Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago

Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago

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




In June 2002, I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting the Santa Barbara California home of Dr. Luis Leal (1907-2010), then 94 years old, and of interviewing him with the help of my good friend, Chicano historian Mario García, known for his many interview books of key Chicano/as, as well as his analysis of the key stages and dimensions of Mexican American, Chicano and Latino experience. Son of a family involved deeply in the Mexican Revolution, Leal had arrived in Chicago from his home town inLinares, Nuevo León, at a time when the first Mexican communities were forming. He spent several years in the Chicago area, living through the Depression period of Mexican repatriation, pursuing his undergraduate work at Northwestern University and, then after his military service in the Philippines, using his G.I. Bill to undertake graduate work, earn his Ph.D. and launch an impressive career as a professor of Latin American, Mexican and Chicano Literature (a field he helped to invent) at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and in his final years, as a distinguished professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He wrote and edited some forty-five books and received countless honors in the course of a long life that was all too short.[1]

While not a barrio working class resident, Leal was a frequent visitor to the prime areas of Chicago Mexican settlements, especially in the Halsted Street corridor in and near Jane Addams Hull House, even in the years when he was downstate in Urbana. Especially after the war, he was active as a community leader and as a contributor to the primary Latino magazine to emerge in Chicago in the 1950s, Vida Latina.

In preparing for the interview, I read prior ones published by Mario García (2000)[2] and two other UCSB professors, Francisco Lomelí and Víctor Fuentes. All three make reference to his Chicago days, and Fuentes’ book length interview has a whole chapter on Leal’s years in the city. However, as someone interested in Chicago Latino history and literature, I wanted to go further. And our interview did just that.

Mario arranged for us to meet at Leal’s own home, and made crucial contributions to every phase of the interview—far beyond what emerges in this edited version—trying to keep us on track and passing key questions to me that he felt required further exploration (his few direct interventions are signaled by his initials, MG).

Why has it taken so many years for me to prepare this material for publication? First, I soon started a new job and a series of new projects which made it impossible for me to focus on the transcribed interview test. But above all, because as a relatively inexperienced interviewer of an aging informant, I made a fatal mistake. I took to him a book with maps and photo related to the years of his time there (Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago [2001]).

And that book apparently created confusion in Leal’s mind, as the images made him question his memory and be rather uncertain about many details. It took a long time for him to find separate out what he remembered; and the interview became so disordered that it was very difficult to edit the results. It is only now that I have chosen an at least partial edit for the record, and as part of my ongoing series for El BeiSMan focusing on Chicago Mexican history and culture.




The interview
(Part I)



MZ: Don Luis, why did you come to Chicago?
LL: I had friends from Linares who were studying at Northwestern University. I wanted to leave my town, and they told me, “Why don’t you come to Northwestern and study with us? It’s an important university and they’re happy to help Mexicans. Of course, there weren’t many Mexicans in Evanston—only servants who worked in the houses of rich white people ... But the house where my friends lived was owned by a woman from León Guanajuato, Mrs. Morales, and she also rented rooms in Chicago in a Mexican colony on the border with a very Jewish area on Maxwell Street...

MZ: Old time Chicago Mexicans always talk about the city’s Mexican barrios as “Mexican colonias”. How did you say that about Colonia?
LL: Because in Mexico that’s what a neighborhood is called. 

MZ: You don’t talk about barrios?
LL: No. In Mexico City, they were all colonies; in Guadalajara they don’t say barrios.

MZ: This is a map they made in 1928 of the colonies and that you mention in the interviews with you that have already been published.
LL. Yes, those are the Mexican colonies. The colonies were established in relation to the working groups.... Next to the railroad, near Union Station; on Halsted Street near Taylor Street; near the meatpackers of Back of the Yards around Ashland and 47th; and of course, the south near the steel mills of South Chicago and Indiana .... 

MZ: First, Union Station, it was near the Jane Addams Hull House...
LL: Yes, but is it still there?

MZ: Yes, the Hull House is still there, but it’s inside and part of the University of Illinois in Chicago, which they always called, “Chicago Circle Campus”, which today we call UIC ...
LL: Yes, later when they put up the UIC campus between Halsted and Racine and between Taylor and Harrison, they displaced the Mexicans ... 

MZ: But here in Hull House they are arts and ceramics classes in which the mexicanos participated; and in the Hull House area they had several stores and restaurants, right?
LL: There were many here and also in Back of the Yards and in South Chicago and Indiana ...

MZ: But there they also had many stores?
LL: Yes, but in South Chicago and Gary there weren’t too many because almost everyone worked in the steel mills near the lake. The jobs that many of them had were part-time, because they were the scabs or strikebreakers (replacement workers); and some went out as fast as they could to establish a grocery store, a laundry—whatever ... Meanwhile, the newcomers gathered during the day in the center from Chicago, over there by Union Station, where there were the employment agencies that sent workers to work in the city or the countryside or wherever — they hired them there ... 

