Pilsen and Mexican Chicago

Pilsen and Mexican Chicago

Pilsen is as important to Mexicans in Chicago as El Barrio is to Puerto Rican New York and Little Havana to Cuban Miami for two key reasons. First, because Pilsen laid the foundation for the evolving “Mexican metropolis.” As the first Latino-majority community in Chicago and the main port of entry for Mexicans arriving in city from 1950 to 1980, Pilsen’s growing population spilled over into adjacent neighborhoods and suburbs such as Little Village and Cicero. Currently, this “city within the city” contains over 400,000 Latinos, mainly Mexicans, and blankets a good portion of Chicago’s Southwest side and nearby suburbs.

Second, Pilsen has served as the political and cultural center of Mexican Chicago for the past forty years. Some of the most important political movements of Chicago’s Mexican community are rooted in Pilsen, including the first large-scale campaigns for electoral representation in the early 1980s and the contemporary immigrant rights movement. For instance, “Immigrant’s Spring,” the mass mobilization of millions of people throughout the country in 2006, originated in Pilsen. As a cultural center, Pilsen attracts Mexicans from throughout Chicago and the Midwest who visit the neighborhood, not only to eat and shop, but also to attend religious services and cultural events. Thousands attend the Fiesta del Sol (the largest Latino festival in the Midwest), the Via Cruxis (Good Friday Procession), and the Pilsen Open Studio among other events.

The Pilsen we know today arose from a distinct set of circumstances and conditions. A brief discussion of the early history of Mexicans in Pilsen is necessary to understand the evolution to the present community and why it is important to Mexican Chicago.


The Mexicanization of Pilsen, 1950–1970

Seeking a quality of life that their neighborhood could not provide, thousands of “white ethnics”—Poles, Italians, Lithuanians, Croatians, Slovaks and Czechs—fled Pilsen for suburbia between 1950 and 1970. They found a lifestyle completely opposite from the one they left behind: new and much larger single-family homes with garages and the latest appliances, super markets with large parking lots, parks, and better schools. They also found an orderliness, quietness, and cleanliness that was not available in Chicago’s older working class neighborhoods. Living in suburbia represented for them upward mobility to middle class status and a social distancing from their working class roots in Pilsen.

The exit of “white ethnics” from Pilsen left a large housing vacuum that Mexicans came to fill. Most were poor migrants who came to Chicago, searching for good-paying industrial work that would uplift them from poverty. Their numbers in Pilsen increased from less than 1 percent in 1950 to 55 percent by 1970 (25,000 inhabitants), a figure that was, in reality, much higher considering the many undocumented workers who were not counted in the census. As one of the 77 communities that make up Chicago, Pilsen (also known as the Lower West Side) became the first community in the history of the city to have a Latino majority. This turned out to be an important landmark in the history of Mexicans and Latinos in Chicago. After a fifty-year presence in the city, they finally had their own neighborhood, a place that they could claim as their own.

At first glance, Pilsen’s revolving door of fleeing Europeans and migrating Mexicans followed the historic pattern of ethnic successions, beginning in the 1880s when Czechs and Slovaks replaced Irish and Germans. A closer examination reveals that this transformation was more than just another ethnic succession, mainly because it occurred in the decades of profound changes generated by the massive disappearance of industrial employment in Chicago. The long era of industrial expansion, the motor of the Chicago economy, was coming to an end. Chicago lost over 400,000 manufacturing jobs during the second half of the 20th century as industries closed their doors, trimmed down on their work force, or moved their operation to suburbs, other parts of the U.S., and low-wage countries such as Mexico.

Within this context, the metropolitan area has been in constant flux due to massive migrations of people in and out of the city: on the one hand, the white flight to the suburbs, and, on the other, the large inflow of African Americans from the South (1940–1970) and Latinos into Chicago. The fear of minorities as neighbors, mainly African Americans, further accelerated the white flight to the suburbs, especially after the urban riots of the 1960s. The city has lost close to one million inhabitants from 1950 to the present. During this time the demographics of city shifted from 86 % white to the 68 % African American and Latino majority of today.

De-industrialization had devastating effects on the working class, especially on the growing minority communities in the city that were becoming more and more segregated in terms of race, class, and income. The loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs (many of them unionized) over the decades has largely contributed to the “urban problem;” a “problem” associated with impoverished minority communities plagued by high rates of unemployment and deterioration of the housing stock, local business districts, infrastructure, services, and public education. All of this resulted in high-rates of substance addiction, violence, school drop-outs, and female-led households.

