A Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, 1987. (Santi Visalli / Getty Images)
Located in Chicago's historic Pilsen neighborhood, 1831 South Racine Avenue is currently the site of a luxury shared-living complex. Advertised as having 'eliminated things that make city living a challenge,' Pilsen Coliving offers its tenants private beds and bathrooms inside a completely furnished suite that they share with others. Outfitted with hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, washers and dryers, subway-tiled bathrooms,
and sterile white walls, the units are cleaned every week, and basic household items are resupplied whenever they're needed. Residents are pampered with a lavish list of amenities: The complex contains a fitness center, a theater room, a picnic patio, and a lounge area. Even though this means the residents hardly need to leave the building, they can also, if they're feeling adventurous enough, explore a 'culturally diverse neighborhood with a booming art scene, authentic fare, and exciting nightlife.'
The structure at 1831 South Racine was built in 1905 by the Women's Presbyterian Society for Home Missions. It was christened the Howell Neighborhood House and provided services to recent European immigrants. In 1970, community activists replaced and renamed it Casa Aztlán, and it was soon a space for activists to build coalitions, rally against police brutality, organize against the criminalization of immigrants, and provide essential services to the Pilsen community. Casa Aztlán's exterior became a canvas for muralists who created radiant pieces of art. Incorporating a dazzling array of colors and concepts, the murals that covered the outside walls were influenced by Aztec symbolism, revolutionary figures, and the militant spirit that was alive throughout the city and country. For the 40-plus years of its existence, Casa Aztlán was arguably the cultural and political capital of Mexican Chicago. The story of how a place like 1831 South Racine went from being the Howell House to Casa Aztlán to Pilsen Coliving is the focus of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification, a new book by Georgetown University historian Mike Amezcua.
Taking his readers on a walking tour of Pilsen, as well as Little Village, the Near West Side, and Back of the Yards, Amezcua chronicles how these neighborhoods, in the aftermath of World War II, became the nucleus of Chicago's emergence as a Mexican metropolis. Whereas other important works on Latinx Chicago, such as Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas's Latino Crossings and Lilia Fernández's Brown in the Windy City, examine Mexicans and Puerto Ricans alongside one another, Amezcua is interested in situating the 'Mexican experience' and 'its everyday contests over neighborhoods, segregation, and the white defense of property rights' in a broader multiracial and multiethnic narrative. Ultimately, he provides critical insights into how Mexicans and Mexican Americans fought for inclusion—residentially, politically, economically, and culturally—in the Windy City.
In Making Mexican Chicago, Amezcua sets out to accomplish two things. First, he wants to retell the story of how Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans helped transform communities throughout Chicago. As he shows, the Mexicanization of neighborhoods like the Near West Side and Little Village was not the result of natural processes; it was the product of residential segregation, postwar immigration, and urban renewal. But it was also driven by individuals like Anita Villarreal, a real estate agent and political broker who makes an appearance in nearly every chapter of the book, as well as groups like the Mexican American Democratic Organization and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council. Where white Chicagoans saw postwar deindustrialization, capital flight, and dwindling property values, Mexican Americans saw an opportunity to turn housing vacancies and unstable neighborhoods into stable Mexican colonias during the 1960s and '70s. By focusing on how Mexicans created their neighborhoods and, as a result, remade the city as a whole, Amezcua offers not only a tale of residential segregation but a look at how that segregation was opposed through coalition building, increased political influence, and barrio capitalism. Whether it was frustration with the federal programs of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society or with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's Democratic political machine, many Mexicans in the city began to express disillusionment with the liberal political order. For some, this led them to the militant activism of the Chicano movement. But for others, it resulted in championing small-business capitalism, homeownership, and a bootstrap mentality.
Amezcua's second objective in Making Mexican Chicago, and perhaps the more ambitious one, is to offer a longue durée account of the xenophobic and anti-Latinx sentiments that came to the fore during Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign. Moving block by block through communities with rapidly changing demographics, Amezcua demonstrates that between the 1940s and the 1960s, 'white ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods became incubators of anti-immigration and anti-Latino sensibilities.' Offering a portrait of the attitudes of residents, neighborhood associations, precinct captains, and aldermen, Amezcua makes it clear how reactionary politics materialized in cities long before it burst onto the scene as a national politics.
