Organizing for Fun: Recreation and Community Formation in the Mexican Community of South Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s

By Innis-Jiménez, Michael D. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Organizing for Fun: Recreation and Community Formation in the Mexican Community of South Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s


Innis-Jiménez, Michael D., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Yaquis. The Mayas. The Excelsiors. The Atlas. In South Chicago during the 1930s, these team names were as familiar to the Mexican community as the Cubs, Sox, Bears, or Bulls are for Chicagoans today. Players such as Pete Martínez, Angel Soto, Gilbert Martínez, and Manuel Casas may have been struggling financially during the Great Depression, but when they competed against non-Mexican teams or Mexican teams from outside of the South Chicago area, they contributed to their community by representing them. The athletes proudly wore team jackets around the neighborhood and Spanish-language newspapers covered their games and promoted their social events. Contrary to previous scholarship that has emphasized the isolation of each Mexican community by focusing on the idea that Mexicans tended to stay, and play, within their neighborhood, I argue that the members of Mexican South Chicago frequented parks-and other venues-outside of their neighborhood. Also, examining these activities offer us a glimpse into the lives of South Chicago Mexican men, women, and children during the 1920s and 1930s.1

When looking at everyday life of Mexicans in South Chicago, it is important to go beyond the workplace and the home to understand more fully the lives of those within this area during the tumultuous interwar years. People created a sense of community-and pride for the community-by participating in organized leisure activities, and they used these activities as an escape from difficult economic times. These organized activities also served as a means for Mexicans to negotiate internal and external pressures to assimilate even as some fought to maintain a collective Mexican identity. In addition to the organized sporting activities that I examine, particularly baseball and basketball, I examine the broader role of organizations that created and supported these teams.

Charities, social service organizations, religious missions, and philanthropists-who all considered themselves friends of the Mexican community-emphasized individual assimilation into the dominant "American" society at the expense of their Mexican culture and identity.2 Many Mexicans in South Chicago considered assimilation a problematic issue that was linked politically to the loss of ethnic culture and, therefore, to the betrayal of their Mexican cultural identity, but they realized the need to at least learn English to improve their social and economic position.

While the vast majority of sports teams were composed of men or boys, girls' teams-and at least one all-girls league-did exist. Park and community center staff and volunteers that came from outside of the Mexican community primarily organized youth sports. Leaders from within the Chicago-area Mexican community-such as Eustebio Torres and Eduardo Peralta-organized the men's athletic teams and leagues, rarely working in concert with the outside agencies that promoted youth activities. Under local Mexican leadership, men's organizations that began as baseball or basketball teams quickly grew into multi-faceted associations with influence and importance far beyond the baseball diamonds and basketball courts. These organizations had a significant direct and indirect influence on the welfare of the community. In investigating leisure time activities such as organized sports and social gatherings, several things become clear. First, Chicago area Mexican communities, including those in northwest Indiana, were not isolated from each other.3 Second, leaders emerged from within the community to create organizations that improved Mexican quality of life and advocated for the needs and concerns of the community. Third, despite the rigors and drudgery of workplace and home labor, leisure time activities played a central role in the lives of Mexicans in South Chicago.

Chicago's extensive public park system played a fundamental role in providing South Chicago Mexicans with amenities, such as shower facilities, recreation, and recreational space for adults and families, including organized, supervised activities for the community's youth. …

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