Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago (Part II)

Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago (Part II)

Pilsen in the 1960s. Photo: Aurelio Barrios

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


Life in the Mexican Chicago 1892 – 1952

 A Further Look at Mexican Life in the Early Years

 Mark Zimmerman: Don Luis, I’d like to go back before we go forward, to get a closer look at the world of the early Mexicans in Chicago.
Luis Leal: Well, if you really want to go back, some say that even at the World’s Fair of 1892, set up to celebrate the so-called Discovery of America, that there was already a small colonia in Chicago and that Mexico sent a commission to make ties with that community. And some old-time Mexicans told me that it was mainly after the Fair and then with the Mexican Revolution that more and more Mexicans came and people began to talk about Mexican workers in Chicago and their many problems…. MZ: Today we talk a lot about transnational immigration, and the contact many Chicago Mexicans have now with their Mexican hometowns. What is your impression of the contact maintained by the immigrants throughout the early years of Chicago Mexican immigration and settlement? What contact did they still have with their homeland? A lot of contact? Or were they lost in the city?
LL: I believe, what happens with every immigrant when he arrives, the contact is very strong. Then little by little it weakens until there comes a time when that contact no longer exists, unless you have family in Mexico and see them again, but if you do not have relatives then you are isolated little by little.

MZ: How easy was it to travel to visit the family for the poor Mexican who arrives there in the early days?
LL: Well he can’t travel back without papers. So, he must have contact by phone or mail. How much does a phone call cost? Who will receive the call? What phones did they have in their homes or in their towns? E-mail they did not have. Gamio’s studies clarify much of this—what happened, the connections made and not made. But how many of the early Chicago Mexicans could write a letter? How many had the literacy to do it? Who could do it for them? There were bank credit houses where you could send the money by signing your X. In those days the Villarreal store or one of the other stores on Halsted could also do it. But it seems that the bulk of that correspondence that we’ve seen was not deeply expressive or reliable—maybe out of fear that the letters could be intercepted and misinterpreted, maybe because they might speak truths better kept hidden. Though maybe a future study will reveal many things we know too little about today.

MZ: But as far as you can remember, don Luis, the Mexican immigrants of the 30s were still speaking very broken English, and were having trouble with their English, while their children…
LL: The children were of course speaking as much if not more English than Spanish. Many southsiders lost their Spanish, because they lacked Spanish language contact; some of them married with women who didn’t speak Spanish; and naturally the non-Mexican mothers couldn’t speak Spanish to their children. The more recent arrivals who went to the Hull House area and then Pilsen maintained their language and culture more fully. But those from the oldest community on the Southside has lost many of their customs—they still have their events and go to the Guadalupe Church, and maintain some of their Spanish, but they lose a lot.

MG: The Mexican American generation is almost always more bilingual and bi-cultural…with the Anglo side of things gradually getting the upper hand.
LL: Yes, but in a place like Chicago, with so many different ethnicities, Mexicans might learn Irish English, German English, and so on, instead of the standard norms…

MZ. That is certainly so, and I’ve written about that—what I’ve called “lateral acculturation.” But I think that today, especially since the Mexican immigration explosion of the 1980s, we can say that we have many children of immigrants who speak almost as much Spanish as they do English, whatever the variety…
LL: But in South Chicago, in the 20s and on, in the factory, or the restaurant or other sites where many Germans, and Irish worked, the Mexicans had to handle themselves in English or lose their jobs. It was sink or swim.

MG: I think the “Chicago difference” also has to do with the distance from Mexico and also not having 19th century historical roots that connect people more fully with those on the other side of a nearby border.
LL: And of course,there wasn’t a long history of organizations developing that were doing enough to help them—the city and government agencies did very little, and the Mexican Consulate didn’t do much either, because they had their own agenda.