MZ: We ‘re talking about the “field workers”, but we don’t think that many times, they passed through the city before going to the countryside.
LL: Before going to the country, they arrived in the city. From there they go to the agencies and they are the ones that send them to the countryside. They don’t go directly to the field. Well, there was another colony — a Czechoslovak colony! — that is not south on 20th Street, more or less, what’s the name of that neighborhood?

MZ (showing the map of Chicago): Ah that’s the Pilsen neighborhood — the 18th between Halsted and Western. Pilsen became Mexican but not in time when you were in the city as a student, but later in the 50s-60s, when they put up UIC ... Today, Pilsen is a commercial center and a Mexican “neighborhood”, but it is also the Mexican art center, where the Mexican Museum is — almost all artistic things are in Pilsen more than anywhere else. Up, passing Cermak and going to the west and to the south, you reach 26th Street, La Villita, the most commercial and largest Mexican neighborhood in the city.


Visits, ethnic relations, marriages and the washing of Mexicans

MG: Don Luis, when he first arrived in Chicago, he was in Evanston and he was visiting these Mexican colonies...
LL: If I visited them, —The EL would arrive here (pointing to the map). I was going by the elevator — it was very fast, it will take half an hour between Evanston and the city. It was very fast to go anywhere. 

MZ: Basically they were infrequent visits to the neighborhood…?
LL: Visits, exactly. But more often than one would think ...

MZ: And you were getting to know the colonies ...?
LL: Every end of the month or week, whenever I could escape from my studies, I was going to visit the Mexican places. When I wanted to have my hair cut — I was looking for a Mexican barber. In addition, there were shops, barbers, restaurants there by the Halsted and Taylor. In front of Hull House, there was a Spanish restaurant — there I went to eat. And there was also a store where they sold records and books from Mexico, which I bought there near Hull House.

MG: And then there were Mexican readers among immigrant workers.
LL: Of course!

MZ: And they could buy groceries to cook them in the Mexican way.
LL: Oh yes, too. But not many things — they could not buy sweet bread, for example. I remember that they sold tortillas in cans.

MG: But the people there in the restaurants made tortillas?
LL: Yes, among the restaurants there was one that did pozole. The people who opened restaurants and other businesses came from Michoacán or Guanajuato or Jalisco, Zacatecas ... Of course they are more, much more mestizo Indians ... There were not many people from the north like us. More than Michoacán all almost came from the center of Mexico ... And that confirmed Manuel Gamio in his studies. He had the idea that few people asked: Where did they come from? Who are they? They are not [the] Mexicans but people from a particular part of Mexico. He studied remittances before everyone-through the study of remittances one could learn where people came from ... 

MG: Yes, where they were sending the money is where they came from ...
LL: When I arrived, I already knew Gamio had gone, but I knew about him and I knew his book. It was very important, Gamio. The statistics were from few people-those who arrived before me, from a few people, but from Michoacán, Guanajuato, and then Jalisco and Zacatecas ...

MZ: And in East Chicago there were also many Mexicans? The community was great too?
LL: In East Chicago, Indiana Harbor there were some who worked and lived here in East Chicago (looking at the map). All this was Mexican — all this. Also, in South Chicago where the packing houses were — there were many conflicts with the Poles because some Mexicans fell in love with the Polish girls and many married.

MZ: But in those times, in the 20s and 30s, the Mexican community was much one of men than of women ...? Many families had not arrived yet?
LL: Very few families arrived, and loose men are always a threat. They are the ones who arrived — many Irish, many Poles. In the Halsted-Taylor Street area there were many Italians too. Here (looking at the map) is the Polish colony because they work here too. And others-Czechs, Bohemians. It’s something like in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, but that book is about the immigrant workers of the packinghouse world before the Mexicans arrived. When the Mexicans came on the scene, they rented rooms in houses that weren’t their own, but that sometimes some veteran immigrants bought and used to rent to the recent arrivals and prices higher than if they were renting a whole floor to a family. All residential stock involved brick two-story houses. And it’s near those houses where they built the church of the Virgin of Guadalupe-the first church specifically dedicated to the Mexican community that was first on a street near Commercial Avenue.

MZ: But Don Luis in these years when the Mexicans went to the churches in the south of the city, they went to Polish and Italian churches, right?
LL: Yes there was even a French girl — I remember once I went and it was a French church ... very far from the area of Hull House and Taylor Street where I most frequent .... Even when they founded the Guadalupe church in the 1920s, I think they didn’t have a Mexican priest. I think that in the closest church that was a few blocks from Hull House and very close to the Maxwell Street market, St. Francis Church, the Italian priest started trying to give service in Italianized Spanish. So for us it became la iglesia de San Francisco.