The exodus of ethnics to suburbs facilitated the “Mexicanization” of Pilsen during the formative years of (1950–1970). Mexicans took over an ageing neighborhood on the verge of abandonment. Even though the process of de-industrialization was well advanced, manufacturing work could still be found during this time. For that reason Mexican migrants poured into Chicago. Driven by poverty, better work, a place to call home or simply a new start, these Mexicans entered Pilsen from three different trails: Chicago’s Near West Side, Texas, and Mexico. In so doing, they engaged in the dual act of unmaking their communities of origin and remaking new communities.

The first trail involved many of the 9,000 second and third generation U.S.-born Mexicans (few spoke Spanish) who had been displaced from Chicago’s Near West Side, the multi-ethnic community that contained the largest concentration of Mexicans from 1920 to 1960. Unable to afford life in the suburbs, most of them moved only a few blocks south, landing in Pilsen, a neighborhood that in many ways resembled their old “tenement” neighborhood that was being bull-dozed to build the University of Illinois Chicago-Circle campus, one of Mayor Daley’s prized urban renewal projects. The second originated in South Texas and involved migrants laboring in the orchards and fields of the Midwest. Seeking to end their semi-nomadic lifestyles, educate their children, and find better-paying employment, thousands of Tejano farm workers, perhaps the poorest of workers in the U.S, abandoned the migrant trails in the 1960s and settled through out the Chicago area. The third and largest trail originated in Mexico. It involved thousands of undocumented workers and permanent residents who came to Chicago to earn wages that would uplift their families from poverty.

These three trails came together in Pilsen and neighboring Little Village, the two main ports-of-entry for Mexican migrants in Chicago from 1950 to the 1980s. On this migration, a journalist in 1969 noted, “They come by the thousands through hope, despair, and whatever else it is that causes a man to give up an old familiar way of life and take up the unknown . . . whatever the reason, they come to Chicago to wait and see if life will better for them here.” Given that most settled permanently in the city, Chicago represented an improvement over their previous lives. The low rents, proximity to various sources of employment, and the comfort of being around many Mexicans brought them together in Pilsen.


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Slum, Powerlessness, and Existentialist Rebellion 

Having a Mexican majority that was constantly replenish by incoming migrants did not mean that Pilsen automatically became the neighborhood that we know in the present. In addition to being the port-of-entry for many Mexicans, three important points need to be emphasized in order to understand why Pilsen is the center of today’s Mexican Chicago. First, Mexicans inherited a slum, a neighborhood that was one of Chicago’s “tenement districts.” Second, the Mexican community was relatively powerless during this time. Lastly, the residents of Pilsen underwent an existentialist rebellion during the late 1960s and early 1970s, led by youth, activists, and artists.

As the latest settlers in Pilsen, Mexicans inherited a slum without future prospects in light of the deterioration of the housing stock, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs from the city and neighborhood, and the threats from the City of Chicago to demolish the neighborhood in the late 1960s. Over 1,000 dwellings were demolished between 1960 and 1977, a figure equalling 15 % of Pilsen’s housing stock (it is rumored that, for insurance purposes, arsonists incinerated many buildings). Marcos Raya, Pilsen’s distinguished artist, recalled the impression that Pilsen left on him when he saw it for the first time in the mid-1960s, stating that it “looked like Tijuana in the 50s-I thought I was on the set of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It was dark, violent, and dangerous, with a lot of vice, gangs, drugs, and poverty . . . I was very scared.”

In spite of the slum-like conditions, Mexicans made this “tenement district” their home and did their best to make it livable. Although most were renters, a few bought homes and others opened small businesses catering to the growing Mexican presence in the neighborhood and city, from travel agencies to tortillerías and taquerías. Considering most of the new resident came from the Bajío states of Mexico, many restaurants specialized in carnitas, birria, and barbacoa. For example, Jalisco-inspired names for restaurants included El Alteño, Tlaquepaque, Tepatitlán, and Chapala. Other businesses followed the paths of their displaced customers from the Near West Side such as Tito’s Hacienda and La Casa del Pueblo. “For many Mexicans,” a journalist wrote in 1969, “Chicago became synonymous with Pilsen.” Mexicans living throughout the metropolitan area flocked to Pilsen in the early 1970s to eat (over 100 restaurants), shop (over 60 grocery stores and supermarkets), drink (over 110 taverns), entertainment (one movie theatre and eight pool halls), and worship (eight Catholic parishes).

The second feature relates to the relative powerlessness of the residents despite Pilsen having become a Mexican majority neighborhood. To be powerlessness did not mean that that the residents were apolitical. On the contrary, they had an acute sense of politics—more precisely, a recognition of their relative powerlessness in relation to those who wielded power over them. Their powerlessness manifested itself in many ways, including: the undocumented workers’ condition of illegality led to exploitation and abuses from employers, coupled with the reign of fear resulting from “la migra’s” raids in the workplace and neighborhood; they were devout Catholics but could not attend mass (until mid-1960s) in the neighborhood parishes that “belonged” to older ethnics (St. Pious offered its first Spanish-language mass in 1963—in the parish’s basement); slumlords, violated city codes and ignored the housing needs of tenants; schools neglected the language and cultural needs of Spanish-speaking children; the City of Chicago disregarded public services; and elected officials, such Alderman Vito Marzullo, did not heed the needs of the community.

