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Global Chicago

What are the historical roots of Chicago’s Mexican immigrant community?

April 28, 2005

What are the historical roots of Chicago's Mexican immigrant community?

Mexicans first came to Chicago for the same reason that European immigrants did. In 1916, needing track workers, the railroads began recruiting at the border between Texas and Mexico.

Chicago — the hub of the nation's rail system — was a natural destination for those recruits, and 206 workers arrived there that year.

When the United States entered World War I, other Chicago industries found themselves in a pinch, as their older workers were called into military service.

Accordingly, representatives of the steel mills and packing-houses followed the footsteps of the railroads' officials to those recruiting grounds along the border.

Then in 1919, there was a vast strike in the steel industry. Mexican workers were brought in to replace those on the picket lines thrown up around Chicago's plants.

At Inland Steel alone, the number of Mexican workers rose from 90 in 1918 to 945 a year later. The episode proved a mixed blessing for Chicago's nascent Mexican community.

For years to come, older European-stock workers looked down on Mexicans working alongside them as potential strikebreakers and aliens who might put their employment in jeopardy.

The feelings followed Chicago's Mexicans even after their enthusiastic participation in the great wave of union organization in the 1930s.

While the census had counted only 1,200 Mexicans in Chicago by 1920, that number had risen to 20,000 by 1930.

And still, these newcomers did not yet constitute a community in the same sense as other immigrant groups. At the beginning of the 1920s, most were young males, either single or with families back in Mexico. Expecting to return home at some point, few applied for citizenship.

They saw themselves not as Americans-to-be, but as Mexicans living temporarily in an alien culture whose mysterious ways they had little interest in penetrating.

By the end of the decade, however, a third of the community were women and children. That was one indication that some Mexicans were beginning to think of Chicago not as a transient home, but a place to put down roots and raise families.

During the 1930s, however, many of Chicago's Mexicans did return home — and a lot more quickly than they had expected. With the Great Depression sending unemployment figures soaring, pressure was brought upon the government to send immigrants packing.

The argument of the 1930s was remarkably similar to that of present-day advocates of immigration restrictions: Why should foreigners take jobs away from U.S. citizens?

Many other immigrants who had not yet obtained citizenship were also affected by the federal government's "repatriation program."

Thousands of Poles and Italians were sent back to their homelands as well. But proportional to their numbers, still more Mexicans were sent home.

By the end of the 1930s, the Chicago Mexican colony had shrunk to 14,000.

When World War II began, the repatriation program was not just suspended, but reversed. As had happened earlier, the draft led to a labor shortage.

In response, the United States entered into an agreement with Mexico in that it agreed to share in the struggle against the Axis powers by sending Mexican workers north.

By 1945, 15,000 railroad workers were brought to Chicago. Private industries also looked to Mexicans to flesh out its wartime workforce. Sears, Roebuck and Company, desperate for garment workers, distributed circulars in Dallas and Fort Worth, hoping to persuade Mexicans living there to come to Chicago.

Under the terms of the U.S. government's so-called "bracero program," it was expected that those war-workers would return to Mexico at the conflict's end.

Yet many did not return home after the war — and neither did they shortly double back from Mexico. By 1950, the city's Mexican population had more than made up for its depression losses and stood at 24,000.

In 1953, the director of the Chicago office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service said that no matter what the census showed, he was convinced there were 100,000 Mexicans in Chicago. He clearly saw that as a problem, seen in his referral to them by the unlovely term "wetbacks."

The word had gone out to the villages of Mexico, as it had earlier to those of eastern and southern Europe, that there was a good living to be made in Chicago.

In 1975, the Reverend J. McPolin, a Catholic prelate who had watched the process, delivered a lecture entitled "Mexicans in Chicago."

In his lecture, the reverend noted, "Letters began to make their way back into the homes of those families whose relatives or friends have gone to the United States and they told of a land of peace and plenty."

"Often the marvelous character of the story grew as it was repeated and people came in ever-increasing numbers."

As the immigrants came north, Chicago neighborhoods were remade ethnically. On the Near Southwest Side, the Bohemian Settlement House had been founded in 1896 to serve European newcomers.

With the descendants of those European immigrants moving on to suburbs like Cicero and Riverside, the Bohemian Settlement House was transformed into Casa Azlan, a social-service center for Mexican newcomers.

By the 1960s, Joseph Gardunio, who had come to Chicago from Mexico as a factory worker a decade earlier, sensed that the volume of Mexican immigrants was only going to increase.

He persuaded the Greyhound company to make the experiment of sending a bus from a storefront station he opened on South Damen Avenue, in a neighborhood that was just then becoming Spanish-speaking.

Gardunio and Greyhound were soon dispatching six buses daily to the Mexican border, not only from the huge downtown terminal, but from a Spanish-speaking outpost in an immigrant neighborhood.

Over the years, Mexican-Americans began to move up the economic ladder and into positions of authority. For decades, however, their political progress was slowed by the high percentage of non-citizens and thus, non-voters, in the Mexican community.

A key part of the explanation is that compared to European immigrants, the Mexican experience in Chicago has a unique aspect. Because their homeland was — relatively speaking — closer, the city's Mexicans have had the opportunity to return there or commute.

Thus, unlike other immigrants, Mexican–Americans have been able to maintain an active connection with their mother country.

Still, beginning with the election of the reform-minded Mayor Harold Washington in 1983, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have become a part of the ethnic mix that determines the city's political course.

Since non-Europeans are the dominant source of new Chicagoans, Mexicans now form the largest single group among them.

As a result, Mexican immigrants have begun wielding influence not just in Chicago, but in Mexico as well.

Immigrants routinely send money to relatives that remain in their home countries — and Mexican immigrants have been no exception.

Moreover, they have gone a step beyond helping individual family members. Through hometown associations, they are raising funds for infrastructure and cultural projects in Mexico.

Millions of dollars from the Chicago area have been matched by local, state and federal funds and have brought much-needed public works improvements to several states in Mexico.

These connections have created a base of power from which Chicago's Mexican immigrants can even have a say in the government policies in their country of origin.

Adapted from text by Ron Grossman's essay, "Global City, Global People," which is part of the essay collection, "Global Chicago," edited by Charles Madigan.