeda, as well as Carey McWilliams, and many others.[1] In fact, when important Latin American and Latino studies academics arrived in the city, it often fell to me to meet them at the airport and escort them around to the museums, the Newberry Library and other places they wanted to visit. Many of them gave presentations at International House. And many of the Anglo American graduate students interested in Latino and Mexican themes went to those talks—and even gave some.

MZ: One early figure you mention in other interviews is a writer by the name of Robert Cuba Jones. Can you tell us more about him? How did Cuba get into his name?
LL: Robert I think was a Quaker sociologist who worked with Mexicans in the city. The Cuba middle name was real—not a nickname—and was given to him because his father or grandfather had served in Cuba during the Spanish American War. The irony is that he was very much a pacifist—very much against U.S. interventions in Latin America. I don’t remember if I met him before going to the University of Chicago, but I do remember him from meetings at International house and Hull House too. In the late 20s, he had kind of headed up a group of University of Chicago students who went to Nicaragua, interviewed Sandino in the mountains and wrote against the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. In the mid-40s, he was commissioned to write a book, Mexican War Workers in the United States, which mainly dealt with Braceros. He was quite a committed and colorful figure, who preached non-violence and got involved with the Church Federation, a protestant organization housed at Hull House attempting to evangelize in Catholic worker communities, including the Mexicans. But I wouldn’t say that Robert was interested in conversion, he had a sincere wish to help improve things for Chicago Mexicans. And he first became known in the city for the early study of Chicago Mexicans he wrote with Lois Wilson.[2]

MZ: It’s a very interesting text, which shows a lot of knowledge about problems Chicago Mexicans faced.
LL:Yes, by the time he worked on the pamphlet, he’d clearly read Gamio, who’d already published a book on Mexico with José Vasconcelos, Aspects of Mexican Civilization (U. of Chicago Press 1926) and some of whose work the University of Illinois Press had published by 1930.

MZ: And he also seems to know Paul S. Taylor’s work on Midwest Mexican workers.[3]
LL:His knowledge of Mexican culture shows on every page; and my impression was that his co-writer Lois Wilson was also a very sharp observer.The point of view is Protestant, but the little text is still of value…

MZ: And it has those pictures by William Ortiz, that make the whole thing a little gem.[4]
LL: Yes, it seems that at some point in the 20s, the University of Chicago had invited Jones to do his studies with them and he became a staple for years, to the point that he was there even when I came back from the Philippines.

MZ: My guess is, he did fascinating things, but couldn’t conform to the academic world—so he stayed on the fringe of the University of Chicago for years without ever committing himself to being an academic.
MG. How would you characterize Jones’ struggle in relation to the Protestant influence in the Mexican community?
LL:There was much trouble with the integration of Mexicans with their Church—that was my impression. And the Protestant groups began to work to fill in the gaps. Of course some Mexican Protestants came—there were Protestants in Mexico. But as I recall, Jones and Wilson point to the growing religious tensions in the colonias and speak to the great contributions Protestants and the Protestant churches were making in the effort to better the life of Mexicans in the city.I attended community meetings mainly in Hull House, where the Protestant Federation was housed, and where Jones spoke.In my recollection, he never attempted to proselytize the Mexican participants.In the meetings he never spoke as a Protestant missionary, and he never tried to convert anybody. He never indicated that he was part of a movement to lead the Mexicans from their traditional church. And this struck me as remarkable, because it seemed to me that he was being paid—it was his job—to go to the Catholic Mexican world and get the Mexicans to enter into a Protestant world.I think he saw himself rather as a Quaker social worker andcommunity organizer trying to help people resolve their problems.And he probably tried to use his Protestant-funded job to carry out an agenda different from theirs.

MZ: But didn’t his work feed into the Protestant Federation agenda in spite of his intentions?
LL: That’s probably true enough. The Catholic Church hated all this, because it was obvious that many Mexicans knew that the Protestant churches were doing something for them—and they were torn between traditional beliefs and dependencies and the benefits they could see in starting a new life in Chicago. But I believe that Jones used his job for social as opposed to Protestant purposes. For me, Jones was like a friar—a modern friar who thought only of the community and helping people. He saw the Mexican community as a mission—they had problems and he sought to help. He brought together and tried to empower whatever people, group, organization or institution willing to help the Mexicans.

