Looking Forward, Working for Change: Puerto Rican Women and the Quest for Educational Justice in Chicago

By Velazquez, Mirelsie | Centro Journal, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Looking Forward, Working for Change: Puerto Rican Women and the Quest for Educational Justice in Chicago


Velazquez, Mirelsie, Centro Journal


When Puerto Ricans from the island joined the ranks of students at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, from the start they began what was a very complicated, and at times gendered, migration history that brought thousands of Puerto Ricans to the city. At the center of that history are schools and education. The ensuing relationship between the University of Chicago students and the growing population of Puerto Rican workers in the city, including women, challenges monolithic readings of Puerto Rican migration to Chicago. But it also reminds us of the transnational ties that connected the community in Chicago to Puerto Rico. Although separated by thousands of miles, Puerto Rican officials on the island were very much aware of the lives of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and the complications they faced early in their migration, especially through the work of Puerto Rican women. In December 1946, Muna (Munita) Muñoz Lee, a student at the University of Chicago, wrote to her father, Luis Muñoz Marín, depicting life in Chicago not only concerning University of Chicago students, but more important, for the workers now in the city. As Munita wrote to her father, then the Puerto Rican Senate leader and later the first democratically elected governor of the island, the employment agency was strategically utilizing the racial politics and ideologies of the era to place Puerto Rican workers in jobs. In the Northern cities such as Chicago, Castle, Barton, and Associates encouraged the placement of "white" Puerto Ricans, while in the South, the agency sought to "import" Puerto Ricans of color as workers. As Munita wrote to her father:

Tu sabes hasta que punto llega el prejuicio racial en el Sur de los Estados Unidos; es una situación injusta y peligrosa que un grupo de trabajadores de color que no están acostumbrados ser tratados como un grupo inferior y a quienes jamás se ha debido poner en una situación en que tengan que acostumbrarse a esto- se envíen a un área donde existen fortísimas sanciones sociales y donde se recurre hasta a la violencia física y la destrucción de la vida misma para mantener a la gente de color en un estado de subordinación. (Muñoz Lee 1946)1

As Munita recognized, there was a much needed discussion to be had on the reality of life in Chicago for these migrants. Although they were part of a larger movement to alleviate the economic situation on the island, at the same time they were marginalized through the racial politics of their new communities. Puerto Rican women in Chicago, such as Muna Muñoz Lee, were in many ways at the forefront of an activist position, leading discussions on the needs of Puerto Rican migrants in the city-even though their voices are often absent from historical writings on the community. Puerto Rican women have been historically central to the story of Puerto Ricans in Chicago, for they worked across the city, as students, teachers, community organizers and mothers, to confront the myriad issues afflicting the community, whether in schools, housing, or the labor market. As Munita shared with her father, "me parece que la situación de este grupo es aún más grave...y que urge remediarla inmediatamente" (Muñoz Lee 1946).2 But despite their hard work and activist efforts, the women who struggled to resolve the everyday issues faced by the community are not always central to the story of Puerto Rican Chicago-the stories of such women are usually told in the footnotes of history. The work and lives of Puerto Rican women are important for a real understanding of how the Puerto Rican diaspora laid claim to space through their labor, community, family, and schooling experiences.

This article seeks to historicize the ways in which Puerto Rican women in Chicago, through their various roles within and outside the home, similarly aided in the development of their local community. Here I argue that we need to ensure that the lives of Puerto Rican women must be central to any historiography on Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. …

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