MZ: And looking in from the outside, you didn’t see much participation or help coming from the Church and the mutualista societies the Mexicans formed?
LL: Well that’s right. I don’t think the Catholic Church and the mutualistas did such great things either. And you have to see the development of the Church’s dealings with the Mexican community in relation to their overall work with Catholic ethnics and this in relation to Chicago politics of course. Except for the Afro-Americans, almost the entire working class was Catholic, but the Church and the city’s political apparatus was centered on the Irish and then on other white ethnics. And we know there’s a great debate over whether the church helped or didn’t help or what degree they helped those who were considered of another race. Because many Mexicans became Protestants too. And I believe that this happened because the Church failed to give them the spiritual as well as the material food they needed feeling themselves isolated and subject to discrimination. And all the problems got worse with the depression.


Repatriation, Latino Youth and Organizing during the Depression

MZ: I know that maybe you do not know all the facts and statistics, but I’d like your impressions of about Chicago Mexicans during this period. First of all, there was a lot of deportation of Mexicans during the depression. Did you see any of that?
LL: It was supposed to be voluntary. I did not live it—and the newspapers said little about it, but lots of people told me it was very difficult, and many of those who were pushed out had a right to stay. But I should add that I don’t think the deportations were felt as much in Chicago as elsewhere because I think the city was pulling out of the depression even before the war. Here, there was enough work for more workers. Workers were needed and that increased with the war, as many Mexicans arrived to work in the war industries. And among them, I think, were many who had left in the 30s. But I will say, at least some of the more educated Chicago Mexicans started new social service and cultural venues that verbalized and fought against some of the worst problems and abuses Mexicans were suffering.

MZ: Tell me what you remember about Mexican youth in the period before the war…
LL: Well more of the young people of the 40s were preparing to go to the army instead of going to the universities. But even many of the few of us attending universities ended up going—like me.

MZ: I’ve seen photos of zootsuiters in Chicago… Do you remember pachucos or zoot suiters in the city?
LL: Well yes, though I had little contact with them and in the photos I saw, at least some of them looked as if they were laughing at themselves—as if they were trying to act like those California zoot suiters. They weren’t as exaggerated, even when they tried. But the version here was more the style without the substance. I think Mario will agree that Chicago was a bridge not so much to pachuco life, but to the U.S. work world. That’s why Mexicans came, not because of the weather. There was so much work that there was little development of pachuquismo and little reason for extensive pachuco suppression as there was in L.A. for example.

MZ: Do you remember many problems with young people in those years?
LL: Well of course there were problems because of the treatment of the Mexican population in general and the alienation of the young from both their parents, their community, the schools and the larger society. Personally, I and several others had already been active in the late 30s and early 40s, arguing for Mexican rights and trying to get the Mexican Consulate more involved. I remember us having to find lawyers to defend one mexicano or another in relation to one supposed crime or another. Then too, I remember an M.A. thesis that focused on Chicago Mexican juvenile delinquency in the 1930s and 40s, and the author speaks of problems of youth alienation, marginalization, etc[1]. But I knew of no gangs of young people in these years. The idea that they were going to live their lives in the factories were matters young people talked about a lot. “My father is dying in that factory and they want me to go to work there.” They were not prepared to go to university and maybe war was a way out and up for some of them, if they didn’t get killed in the process.

MZ: I assume some of the activities you got involved in took place in relation to emerging organizations trying to help Chicago Mexicans.
MG: Yes, tell us about the new organizations and the more vocal Mexicans—the ones I guess who would correspond to my definition of the “Mexican American generation.”
LL: Well, one group we started in the early 40s was the Mexican American or Mexican Civic Committee (the MCC) with branches in the Jane Addams Hull House area and then on the Westside too—though that took on the name of the Mexican Civic Land Committee. We didn’t get too far, before WWII. But those of us who survived came back from the war with a more aggressive attitude, and we were ready to fight for a better Mexican infrastructure and agenda in the city. One of our first efforts was to give new life to the MCC, which we often called the Mexican Social Center. But the MCC never came to function very well throughout the rest of the 1940s. One reason had to do with the situation of the Mexican population, which was so weak and dependent; another reason was because of our problems with the Mexican consulate.

MZ: What’s an example of the first reason?
LL: Well, I was the director of the Education Committee and I got the local universities to give several scholarships for Chicago Mexicans from the colonias. But the problem was that I had the scholarships, but I couldn’t get candidates because few knew about them and almost nobody was prepared to go even if they did know. So I went to the radio to announce the program, and some people applied, but they were so few. So I quickly learned that the problem required a deeper solution involving early education and many things. But it would take much work and years to develop such a program.