MZ: And what was the result of his efforts?
LL: Well I am sure he helped many, but as he grew older, I think he became frustrated with what was happening, the limited amount he could accomplish, given the City’s ethnic politics, industrial working conditions and the roles of the Church and the school system.So at a certain point, he left Chicago and went to Mexico. I saw him in Mexico City, where he’d established a cultural center in his house. On Thursdays he had meetings and always invited someone to speak; once when I was in town, he invited me.

MZ: I also had contact with him—in the 1960s, because he sent mail all over the U.S. inviting people to subscribe to his program, send donations, and study Spanish with him. I received a lot of correspondence. I wanted to go to Mexico as more than as a tourist, and I was looking for how. And here was this guy recruiting people in every possible way, so I was interested, but wary. And I never bit the bullet. And I never knew about his Chicago Mexican years until after I moved to Chicago in 1980. As for his years in Mexico, I never heard about him again.
LL: Neither did I. I think he died there, maybe alone and forgotten. I don’t know. But I think his work is Chicago should be remembered and studied further—especially his participation and struggle in Chicago. It would be interesting if someone did a biography of his fascinating life.

MZ: Another important graduate student during those years was Elena Padilla, who wrote the first study of Puerto Ricans in Chicago. Did you know her?
LL: I have a vague recollection, but I didn’t know her well, nor her work—although they tell me that she was very insightful about Puerto Rican relations with Mexicans in the city. [5]

MZ: And what about the famous Robert Redfield?
LL: Well, he was already an outstanding figure at the University when I arrived, a tall Anglo department head almost as big at the University as Robert Maynard Hutchens himself. [6] But I know he had worked in Mexico and even earlier had been part of a team doing field work on Chicago Mexicans, and he let me see some of his notes. Of course, he went on to write outstanding books about Mexico, especially one he did about peasant life in a small town in Morelos.

MZ: How was his Spanish?
LL: I’m not sure. I always spoke to him in English.

MZ: I just wonder about the Spanish of the early researchers, except Padilla, of course, and probably Robert Cuba Jones.
LL: You have doubts about Redfield’s notes?

MZ: Well, I had a chance to read an edited version of the notes… which he drafted in the mid-20s, after Gamio’s research, but before Jones and Wilson as well as others who published their work.[7] I don’t think the field notes are very detailed by today’s standards. And I felt he had a lot to learn about Chicago Mexican life, partially because he seemed so outside of his subjects, which may have been partially a function of language, but also, because, by standards then and now, his notes seem rather sketchy, suffered from many moments of euro-centrism and, yes, racism. So he writes things like, “He was good looking, despite his Indian features.” Or “People thought he was smart, even though he looked Indian.” …
LL: Well that was in the 20s, probably under the influence of his patrician upbringing. His father-in-law was the distinguished sociologist Robert Park, who, directly and through his daughter, clearly left his mark on his son. But there was also the early influence of Gamio, who remember was a student of Franz Boaz, and whom he got to know in Mexico City in the 20s. In any event, he must have grown over the years, because his Mexican books, and especially one about that town in Morelos, are much admired among Mexican intellectuals.[8]

MZ: But I wonder if even his work in Mexico wasn’t over-influenced by the street corner urban studies of his father’s generation, which were fine but, I think, over-focused on locus and not enough on the overall context—something he seems to have dealt with later, probably under the influence of Eric Wolf.
LL: It is certainly true that Redfield came to believe that you had to study any community or group in function of a series of broader forces. He’s pretty wellknown for his theories about worldwide systems of little and great folk traditions and their transformations. But all of this developed later in his career. Still, I wouldn’t doubt that his Chicago Mexican research helped him to develop the knowledge base and techniques that he came to apply in Mexico.

MG: And maybe his Mexican research experienced would have improved what he had to tell us about Chicago.
LL: Ha! That’s certainly true, Mario.

MG: You also mention the visit of Carey McWilliams to Chicago.
LL: Yes, Carey McWilliams visited us and in his book he mentions Frank Paz, he does not mention me, but Paz does mention me in his writings about Chicago.