Amezcua's neighborhood-by-neighborhood account of the Mexicanization of Chicago begins in the Near West Side. Here we see how the processes of demolition and deportation united to dispossess Mexicans of their hard-earned victories in the city. Although the impacts of liberal New Deal and postwar housing policies were most harmful to Black communities, their segregationist implications also divided formerly multiethnic and multiracial neighborhoods. The Near West Side was one of them. During World War II, slum clearance and urban renewal emerged as a lucrative avenue for private and public profit. Together, City Hall politicians and downtown businessmen engineered novel arrangements for 'exploiting public policy to revitalize areas for private profit and to redirect the increasing flow of capital that was streaming out to the suburbs in the postwar years.' The product of this partnership was state legislation like the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act and the Relocation Act of 1947 and the Urban Community Conservation Act of 1953. These laws led to the creation of governmental bodies like the Chicago Land Clearance Commission (CLCC), which had the power to appropriate private property through eminent domain, demolish the buildings, and sell the land to private developers—all while circumventing federal antidiscrimination policies.
By 1956, Amezcua tells us, the CLCC had slated the Mexican Near West Side for demolition to make way for the Harrison-Halsted project. In 1959, with the project now in progress, it remained unclear to residents and small-business owners what the bulldozed areas of the Near West Side would eventually become. Creating more confusion was the fact that City Hall continued to deny bids from private developers seeking to build new residential and commercial properties in the area. In September 1960, the reason for this became clear: Mayor Daley had offered the Harrison-Halsted site to the University of Illinois for its Chicago Circle campus. Rezoning this area for a public university allowed the city to take advantage of millions in federal dollars appropriated for urban renewal projects, and it sent a powerful message to downtown businessmen that the city was intent on 'revitalizing' the Loop district and its environs. From 1959 to 1964, eminent domain displaced nearly 5,000 Mexicans in the area.
The history that Amezcua tells in Making Mexican Chicago is both inspiring and agonizing. The story of Refugio Martinez is one example: After emigrating from Tamaulipas, Mexico, to Chicago in the 1920s, Martinez witnessed the horrors of Mexican repatriation during the Great Depression, when local and federal agencies scapegoated ethnic Mexicans, regardless of their citizenship status, for the country's suffering economy. The result was the removal of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many of whom were US citizens. During this period, Martinez joined leftist circles in the city and began organizing to counteract some of the most severe consequences of the Depression. Eventually, he helped form a chapter of El Frente Popular Mexicano, an anticapitalist and antifascist Mexican organization, and he became a founding member of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee. Martinez and other Mexican Near West Siders presaged the ethos of militant labor organizing and radical thought that would become central to the later Chicano movement. They also ended up the targets of harassment by police and immigration officials for nearly two decades. From the beginning of his interactions with law enforcement, Martinez found that his immigration status as a noncitizen was wielded against him. In 1941, he received his first warrant for arrest and deportation. By 1947, his supporters had created a national defense committee and rallied against the unrelenting harassment and persecution he was being subjected to. In 1951, after Martinez was tried for violating several laws, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials arrested him and began deportation proceedings. Although he challenged the deportation case, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, the ruling for his deportation was upheld. Martinez died from a stroke in May 1953 as he was on a train headed back to Mexico.
