Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

From the near West Side to 18th Street: Mexican Community Formation and Activism in Mid-Twentieth Century Chicago

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

From the near West Side to 18th Street: Mexican Community Formation and Activism in Mid-Twentieth Century Chicago

Article excerpt

In late 1971, a group of Mexican Americans gathered in Chicago's Pilsen/18th Street neighborhood to discuss the naming of a new Mexican community center opening in the area's east end.' The center would occupy the building of an old Catholic grammar school and adjoining church and rectory, which lay vacant for several years. St. Joseph's, or St. Joe's as it was known in the neighborhood, had long served a Slovakian immigrant population, but those residents and their second and third generation descendants had abandoned the neighborhood and the parish years before. The growing Mexican community in the area had obtained permission from the Archdiocese of Chicago to lease the facilities and operate a community center to serve local youth and families.

At their meeting, community members and leaders interested in the establishment of the center expressed passionate opinions about what the site should be named. Older professionals in the community, such as physician Dr. Jorge Prieto and Judge David Cerda, supported the name "Latin American Youth Center," a label that would clearly identify the community's purpose and ethnic identity. Younger, more militant participants who had embraced the nationalism of the Chicano Movement of the Southwest ardently called for a name in Spanish that would reflect the politics of a racialized national minority, not the traditional ethnic immigrant identity of the previous generation. According to one of the center's founders, Phil Ayala, "The more radical side [of the group] came up with [the name] El Centra de la Causa" (The Center for the Cause). Tense debates over the center's name consumed the lengthy meeting. Ultimately, the group reached a compromise that would seemingly satisfy all involved. Since state law at the time did not allow incorporation under a non-English name, the group decided to adopt both names-the Spanish one to appease the younger radicals and the English version to satisfy state incorporation laws and more moderate middle class sponsors.2

Regardless of the contrasting political views or generational differences, the establishment of the center marked an important moment for the Mexican people of Chicago's 18th Street neighborhood: they had laid claim to the community and began efforts to draw resources and establish services for the growing Mexican and Mexican American population. The creation of institutions such as El Centro de la Causa helped make 18th Street the quintessential Mexican barrio in Chicago and the largest in the Midwest for the past four decades.3

Early Historical Development of a Community

The settlement of Mexican Americans in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood did not occur by accident. Their presence there was embedded in a history of racially-based urban planning that had dislocated them from the neighboring Near West Side, known affectionately as "Taylor Street" (see map 1). Mexican immigrants had a decades-long history on the Near West Side, but by the 1960s the construction of federal expressways, urban renewal, and the construction of the new University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus, had displaced much of the population. As a result, most families moved across the railroad tracks that divided the two areas and settled in the historically Eastern European Pilsen community (known officially by the Chicago Community Inventory as the Lower West Side). This essay traces the movement of the city's Mexican community from the Near West Side to 18th Street/Pilsen and the efforts at community formation and activism in both neighborhoods. I argue that the displacement of the thriving Mexican community on the Near West Side in many ways contributed to the emergence of community activism in the 18th Street neighborhood.4

The history of Mexican Americans in Chicago, and specifically the Near West Side neighborhood, dates back to World War I when Mexican workers came to labor on the city's railroads and steel mills. Mexicans settled in the area and established traditional ethnic organizations while making connections with local institutions. …

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