MZ. Yes, it meant dealing with a political context of ethnic and racial structuring that we’re still fighting now. But tell me now about the second reason. Was the Center part of the consulate then?
LL: Yes, and that was part of the problem. The Consul General Mario Lacio Ponce helped us get started but he wanted to control the organization. We were great personal friends, and he wanted to make me vice president. But Frank Paz was already on the scene, and Frank was much more political than me. He was always in the fight. So, when we elected Paz our President over me and other members that Ponce would have preferred, he got upset, and then Paz got upset because he felt Ponce was trying to prevent the MCC from getting its own independent status. We certainly didn’t fail because of lack of effort. We had many meetings at Hull House to organize things; but Ponce’s people did not want us to take any tiny bit of control from the consulate.

MZ: That was always the fight ...
LL: Yes, the struggle with the consul and the consulate—maybe because of dictates coming from PRI bureaucrats in Mexico City…Our monthly Hull House meetings were always in Spanish with Mexican food, and Ponce always attended. But our great friendship began to break down as Paz and I, along with other members, saw him just cow-towing to the Mexican government’s efforts to control U.S. Mexican organizations. 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. In 1945, one of our best women leaders, Lucy Solano, wrote to Frank Paz about the mistreatment of some 500 arriving Mexicans. Paz followed up with a scathing letter that made waves and led Ponce to write a letter to the Mexican government about abuses to arriving Mexicans. But it was all too narrow, and Paz saw it all.[2]

MZ: Tell us a little more about Paz. He seems to have been an almost forgotten figure, and yet a key one in the Chicago Mexican community and your own involvements, even when I guess you began earning your doctorate at the University of Chicago.
LL: It’s funny because we were great friends and allies, and I respected him quite a lot. But I don’t remember much of his personal history—where he or his family came from. We were always so focused on the issues at hand. The fact is, I was fully involved in my studies, but it was Paz who saw to it that I attended the Center’s meetings and participated in whatever activities we could get going. Soon, he got me to join the Center and participate in monthly meetings at a place away from Hull House, on Randolph Street.

MZ: Could it be that the Mexican Social Center was a name that you, Paz and others took as something apart from the Consulate-controlled MCC?
LL: Yes, we remained in the MCC for a long time, but several of us also met as the Mexican Social Center where we took a stronger, independent line.

MZ: It all sounds quite subversive and revolutionary.
LL: Maybe so, but really little resulted from our efforts in the 1940s, until maybe 1949 when we were involved with the MCC (and of course the Consulate) in organizing a conference on the “The Status of Mexican Americans in Chicago.” And there, instead of the soft line of the Consul, 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.[3] 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. Paz had defined it, but little was done in response. He grew despondent, I think; and soon after the conference, he got an offer that sent him to the West Coast, and we lost contact after that.

MZ: So now your leader has gone and yet there was much to be done.
LL: Yes, really, by the 1950s, it was clear that the Church and the old mutualista groups had failed; and even newer organizations had remained too paternalistic and top-down (vertical, I think they call it now) to move things much along. The Mexican population was growing, now Puerto Ricans and others were coming into the city, but given the structure of things, it was hard to know what to do, even though it was easy to know that something had to be done.


The 1950s, The Mexican American Council and Latino Identification

MZ: In the early 50s, while you were in graduate school, you met people from Colombia and other parts of Latin America. And most of the Mexicans did not have as much contact with other Latinos as you did.
LL: I lived in front of the International House during my years at the University of Chicago, and many people came. And very gradually even in the 1930s, but growing more intense in the 40s and even more so in the 50s, with the Puerto Rican arrival, the concept of the Latino as a collective beyond our national and regional identities, and even beyond the racial, class, cultural and ideological divides came to the fore. The identification was never complete and there were always competitions and contradictions. Racism and classist divisions always existed but there were affinities and sometimes contact between Mexicans and people who came from other parts of Latin America...