After decades of invisibility, the mainstream press came to acknowledge Chicago’s increasing presence of Mexicans. Their reporting indirectly touched on the Pilsen residents’ powerlessness. Take the case of a major newspaper that assigned two reporters in 1971 to “discover” the Mexican world of Pilsen. The reporters rented a room in Pilsen and went undercover for three weeks. Ignorant of the Spanish-language and all things Mexican (they reported that the jukeboxes at taverns played “bullfight music”), they wrote, “Pilsen is a community filled with suspicion of the Anglo word—a world of distrust and sometimes fear, and often a bad deal, a shakedown, or a put down. There are wetbacks in Pilsen, and it is the Anglo world that finds them and sends them back.” In spite of the transparent racism involved in this reporting, they emphasized the insults, humiliations, and poor treatment that people, who are devoid of power, face on a regular basis.

This powerless led the residents in two different directions. The first involved those who passively accepted their powerlessness and either withdrew into their private lives or engaged in deviant behavior like alcohol abuse and drug addiction (Pilsen was an important drug distribution point for the Midwest, especially with the introduction of brown heroin, or “Mexican mud,” from Mexico.), and violence emanating from the growth of turf-gangs (some gang members became politicized and joined groups such as the Brown Berets). Pilsen acquired a reputation as a dangerous neighborhood.

The second direction involved the pro-active attempts of residents to overcome their powerlessness by uniting under a common desire; defending Pilsen from threats of destruction and improving the quality of life of the residents. As one of the oldest neighborhoods, the City of Chicago threatened to put Pilsen on the list of “blighted” communities in the late 1960s, a polite term for slum. This represented the first step for “urban renewal,” which the residents understood to mean “urban removal.” Having experienced displacement, the former residents of the Near West Side living in Pilsen clearly understood the meaning of “urban renewal.” Residents joined parishes and community organizations, such as Pilsen Neighborhood Community Council (PNCC) and the Alianza Latinoamerican para el Adelanto Social (ALAS), in the struggle to preserve Pilsen. Their fight to remove Pilsen from the “blighted” list was successful. However, another threat soon followed-Chicago Plan 21 Development Plan, which aimed at slowing the white flight from the city by developing middle-class housing near the Loop. Resembling the present situation in Pilsen, activists protested Plan 21 claiming that it would eventually lead to large-scale displacement due to property speculation, higher taxes and rents.

Residents and activists made two symbolic claims in their acts to defend Pilsen from “urban renewal.” First, that the neighborhood belonged to them and, second, they had the right to live in the city. The motto “Pilsen belongs to us” incited residents and activists to actively support a variety of struggles directed at improving the quality of life of residents, from better housing, public services, and education to access to health services and employment opportunities. They established community organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, among which included Mujeres Latinas en Acción, El Hogar del Nino, Instituto del Progreso Latino, Spanish Coalition for Jobs, Asociación Pro-Derechos Obreros (APO), Latino Youth, Benito Juearez Health Clinic, and El Centro de la Causa. Some organizations worked closely with the “establishment” while others used more “anti-establishment” confrontational tactics in their campaigns.

The struggles to defend Pilsen and improve the quality of life of the residence coincided with the individual and collective existentialist rebellion that activists, artists, and young people underwent. They entertained the big questions: Who am I? Who are we as a people? Do we belong here? Where did we come from and where are we going? One of the outcomes of this rebellion was to inform Chicago that “we are not invisible,” “we exist,” and “we belong here.” The other part had to do with identity and, at the start, what was promulgated was “brown pride,” a badge of pride for Mexicans after decades of entailed shame. “Brown pride” led to praising all things Mexican (often uncritically), from historical subjects (Aztecs, Aztlán, Juárez, Zapata) and values (family, faith, festivities, food) to enthusiastically supporting important struggles such as the United Farmworkers Union of César Chávez.

As an expression of nationalism, brown pride served as the starting point for the articulation of Pilsen’s political movements and aesthetic expressions. In the case of politics, activists who remained within the narrow elements of brown pride endorsed proponents of Chicano cultural nationalism, such as Casa Aztlán during the 1970s. Others who tended to be more pragmatic, like the PNCC, followed the Alinskyan model of community organizing by taking on only easily won issues like the struggle for Benito Juárez High School. The most radicals joined groups like the Centro de Acción Social Autonomo-Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA-HGT) which focused on the defense of the undocumented worker, under the slogan “somos un pueblo sin fronteras.” Over the 1970s and early 1980s CASA-HGT organized against Plan 21, among other issues affecting Pilsen. Led by the charismatic Rudy Lozano (1951–1983), perhaps the most important Latino leader of this era, CASA-HGT initiated the May 1st marches in Pilsen, built coalitions with progressive groups in the city, and followed the line of “independent political action” within the electoral arena (the members played a key role in the 1983 election of Harold Washington, the first African American mayor in Chicago).

