Chicago's cultural fabric is undeniably richer due to the city's Mexican population, which has turned this Midwestern city into a center for Hispanic culture. Pilsen and Little Village are both nationally recognized for their Mexican heritage. But those neighborhood aren't where the story began. According to historian Michael Innis-Jimenez, when Mexican's arrived in Chicago beginning in the later years of WWI, they were one of myriad immigrant groups carving out a home and future amid larger waves of settlement. The story, one largely defined by waxing and waning economic opportunities, began in South Chicago, in an area near the colossal U.S. Steel Mill.
According to Innis-Jimenez, author to Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, who just spoke at the Society of Architectural Historians conference, railroad jobs brought Mexican immigrants to Chicago, seasonal work that found them literally riding the rails north from Texas.
"Many of the initial arrivals who worked for the railroad would live in box car camps provided by their employers," he says. "They would personalize them with a stove for heat. These were the first Mexican-American workers, semi or unskilled. There were already some elites working at the international desk at Sears or at the medical school at the University of Chicago, but these were the first who came up to Chicago to work and ended up living together."
Settling in what was in effect a mobile home, the mostly single male workforce, nicknamed solos, didn't arrive with long-term employment opportunities. They quickly gravitated towards better-paying jobs in meatpacking and steel plants, especially after labor unrest and and race riots in 1919 left industrialists on the lookout for potential strikebreakers. With more permanent employment came more permanent homes, with the small Mexican population congregating just northwest of U.S. Steel plant in South Chicago, from about 89th to about 95th. By the mid-'20s, sizable Mexican populations could also be found in the Back of the Yards and the near-west side around Hull House.
Like African-Americans, Mexicans faced discrimination and limited real estate options, settling in sections of South Chicago that Innis-Jimenez says were some of the worst in the neighborhood. Coming to Chicago after other ethnic groups, Mexican-Americans arrived to find the housing stock already built and occupied. While that led to less neighborhood-level segregation, since they ended up moving in to more diverse areas already occupied by Poles and Italians, Mexicans were often charged inflated rents by landowners and forced to compensate by sharing space and living in overcrowded homes.
Despite these difficulties, like other ethnic groups, they did do their best to recreate home as much as possible. Grocery stores, drug stores and small businesses sprouted up around the mill, newspapers such as Mexico catered to the small but growing population, and nightlife grew around Mexican settlements.
"You went into the Mexican pool hall because it was safe," says Innis-Jimenez, "safe to speak Spanish and be out as a Mexican. These saloons and drinking establishments were very male spaces."
An early centerpiece of the neighborhood was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, first established in 1924 and led by Friar William Kane, then rebuilt at its current location in 1928 at 3200 East 91st Street.
Gradually, the Mexican population in Chicago grew, hitting 20,000 by 1930. But much as issues of labor and commerce created an opportunity for Mexicans to come to Chicago, economic factors would conspire against them during the Depression. The government deported many Mexicans during the '30s to protect "American" jobs, according to historian Lilia Fernandez, an associate professor at Ohio State, with the population sinking to 16,000 in 1940. But the Feds quickly reversed themselves when wartime pressures created an incentive for immigrant labor. The Bracero Program, part of an agreement reached during the United States and Mexico in 1942 that lasted until the early '60s, recruited agricultural and railroad workers for employment, paving the way for immigrants that would end up building the Mexican communities in Chicago and nationwide that we know today.
·South Side archives[Chicago Curbed]