While the INS's pursuit of Martinez ended in his deportation and death, the agency's harassment of him was only the beginning of what would become an even larger government offensive against Mexican communities. Operation Wetback, sanctioned by President Dwight Eisenhower and Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and led by INS commissioner Joseph Swing, began in June 1954 as a militaristic mass-deportation drive that sought to detain and expel those who'd entered the country without legal authorization or a labor contract. In Chicago, the federal and local agents of Operation Wetback started their work on September 16, 1954—Mexican Independence Day. 'On this day of jubilant celebration,' Amezcua writes, 'when people were more likely to be outside of their homes, agents began rounding up busloads of people, detaining them in Cook County Jail, and deporting them two days later.' In addition to the INS's mobilization of agents from around the country to carry out its Chicago campaign, Operation Wetback also required improvised detention facilities and transportation for the deportations. Amezcua details how postwar deindustrialization served as a backdrop for the operation, with the INS repurposing out-of-use manufacturing warehouses and industrial facilities, like the city's Studebaker Corporation Plant, for the detention and eventual deportation of unsanctioned Mexican immigrants. Together, the twin forces of deportation and urban demolition dispossessed Mexican Near West Siders of their families, homes, jobs, community organizations, and, in the end, their dignity.
From Halsted Street and the Near West Side, Amezcua moves to Ashland Avenue and the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Known for its slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants and made famous by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, by the mid-1950s Back of the Yards was at a turning point. As the decentralization of the meatpacking industry set in, Back of the Yards residents, community leaders, politicians, and real estate agents sought to preserve and restore the neighborhood's importance to Chicago, but each had their own understanding of what was worth preserving or restoring. Destiny Manor, a suburbanized residential subdivision, exemplified the conflicts over the neighborhood. Destiny Manor was presented as an example of the promise of local conservation projects and self-help resilience, but its real aim was to preserve a white neighborhood and keep Black home seekers out. It is in his discussion of Back of the Yards that Amezcua makes most visible how Mexicans were situated between white and Black Chicagoans. By strategically using Mexicans as a buffer, white property interests applied segregationist tactics that 'reinforced the color line by Browning it with Mexican enclaves, creating a solid zone that separated white Back of the Yards from Black Bronzeville.' Their goals were clear: limit Mexican settlement while maintaining the outright exclusion of African Americans.
Saul Alinsky is an important figure in Back of the Yard's trajectory. Readers may be more familiar with Alinsky's contributions to the Community Service Organization and its role in training Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Yet before that, he cofounded the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in 1939, which sought to promote local social democracy and cultural pluralism. Amezcua is fair in his assessment of Alinsky and his BYNC cofounder, Joseph Meegan, along with the shortcomings of the group. Since Mexicans in 'Las Yardas' already occupied the areas immediately around the stockyards, real estate agents and community leaders encouraged them to purchase homes within those boundaries. As they tended to be in the most dilapidated part of the neighborhood, those properties were also the most likely to be condemned and razed by city or community officials to attract new industries. In the 1950s, the BYNC backed a rezoning of the Mexican Back of the Yards that would eventually become part of the 1957 Chicago Zoning Ordinance, which stipulated that new construction in Las Yardas would be limited to manufacturing plants or wholesale retail. Amezcua sums it up: 'Making Las Yardas smaller through rezoning was…intended to squeeze out undesirable elements and bring in new industries and businesses that other parts of the district did not want, all through Latino dispossession.'
By the mid-1960s, the battles over integration and open occupancy had transformed Chicago into a center of political turmoil. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched their 1965 nonviolent crusade to achieve fair and open housing in Chicago. With the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War, and mere months after King's assassination, violence erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention when protesters encountered wholesale force at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. But more subtle transformations—both acts of resistance and of reaction—were at work as well. New Mexican neighborhoods emerged in other parts of the city as a result of the displacement of Mexicans from areas like the Near West Side and Back of the Yards, and white suburbanization created ample vacancies too. The confluence of these less perceptible changes was how South Lawndale was rebranded as 'Little Village,' and eventually became 'La Villita.'
Amezcua analyzes the structural elements that shaped these developments in the postwar central city, but he is also carefully attuned to the actions of individuals. If people are at the heart of Making Mexican Chicago, then there is no single person more responsible for the changes to La Villita, and possibly even to Mexican Chicago, than Anita Villarreal. Born in Kansas, Villarreal came of age during the Great Depression and was a committed New Dealer who believed in the value of urban democracy, the rights of immigrants and workers, and the necessity of fair acc