MG: And of course nothing was heard about “Chicanos,” right?
LL: Not in the name before the 60s, although we knew that a new Mexican-American generation was being formed, and while many Midwest Mexicans had come from that part of Mexico that was now the U.S. southwest—especially from Texas—most Chicago Mexicans came Mexico itself. All in all, in the 40s and late into the 50s, I feel I was also making a contribution to this new Latino cultural identity, even as I worked with others in trying to help Chicago Mexican neighborhoods and families.

MZ: What were the key things you participated in during the early 50s?
LL: I stayed on in the MCC and the Mexican Center. But then we reformed everything as the Mexican American Council in late September, 1952.

MZ: And you spent a lot of time in this period at Hull House working on Mexican activist projects…
LL: We had our offices there. But we were completely independent of their own work with Mexicans and other immigrant groups.

MZ: They offered you the office to do your own thing. So, what was the project?
LL: 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: “they treated me badly in my worksite.”

MZ: You could you find lawyers for people like that?
LL: Lawyers and doctors.

MZ: And you had more meetings with the community?
LL: Yes Hull House let us have meetings there to air community problems.

MZ: And people came?
LL: Yes. People came.

MZ: What problems do you remember most?
LL: Above all it was about immigration. It was about citizenship, health problems, school and work problems. But I should note that it wasn’t only Mexicans who came to us. Many of the non-Mexican Latinos came by too.

MZ: So here again is that connection to other Latinos—because, of course, in those days when you are forming your organization, Puerto Ricans are already arriving; there are more Colombians and Ecuadorians arriving; there are other people arriving. When is the first time you thought to use the word Latino, for example to speak of the larger social group even if it was mainly Mexican?
LL: Well it was that same year, 1952, when we decided to publish the magazine Vida Latina, and we chose that name with the idea of uniting everyone.

MZ: Did you hear some people say, “I’m not Latino. I’m Mexican.” You never heard that?
LL: No. “I still don’t have a sense of being Latino.” Nobody said that; nobody that I remember ever said, “I don’t want to be called Latino.” I don’t remember that attitude ever expressed.

MZ: If they had a dance night, they would play Mexican music, and then something Caribbean.
LL: Yes, tangos, mambos, danzones and all the Latin music.

MZ: Every kind of Latin music was going on in Mexico City.
MG: It all came to L.A. too.
LL: And Chicago of course. I think that was how this Latino thing started—with Hollywood movies: the Latin lover like Valentino, with the sultry Latina like Dolores del Río and Rita Hayworth ...

MZ: Maybe you remember in the 50s that famous essay in Esquire Magazine: “Latins are Lousy Lovers.”
LL: Yes—what an insult! But it wasn’t the Latinos they were talking about—it was the Italians, like Valentino.

MZ: I think that in Chicago we have an awareness of being a space where Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and others came together to take on that new Latino identity before that process happened consciously elsewhere. What you say is important because Félix Padilla wrote a book arguing that the Latino identification came about in the late 60s and early 70s, and for political reasons. [4] But you indicate, and the magazine’s name proves, that the Latino label was already established in the early 1950s.
LL: Yes, in the years after the war, really, even though I worked mainly on Mexican social and political issues, my work became more and more related to improving the cultural infrastructure in relation to the overall Latino community as it began to take form. For example, I worked to establish a radio special in Spanish, with Rafael Pérez as program director and María Vargas involved in many of the program’s activities. And then came the biggest thing I became involved in during the early 50s and beyond—Vida Latina, which also appeared in 1952.



[1] Leal is here half-remembering Edward Jackson Baur’s fine study Delinquency among Mexican Boys in South Chicago.” Master’s thesis, University of Chicago, 1938.

[2] For other details about the roles of Solano and Paz, see Lila Fernandez, Brown in the Windy City (2011: 39).

[3] The “scathing account” was published by Paz as “Mexican-Americans in Chicago: A General Survey,” which Lilia Fernandez found in the files of Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago—speech 7, folder 4, box 149), and which she cites in Brown in the Windy City, pp. 51, 67-68, 79 and 82.

[4] Félix Padilla, Latino Ethnic Consciousness. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press 1985.


Press link to read "Part I." 

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.