Sweat equity, radical politics and gentrification

Before Pilsen welcomed gallery spaces and Little Village became La Villita, the city’s Mexican population fought for their voices to be heard and for places to live. Georgetown University historian Mike Amezcua chronicles this decades-long struggle in his fascinating Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Colonization to the Age of Gentrification, published in February by University of Chicago Press. As he describes it, building these communities meant continually changing tactics, alliances, and adversaries.

Mexican citizens living in Chicago (as well as American citizens of Mexican descent) faced a considerable enemy when the federal government Operation Wetback mass deportations in the 1950s. Amezcua details the resulting civil liberties violations and lasting collective trauma. A few years later, local segregationists decried Mexicans settling in southwestern neighborhoods such as Gage Park and Back of the Yards. But Amezcua also shows the complexity of these reactions, as brown families received significantly less violent hostility than their black counterparts.

At the same time, he writes about how different Mexican activists have used their growing numbers to enter the politics of the democratic machine. Coinciding with the election of John F. Kennedy, a new organization was born here, “Amigos for Daley”. The town hall, in turn, offered them some patronage jobs and some concessions in the fight against discrimination, but not enough to usurp existing power structures.

Mike Amezcua in conversation with James Akerman
Thu, 4/28, 6 p.m., Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton, 312-943-9090, newberry.org

Mexicans in the city responded to these slights in different ways. Amezcua describes the “sweat equity” that accompanies increased home buying and building economic strength. Others became radicalized in the late 1960s and adopted Chicano Power and brown berets (which were inspired by the Black Panthers). The Casa Aztlán cultural center in Pilsen and its original exterior murals were born out of this movement. Some rejected the Democratic Party entirely and created an organization named after Republican Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie, “Adelante con Ogilvie”. [Go ahead with Ogilvie.] Eventually, white developers saw certain Mexican areas as desirable for urban renewal or for an arts colony, and Amezcua draws inspiration from Garry Freshman’s 1978 Reader article entitled “The Colonization of Pilsen”.

These controversies continue while some of the politicians who rode decades ago have remained. Amezcua mentions that a big advocate for Little Village’s La Villita arch in the 1980s was Mayor Harold Washington’s young ally, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Mike Amezcua Credit: Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

Throughout this story, Amezcua highlights a myriad of personalities and their transformations. Garcia’s political rival, real estate agent Anita Villarreal, was arrested for resisting immigration laws in the 1950s, then aggressively secured properties for Mexican buyers before supporting Richard J. Daley and Ronald Reagan.

Others went unannounced, but their experiences spoke volumes, even when their statements were brief. Xochitl Casas, a resident of Cicero, explained why she and her husband were welcome in this notoriously adversarial suburb: “We spend.


Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Colonization to the Age of Gentrification by Mike Amezcua ($45, University of Chicago Press, press.uchicago.edu)

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