MG: And McWilliams impressed you?
LL: Yes a lot. I think he had a better understanding of Mexican field workers than did many mexicano or chicano researchers.

MG: And, of course, you met Américo Paredes …
LL: Yes I met Américo Paredes several times, but first I met him in San Antonio and then he came to Chicago and Urbana to discuss his studies—especially his book on the border corrido, which had a great impact on my work, and even my thinking about the often questionable.

MZ: In Champaign-Urbana, did you meet Oscar Lewis?
LL: Yes, Oscar was a colleague at University of Illinois, and he often consulted with me about his texts.

MZ: Lets talk a little bit about that, since his work has to do with how we see the poor, and involves a direct attack on Redfield’s rather idyllic view of pre-capitalist Mexican communities.
LL: Well, my son gave guitar lessons to his daughter and he took advantage of the connection more than a few times. I had many meetings with him because when he wanted to transcribe and edit what he’d recorded in Mexico there were many words of Mexican use that he asked me to explain and help translate. And then he’d ask my opinion about given drafts, because he had a great interest in people recognizing the literary qualities of what he wrote..

MZ: So it shows. Reading his books is a little like reading Zola’s Germinal.
LL Yes, he would have been proud to hear your words.

MG: But I wonder how that literary hunger may have affected the accuracy of his final drafts.
LL: Now I understand that all the recordings still exist, but nobody has made a study of the tapes to see what he eliminates or adds—what elements are of his own ingenuity and not just transcription of the tapes...

MZ: Well, that’s certainly an important question, which then raises questions about his overall process—of who he interviewed for his famous books about Mexicans and of course in New York and San Juan, for his book about Puerto Rican poverty, La Vida. Of course Five Familes and The Children of Sánchez were very influential texts, and Lewis certainly influenced writers like Daniel Moynihan on New York and Wiliam Julius Wilson on Chicago African American poverty.
LL: Well, we certainly heard a lot from him in Urbana, and here (pointing to a picture)—here’s Lewis when he first came to Chicago to give a lecture at International House.

MG: And What did you think about his ideas, Don Luis? Were you in agreement with him in general?
LL: No, I think his critique of Redfield’s work was a useful corrective, pointing to all the conflicts in the community.[9] But I did not agree with his theory that the poor do not want to stop being poor—and it would not be a good model to think about the lives of Mexicans in Chicago, or in the United States.

MZ: Yes. well, I think Oscar Lewis would be very interesting to think of, in relation to what you have already said about the Mexicans in Chicago.
LL: Yes, because here the question is of not entering into a circuit of Welfare, but in finding jobs which, although not fixed, and also in not receiving so much help, the mexicanos had to make their world one way or another. But on the whole, many, perhaps most, did not enter the poverty circuit. It’s not that the circuit Lewis speaks of did not exist more or less and in one way or another But that only affected so many. Although there are some who would say that the gangs of the 70s and today are mainly an effect of those who failed in their attempt to get it right because there are more gangs in the third generation than in the first.

MG: You mean, it’s not just the children of the new immigrants they say are the gang members, but the grandchildren of those who failed to get what was for them a satisfactory niche…
LL: That may be so, but I’m not sure.

MZ: Well, as a Jewish American of my generation, I believe that Lewis’ own understanding of Jewish economic and professional success in the U.S. greatly influences his view of the Mexican experience. For him, the Jews may have been poor, but they were a people of the book and commerce who did not partake of key traits he assigned to the culture of poverty. As for Latinos, he seems to generalize from extreme cases to argue for an overall culture abhorrent to formal education and long term investment of time and energy in the very activities that would lead to upward mobility.
LL: First of all, for years there were industrial jobs even if many were part-time, temporary and marginal; and I think that many of the Mexican workers, even the many who remained nominally Catholic and traditionalist, began to move toward more deracinated and modern cultural norms.

MZ: There were many who developed a more modernist mode of being—perhaps especially those with ranchero roots in Michoacán or Guanajuato (as Marcia Farr has argued[10]), who more readily partook of an individualist, entrepreneurial drive to better their work and housing conditions, to accept their poverty jobs and buy even poverty homes and climb out of poverty as quickly as they could.
LL: The House on Mango Street portrays that drive, I think, from one generation to the next.