All these groups differed ideologically and tactically in their attempts to make Pilsen a better neighborhood. In spite of marching to different tunes, the variety of struggles earned Pilsen the reputation of being a community of resistance, one that has survived to the present (see Kari Lydersen’s article in this issue on how Pilsen became a national symbol of the green movement in this country).

The aesthetic movement accompanied the political struggles. Rooted in brown pride, Pilsen artists went in different aesthetic directions, from themes reflecting Chicano cultural nationalism, Mexican folklore, and Latino pan-ethnicity to proletarian struggles (for two different interpretations on Pilsen’s cultural expressions, see Francisco Piña and Mark Zimmerman’s articles in this issue). These artists worked hard to give Pilsen a new image, as Andrew Greeley, a priest and sociologist (and future best selling novelist), noted in the early 1970s, “a new riot has exploded in the City of Chicago—a riot of color . . . No one seems to be sure just how the color riot began. Apparently the Latins started it, and today the Latin area of Pilsen is the most ingeniously colorful neighborhood in the city . . . Pilsen was built by the Bohemians and painted by the Latins.” This was one of the ways Mexicans worked in making Pilsen their home and, at the same time, transforming Chicago’s appearance, what Mike Davis called “tropicalizing cold places.”

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From the Lens of Pilsen: The Latinization of Chicago and the US

In spite of having four centuries of roots in this country, the presence of Latinos has never been felt as strongly as in the past five decades. This is largely due to their population growth that has spread to all parts of the country. In 1967, when Pilsen became a Mexican majority barrio, the United States reached the 200 million population benchmark. The US reached the 300 mllion mark in 2006 and Latinos contributed 36% to that figure (followed by blacks with 34%). Fueled by massive legal and undocumented immigration, the number of Latinos increased from 8.5 to over 53 million between 1967 and 2013, or from 4.2% of the total population to 17 percent. In the case of the Chicago metropolitan area, Latinos contributed 96% of the region’s overall population growth between 1970 and 2004.

This demographic growth has been one of the most striking developments of our times, one that has changed the face of this country beyond recognition, from labor markets and national politics to replacing African Americans as the so-called largest “minority.” For lack of a better name, we can call these transformations the “Latinization of the U.S.,” an ongoing process that will continue to shape the future of this country. When it comes to evaluating the overall impact that immigrants have over this country, perhaps only the Irish and German migrations of the 19th century compares with the Great Mexican and Latino migration of the past decades.

Pilsen provides an excellent bird’s eye view to observe key developments and problems of contemporary society, including the “Latinization of the U.S.” As has been noted so far, the earlier history of Mexican Pilsen has unfolded independently from the histories of other communities in Chicago and the U.S. In other words, the history of the Mexicanization of Pilsen is different from other communities such as Little Village, Englewood (African American), Humboldt Park (Puerto Rican), and East Los Angeles. Yet, at the same time, Pilsen’s past parallels other community histories in the sense that it corresponds to broader histories such as Chicano and African American (struggles for Civil Rights, Black and Brown power movements, etc.), American Urban (from de-industrialization to “global cities”) and Latin American/Mexican history (neo-liberalism, US economic and political domination, income inequality and other forces provoking immigration).

In other words, Pilsen serves as an excellent location to view the unfolding of contemporary history and how broader processes affect communities. As noted previously, de-industrialization and the white flight induced profound changes in shaping the Mexicanization of Pilsen. Today Chicago has one of the largest urban economies in the world and is a global city, one of the world’s centers that manages the financial, political, labor, legal, and information networks created by global economic transformation. The transition from industrial to global city did not happen overnight and this development cannot be explained if Latinos and immigrants are left out of this history. The story of this global city is not only about high-salaried financiers, lawyers, information technology specialists, advertisement consultants, well-known chefs, and politicians but also about the low-wage workers: the janitors, maids, busboys, landscapers, construction laborers, cooks and community activists.

As a community in the global city, Pilsen reflects the new era. The Pilsen of today looks very different from the Pilsen of decades past. For the past decade it has been moving from a slum to a “hipster” neighborhood, poor and working class to middle class, “parochial” to “cosmopolitan,” Mexican to a multi-ethnic community and so on. What is currently at stake in Pilsen is whether the working poor have the right to live in the city.

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Juan Mora-Torres. History professor at DePaul University and author of The Making of the Mexican Border.