MZ: Here in the book’s a picture of this church when it was moved from Taylor to Roosevelt Road ...
MG: And when do the Mexican women and kids start arriving in Chicago?
LL: There were few families in those early days, and many families were separated for many years. Many of the men arrived already married, but they left their women behind. Some brought the whole family later, but of course others forgot their families in Mexico and new families were formed in the city. And of course a lot of kids were Chicago-born.

MZ: But those who did the men marry then?
LL: In South Chicago, where many arrived without women, they circulated to the degree that they could among the Germans, the Irish, and then the Italian and Polish worker communities that were already there.  And were there marriages — many among Mexicans and Italians, Mexicans and Poles—Irish, many marriages! 

MZ: But on what occasions could the Mexicans meet the others?
LL: In the churches, at parties in restaurants and of course, they were in the churches. They were almost all Catholics, weren’t they? And there were ballrooms on Saturday nights ... and there were also dances. 

MZ: But who organized the dances?
LL: They were business or commercial, they were dance after the games between soccer teams and other sports. 

MZ: But you could see in the streets Mexican man with a Polish woman?
LL: In South Chicago, yes — but not near union Station or Halsted. The South of Chicago was the race washer.

MG: What a phrase ...
LL:  Yes, there in that steel mill colony, they washed many a Mexican!


Racism and Assimilation

MZ: In your interview with Víctor Fuentes he asks if you had experienced discrimination and you say no. And I thought well he had to have experienced some discrimination; and I wanted to know if you really didn’t find any — for example, where you lived, if you didn’t feel once in a while that something like “who is this guy?” “Where does that accent come from?” I mean, you never felt at least some tension?
LL: I don’t remember having problems like that. More in Urbana — much more. Once we had a party at my house and my neighbor asked me where were you from? And I told him about Mexico, and he said, “Well, we all have to come from somewhere.” That took place in Urbana, but I don’t remember anything like that in Chicago. 

MZ: Well there are people who have told me things like that, and that certainly contradicts what other Chicago mexicanos have told me about their experiences with discrimination, astigmatism and things like that
LL: Well, on second thought, yes, I remember a case of discrimination. There was a cantina and two Spanish restaurants on North Ashland Street. We went to one of them for lunch with the Consul of Mexico and there was a sign: “The entry of Mexicans is forbidden!”

MZ: In a Spanish restaurant?
MG: How did you interpret that?
LL: Well I said let’s go.

MZ: But they were talking more about the poor, right?
LL: Sure, the Mexicans for them were poor people, working class or “lumpen” ... Even today, when you say Mexicans, most people think you’re talking about Mexican indio or mestizo peasants, right? I remember for example in 1933 the Independence Day of Mexico, right? Then there were announcements of the World Series ... but I went there to buy books to the Halsted in front of the Hull House exactly where it is in the Polk, there was a cinema also where we went.

 MZ: That’s now a parking lot directly in front of the UIC Student Union and Hull House on Halsted ...
LL: Well, we also went to Halsted Liquors, where they sold newspapers. And I published some things in the ABC. 

MZ: A local newspaper?
LL: Yes ...the ABC, which came out in the1930s…. 

MZ: (looking at the map): Halsted Liquors was on the corner with Maxwell Street — the street of the Jews and of course the Blacks entered there as well; It was a mix of people in the market ...
LL: And there, too, they developed a great Pan-American party for the race day with the support of the American West End Women’s club ... (showing the program of one). 

MZ: This group was Mexican?
LL: I don’t remember this ... But I looked at the Mexican mutual societies that were involved ... 

MZ: Ah! The mutualistas still existed in the 40s — I didn’t know. ... and (looking at the papers) look, announce a musical group, Juan Rosa and his Pan-Americans — a group of Mexicans or several Latino groups.
LL: Yes, look at the program: “Master of ceremonies, Luis Leal, University of Chicago.” 

MZ: “Don Luis in ‘43 before he went to war.”
LL: Before, I had already been a master of ceremonies before. 

MZ: In other years?
LL: Here it is again: “master of ceremonies Luis Leal” — all my life in Chicago. 

MZ: In these national holidays there were parades?
LL: Yes, yes, on Halsted Street and Ashland. 

MZ: When do you remember the first parade you attended?
LL: In the thirties. But in the forties, when the war was going on, in the parades and the parties, more American flags could be seen more than the Mexican flags-even near the consulate. 

MZ: So assimilation was in motion ...
LL: Yes, even after the repatriations of the 30s. But assimilation was not going to continue. The Mexicans of Chicago were going to have other trajectories ...



[1] For a sampling of his work from his Chicago days to the end of his career, see Luis Leal, A Luis Leal Reader, ed. with an introduction by Ilan Stavans. Evanston. Northwestern University Press, 2007

[2] Mario García, Luis Leal: An Auto/Biography. Austin, Texas. U. of Texas Press 2000.


Marc Zimmerman has authored and edited some 30 books, including Lines on the Border and The Italian Daze (2017), and The Short of it All (forthcoming in 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.