MZ: Yes, and of course, many of those who didn’t buy their homes and even those who joined gangs often had regular working class factory jobs—the very situation presented in Ana Castillo’s My Father Was a Toltec.
MG: There’s a lot of historical truth to be found in good literary texts.
LL: Yes, Mario, if we can learn how to read them![11]


Press link to read “Part I” and Part II.



[1] Paredes was an outstanding student of border culture and a fiction writer, most famous for his study of border corridos in A Pistol in his Hand (Austin: U. of Texas Press 1958). Castañeda was a historian who helped found the exceptional Latin American Benson Library collection housed at the University of Texas in Austin; Sánchez, was another Texas historian, who was an expert on Tejano history. The only non-Latino mentioned is McWilliams, a professor perhaps best remembered for his book, North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (New York:Monthly Review Press 1961.)

[2] The publication in question is Robert Cuba Jones and Lois R. Wilson, The Mexican in Chicago. Comity Commission of the Chicago Church Federation, 1931.

[3] Paul S. Taylor. Employment of Mexicans in Chicago and the Calumet Region (1930). The papers, along with Gamio’s, are available in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, where I have gone several times in a mainly futile search for early Chicago Mexican narratives.

[4] El BeiSMan has featured some of these drawings—for example, see my essay with Carolina López-Lozano and Idoia Martínez del Mozo, “Martínez-Serros: Schooling and Racism in Mexican South Chicago,” El BeiSMan2016-02-01 10:36:49.

[5] About the Puerto Rican U. of Chicago elite participation, including Elena Padilla, see Mérida Rúa, A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborboods. (Oxford, New York. Oxford U. Press. 2015:10-12. For Padilla herself, see Rúa, ed., Latino Urban Ethnography and the Work of Elena Padilla. U of Illinois Press. 2010.

[6] Hutchens was the famous president of the University of Chicago (1930-1945), who instituted many reforms including The Great Books Program and the elimination of the intercollegiate football program. During and soon after his time as president, several Latin American and Latino students did significant work at the U., Leal among them, some working under Redfield, Sol Tax, and others.

[7] What I saw was an edited version of the notes for a collection of the early writings on Chicago Mexicans, that Ray Hutchinson, a Uniuversity of Wisconsin political sciences professor, had developed for a book that was accepted several years ago, but never published by Notre University Press. The complete notes were published in Spanish translation as Mexicanos en Chicago. Diario de campo de Robert Redfield 1924–1925. Patricia Arias y Jorge Durand (Investigación y edición), México, Universidad de Guadalajara, Centro de Investigación y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social Occidente. Porrúa y El Colegio de San Luis, 2008, several years after this interview. Hutchinson’s collection also included his edits of texts by Jones and Wilson, as well as the Ph.D. dissertation of 1928 by Anita Edgar Jones, Conditions Surrounding Mexicans in Chicago, U. of Chicago. R and E Research Associates, 1971, and the Jackson Baur’s massive M.A. thesis on Chicago Mexican delinquency, cited above.

Leal is referring to Redfield’s Tepoztlan, A Mexican village: A Study in Folk life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1930.

[9] The reference is to Lewis’ Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied. Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1951, in which Lewis points to deep village conflicts. 

[10] Farr’s book is Rancheros in Chicagoacán, Language and Identity in a Transnational Community. Austin. University of Texas Press 2006.

[11] For the segregation of Mexicans at the U. of Chicago Settlement House in the 1920s, see Gabriela F. Arredondo, Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity and Nation, 1916-39. Urbana and Chicago, U. of Illinois Press. 2008: 95. Leal’s account here of visiting Mexican and Chicano professors in relation to Chicago community studies is, however limited, the most complete picture I have seen of the matter. The subject is worth a dissertation.


Marc Zimmerman has authored and edited some 30 books, including Lines on the Border, The Italian Daze (2017), and The Short of it All: Dreams and Scenes of Memoir Fiction (2018). He is a regular contributor to El BeiSMan.

Mario T. Garcia, is a major Chicano historian, with important books tracing the key generational stages of Chicano and Latino history as well as countless books of Chicano oral history, One of his recent books, Literature as History (U. of Arizona Press 2017), opens the door to a rich, interdisciplinary approach to Chicano and Latino studies.


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