Precarious Space and Chicago in Flux—A Review of “Making Mexican Chicago”

Amezcua, Mike. Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022.

Reviewed by Emiliano Aguilar

In December 2019 the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) received considerable backlash for painting over murals at the 18th Street Pink Line station. The murals—painted in 1998 by a partnership of artist Francisco Mendoza, Gallery 37 students, and the National Museum of Mexican Art as a part of the Adopt-A-Station program—symbolized the ethnic Mexican community’s claiming of place. While CTA officials argued that this procedure removed frequently defaced portions of the mural, community residents saw it as “white-washing.” Instead, the residents clamored for the mural’s restoration (a solution that CTA did pursue, although with no finalized timeline in sight). The ward has since established an arts committee to preserve and restore the public murals. Mike Amezcua demonstrates in Making Mexican Chicago that this struggle between Mexican communities and the city was hardly novel.

Similar to other urban metropolises in the United States, Chicago is a city in flux. Neighborhoods deemed blighted and abandoned during the early stages of deindustrialization and white flight became home to ethnic Mexicans striving to create place. However, as their placemaking projects gained traction, White resistance to the newcomers adapted. From the postwar era to today, Mexican residents of Chicago have found themselves simultaneously essential to the creation of “city images” and vulnerable to the whims of urban renewal and gentrification. Mexican Chicago and Latinx communities across the United States find themselves thrown into a struggle between the remaking of the city and the unmaking of their communities. 

Amezcua’s Making Mexican Chicago explores the spatial precarity experienced by the largest Latinx demographic in the city—ethnic Mexicans. Amezcua argues that although they were victims of containment by restrictionist neighbors, businesses, and government officials, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans were placemakers who developed their surroundings with their belonging in mind. Additionally, Amezcua notes that in articulating the Mexican urban experience, we can revisit our understanding of the rise of modern conservatism in the United States.

The book guides the reader through the neighborhoods that ethnic Mexicans call home. From the Near West Side (a Mexican neighborhood razed for the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus) to Las Yardas (Back of the Yards) to the iconic La Villita (Little Village), the work is a tour through the shifting boundaries of Mexican Chicago and the events that defined its presence. As the spatial confines of Mexican Chicago changed, so too did forms of inclusion and methods of exclusion.

By centering the ethnic Mexican experience within the history of Chicago, Amezcua places the fight over neighborhoods, segregation, and property rights in a multiracial context. Like African Americans, Chicago’s Mexican community was also segregated and scapegoated in White communities’ efforts to preserve their space in the city. However, the Mexican experience diverged as they were cast in “perpetual alienage,” which influenced their residential possibilities. Additionally, as Amezcua notes, Mexicans in South Lawndale transitioned from “property menace to property asset.” This transition, witnessed by their Czech neighbors, was rooted in anti-Blackness; the residential boundaries softened for Mexicans while they hardened for African Americans throughout the 1960s. 

Readers will find many familiar themes across the book’s six chapters. Urban renewal and redevelopment, segregation, displacement and deportation, as well as sanctuary, appear and highlight the often-cyclical patterns throughout Mexican Chicago’s settlement. These themes connect the narrative to the broader history of the city and urban inequality. Amezcua’s second chapter highlights the tension between forging place in areas deemed blighted and the push by city elites to redevelop neighborhoods into prime real estate. As Chicago’s slum clearance program progressed, massive deportation raids, notably Operation Wetback, cast a grim specter over 1950s Mexican Chicago. Italian Americans’ efforts in the Near West Side preserved their western half at the expense of the eastern half of the neighborhood. Removed from the discussions, the ethnic Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans (as well as some Italian Americans) found their homes in the path of the Harrison-Halstead project. The ethnic Mexican neighborhood, removed from the power structures of the political machine, were unable to save their residences.

Casa Aztlan circa 2008 with Dolores Huerta being repainted. As Amezcua notes in his conclusion, the property was bought in 2017 by a condominium developer that painted over the murals. Seth Anderson, “Casa Aztlan” (2008), (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

These familiar themes remain ever-present through the cast of characters and organizations that Amezcua presents. The inclusion of Anita Villarreal shows that Mexicans in Chicago were not all victims of the city’s unrelenting propertied forces. As a budding real estate broker, Villarreal resisted the exclusion of ethnic Mexicans each time she rented or sold her property to relative newcomers. Initially denied membership to the Little Village-26th Street Chamber of Commerce, Villarreal organized homeowners against discrimination in housing and business opportunities in the neighborhood. Through this organizing, Villarreal gained power through connections and proximity to Mayor Richard Daley and his administration, including her Alderman. Over time, Villarreal and Villarreal Real Estate Incorporated increased the accessibility of mortgages to ethnic Mexicans, transforming the ghost town of Little Village into La Villita.

By navigating Mexican Chicago, Amezcua creates several timely interventions. The book offers a great complement to recent works on Latinx Chicago and urban spaces. Similar to Lilia Fernandez’s Brown in the Windy City, Amezcua departs from the White-Black racial paradigm as a way to understand U.S. urban history. Whereas Fernandez introduced readers to organizations inspired by the rise of Chicano activism, Amezcua flags ethnic Mexicans as essential shapers of conservatism in Chicago. While the Democratic machine found itself confronted by racial and social turmoil, conservative elements of the barrio, such as Villarreal and the organization Amigos for Daley offered a contrast to the activism of the Civil Rights Era and Chicano Movement. The attention placed on the stakeholders, such as Villarreal, complement the narrative of A. K. Sandoval-Strausz’s Barrio America in highlighting the tactical and deliberate actions that have allowed Latino and Latina communities to reshape our urban landscapes. Additionally, both explore the relationship between the barrio and ward system of the Democratic machine and the specter of immigration status as an influence to the urban experience. These accounts complement the recent work by Deborah Kanter, Chicago Católico, which documents how ethnic European parishes transitioned into ethnic Mexican religious institutions.

As Amezcua concludes, “…the story of Latino community formation and migrant city building—the making of Mexican Chicago—has been the story of the pursuit of sanctuary even when it is far from reach.” In the face of disinvestment, disenfranchisement, and gentrification, Mexican Chicago remains spatially precarious amid a changing Chicago. As Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans toiled and invested in their communities, they continued to find their work erased as new residents, often wealthier and a “colony of a different color,” invested in the barrios and began to flip the former colonias.

Emiliano Aguilar is a PhD candidate in History at Northwestern University. His dissertation, “Building a Latino Machine: Corruption, Integration, and Machine Politics in East Chicago, Indiana, 1945-2010,” explores how the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican communities of his hometown navigated and utilized machine politics and corruption to advance their inclusion into the city. He has written for Rust Belt Magazine and the Indiana Historical Society Blog.

Featured image (at top): Peter Fitzgerald, “Little Village (La Villita) downtown strip, Chicago” (2007), Wikimedia Commons.

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