The Struggle for a Latino Place in Chicago

Like Their Black Neighbors, Mexican Americans Fought for Decades to Access Restricted Housing and Urban Space

Historian Mike Amezcua, author of Making Mexican Chicago, explores the parallel struggles of Black and Latino Chicagoans to overcome segregation and make space for their communities in the urban landscape in the face of white resistance. Courtesy of Terence Faircloth/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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.

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.

For working-class white residents between the 1920s and 1950s, the old, hard-scrabble Back of the Yards neighborhood and its packinghouse jobs served as a gateway to nicer parts of the Southwest Side. Neighborhoods like Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn, and Marquette Park were only blocks away from the stockyards but represented—as one former resident put it—a “move away from the immigrant experience.” Their coal-heated, octagon-shaped, brick bungalow homes, sitting on identically-sized lots, provided the comfort of suburban-like sameness within the city. But everyone knew that these neighborhoods were completely off limits to anyone who possessed dark skin, spoke Spanish, or both.

In the 1950s and 1960s, years before Dr. King arrived, both Black and Latino Chicagoans began to challenge this unspoken rule, seeking to escape the overcrowded environs of their respective segregated landscapes, pushing further west and south in search of better homes. These efforts to challenge housing restrictions provoked an intense campaign by whites, parish groups, homeowner associations, and the lending industry, who banded together with real estate agents in the mid-1950s to draw a new restrictive boundary along Ashland Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare, agreeing to keep homes west of Ashland all-white.

Like previous racial boundaries, the Ashland covenant was enforced through discrimination and violence. The Southwest Side of the 1960s simmered with white power groups, including a large chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Operation Crescent (which championed “white community control”), a youth gang called the United Patriots, the John Birch Society, and an openly segregationist Gage Park Civic Association. All these groups fed Southwest Side residents with fears about the nearby presence of Blacks and Latinos.

In 1966, when King’s Freedom Movement arrived, that fear erupted into racial mob violence. “The racists … threw rocks and bottles and cherry bombs at the marchers, carried signs advocating White Power, and chanted invectives,” historian Simon Balto writes. During one march, a thrown brick struck King himself in the head, causing him to bleed.

In August, King retreated. The Chicago Freedom Movement ended its campaign for open housing, walking away with few if any gains, and went down in history as a setback for the civil rights leader and Black Chicagoans.

Though Chicago’s Mexican and Mexican American communities were also affected by housing discrimination and racist hatred, by and large its members did not join King’s supporters in their demonstrations. Some Latino activists took to the streets throughout the 1960s, but far more Mexican Chicagoans pursued a parallel but divergent path, working within the limits of segregation restrictions to lay crucial groundwork for Latino politics and placemaking—an effort to build a social infrastructure of inclusion, familiarity, and relevance—with the hope that successful business and political power would gradually erode housing restrictions.

During the 1960s, the Mexican community built commercial, cultural, and political institutions right up to Ashland Avenue’s colorline. By the late 1960s, the avenue was home to the headquarters of both the Mexican American Democratic Organization and the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, two key organizations that would build relationships not with the civil rights movement but instead with the all-powerful Richard J. Daley machine, seeking political inclusion no matter how minor the concessions the city’s powerbrokers offered. That push for limited inclusion won out over more direct participation in the Chicago Freedom Movement—or at least over a more forceful challenge to segregation and the violence of white supremacy.

This history of Latino placemaking is far less known than the civil rights struggle led by King. But it remains an important context for later developments in Chicago’s urban and political history. Perhaps most notably, the Latino community in Chicago helped secure the 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, whose support came from a broad, multiracial alliance for which shared housing discrimination and political neglect were key catalysts for action.

Today, Chicago’s Southwest Side is a wellspring of grassroots organizing by young progressives who challenge the current political-economic system that keeps working-class nonwhite Chicagoans struggling. These residents value Gage Park not for its exclusivity or legacy of white power, but instead for its roles in King’s active advocacy for broad structural change. And on any given day, along the area’s commercial corridors, one can hear regional Mexican music blasting from giant speakers and see Black Lives Matter signs on storefronts—a far cry from the summer of 1966, when the two communities, in spite of shared struggles, stood apart.


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