Claiming a Latino Place in ChicagoRoundup
tags: Chicago, Race, urban history, Mexican American history, Latino/a history
MIKE AMEZCUA is a historian at Georgetown University. He is the author of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification.
In June of 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed north to Chicago to lead the Chicago Freedom Movement in a series of marches through all-white neighborhoods intended to take aim at the city’s deeply-entrenched residential segregation.
They marched through Gage Park and the surrounding neighborhoods of Chicago’s Southwest Side, where rows of bungalow homes provided a perfect visual. The modest houses were within buying reach for many Black families, but decades-old restrictions and discriminatory practices by real estate agents barred African Americans from purchasing there. Dr. King guided his supporters with a powerful sermon that had a simple message: “My place is in the sunlight of opportunity, my place is in the comfort of the good house, my place is in Gage Park.” But the presence of the civil rights activists soon ignited a violent backlash by white Chicagoans.
At the same time as King was putting Southwest Chicago in the national spotlight, Latino Chicagoans were in the midst of their own parallel struggle for access to restricted housing and urban space. Long before King’s arrival, Mexican Americans had been prevented from purchasing homes in Gage Park and surrounding areas by housing discrimination and threats of violence. So while the violent response to King’s marches was directed at civil rights activists and the idea of integration, it also shaped Latino Chicagoans’ community-building efforts. The powerful white backlash prolonged restrictions on urban space, forcing Latino Chicagoans to anchor their residential, civic, and economic lives on the boundary lines of segregation.
The struggle for a Latino place on the Southwest Side began in the 1910s and 1920s, when thousands of Mexican immigrants poured into Chicago to work in stockyards and slaughterhouses. A Mexican enclave formed behind the Union Stock Yards, part of a larger area known as the Back of the Yards. The neighborhood was already internationally infamous, as the setting of Upton Sinclair’s jaw-dropping 1906 novel The Jungle, an exposé of the unsanitary conditions in which America’s consumer meat was produced. Its working class, predominantly Central and Eastern European residents reluctantly allowed the Latino enclave to exist, as long as it remained tightly contained within a few city blocks.
White Chicagoans often fortified neighborhood boundaries through real estate industry practices that prohibited Black Americans from buying in their neighborhoods. Racial violence also wrought terror, and Mexicans quickly learned from the white mob violence perpetrated against Black homebuyers. “We were isolated there—we dared not move out of that district,” recalled Monico C. Amador, who grew up in Back of the Yards in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1944, his father was shot and killed just outside the neighborhood by a white man who resented the presence of Mexicans there.
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