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Gabriela F. Arredondo
Historical Research and Narrative

Mexican women have lived and worked in Chicago since the early decades of the twentieth century. Chicago now has the third largest concentration of Mexicans in the United States. Mexican labor fueled the rise of heavy industry during and after World War I and furthered its expansion into the Chicago suburbs after World War II. While Mexicans initially settled in areas around particular industries like steel, meatpacking, and railroads, today Mexicans live throughout the Chicagoland region. Mexican women have been integral to these settlement and work processes as communities emerged and persevered under frequently harsh conditions.

A few Mexican women arrived in Chicago in the first major wave of Mexican migration that began in the mid-to-late 1910s, spurred on both by the displacements of the Mexican Revolution and the rise in industrial and agricultural work in the United States. During and after World War I, worker shortages, labor strikes, and immigration restrictions on European workers increased the desirability of Mexican labor. The 1924 Immigration Act curtailed European immigration by establishing fixed quotas of national origin but did not limit immigration from the western hemisphere. Like many of the African American workers of the Great Migration, Mexicans too were hired to break steel and packinghouse strikes in the late-1910s and early-1920s, thus placing them in conflict with European workers.

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, however, the Mexican population of Chicago was overwhelmingly male. In 1924, for instance, there were an estimated 20 men for every one woman, and inter-marriage with women from other ethnic groups was not uncommon. Justino Cordero, for instance, married Polish-born Caroline in the mid-1920s. They grew to be a respected couple in South Chicago, well-known as community leaders and successful business people. Until 1930 the Mexican

population grew quickly, but the economic crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression froze those migrations. Viewing them as the most expendable of workers, Mexican laborers were laid off from industries and agriculture alike leading to disproportionately high unemployment. Their plight fueled nativist and racist moves to exclude and, ultimately, remove Mexicans from the United States. With the cooperation of the United States and Mexican governments, local civic organizations such as the American Legion rounded up hundreds of unemployed workers

Wedding portrait of Justino Cordero and wife, Caroline Kon Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and C
arlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).


and their families and placed them on trains bound for the United States-Mexico border. Forcible and voluntary repatriation drives focused on those workers who "looked Mexican," often ignoring the citizenship of those who had been born in the United States. Others, conscious of their bleak prospects and the hostile social climate, voluntarily accepted the free train trip south. In the decade of the 1930s, the Mexican population in the Chicago area was cut nearly in half. By 1940 an estimated 16,000 Mexicans remained within Chicago. Together, the repatriation programs especially lowered the numbers of single men, thus reshaping the sex ratios in Chicago.

By the 1920s, Mexican women migrated to Chicago both through direct and indirect routes. Some came directly from the central Mexican states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Jalisco, but the majority came indirectly, passing first through parts of Texas, Kansas, Missouri, downstate Illinois, and other regions of the Midwest before settling in Chicago. Mexican women worked primarily as unskilled laborers for agriculture and industry at such places as the U.S. Beetsugar Co., the Armour and Swift meat packinghouses, Illinois Steel, local laundries, book binderies, broom factories, and restaurants. Other Mexican women participated in the informal economy by taking in boarders, cleaning houses, taking in laundry and sewing, or offering childcare in exchange for food or a room. Those who came were more likely from the middle strata of Mexico's rural society, not the poorest peasants. Many came with other family members or with hometown friends. Most came with at least one male companion, usually a relative, since for many years the Mexican government did not allow women to travel alone. Mexican life in Chicago transcended the limits of metropolitan Chicago. Workers moved between Mexico, the Southwest (primarily Texas), and various parts of the Midwest. Those working in agriculture followed crops during the warm months; to save money, many spent winters working in industrial jobs in Chicago rather than travelling south.

Mary Torres shown leaving her railroad boxcar home. Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago; Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

Until the Depression, labor recruiters, enganchistas, continued to roam the southwestern United States and northern Mexico promoting jobs in the Chicago area. Mexican men, and increasingly more women, who responded to such promotions frequently discovered that the promises of the enganchistas were overblown. Housing was substandard, crowded, and expensive. Families took in three and four boarders at a time while several men lived together in one or two rooms. Countless numbers of Mexican women and men were forced to shop in over-priced company stores, which hampered their ability to save money and entangled them in debt and credit problems. Many of those who worked on the railroad, the traqueros, lived in boxcars along the tracks. The metal boxcars were frigid in the winter and in the summers the metal heated up like an oven. With no windows, many had to sleep outside; children learned not to touch the walls for fear of burns. Children frequently suffered from rickets and tuberculosis.

Colonias, Mexican residential enclaves, initially grew within the industrial sectors of the Calumet region, on the Near West Side/Hull House, and in the Back of the Yards/Packingtown area. In early years Mexican women's social lives revolved around churches, settlement houses, dances, and restaurants. Women rarely entered male social spaces like pool halls and barbershops, but several opened restaurants or sold food out of their own kitchens nearby. A few participated in civic groups like the Cruz Azul Mexicana, presided over during the late 1920s by Dona Refugio Alaniz y Sanchez. Senora Barron headed the short-lived Sociedad Femenil Mexicana in the 1930s. As the colonias grew larger and more stable, and as Mexican women became a larger segment of the population, Mexicans published several local newspapers like El Mexicano,


Carmen Pedroza, born (1897) in Durango, Mexico, lived in Packingtown/Back of the Yards in Chicago in 1934 when this portrait was made for her petition for naturalization.
Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration, Chicago.

El Ideal, and Mexico (renamed El Nacionalm 1930) with women's columns and founded local chapters of Mexican mutual-aid societies, which frequently included a women's caucus. Mutualistas, as these groups were called, fostered collective participation of individual members who paid dues into a general fund. Such funds were then used to help members through periods of unemployment or workplace injury, and often paid for funeral costs. Occasionally women also joined sports teams. The Moreloettes, from the Near West Side, and the Amapolas from South Chicago, for instance, played other baseball teams throughout the city in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Excluded on racial grounds from most existing Catholic parishes, Mexicans worshiped in church basements and storefronts. In South Chicago, they established the first Mexican church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in 1924 (relocated on its current site in 1928). In the late 1920s the Cordi-Marian sisters came to work among Chicago's Mexicans, first in South Chicago and later on the Near West Side, after fleeing the anti-Catholic violence of the Cristero Wars in Mexico. By the 1950s the CordiMarian sisters maintained a settlement house, a child-care center, and a women's auxiliary that helped to organize the popular Cordi Marian Cotillions. The sisters remain active in the area today. As in other areas, Mexicans in Back-of-the-Yards were prevented from participating in the neighborhood's Catholic churches, which were largely controlled by the Polish. Until 1945 Mexicans in Packingtown worshiped in a storefront church, aided by pastors from St. Francis of Assisi parish. Thereafter, area Mexicans went to Immaculate Heart of Mary. Mexican women were at the forefront of battles in 1990 and 1991 to prevent the closure of Sacred Heart Parish Church in Back-of-the-Yards. Though ultimately their efforts did not stop the closures, those women gained a new visibility in local politics and found renewed strength in numbers.

Well into the 1950s, Mexican women also actively participated in local settlement houses. At Hull House on the Near West Side, at the Mary McDowell Settlement in Packingtown, and occasionally at Byrd Memorial in South Chicago, Mexicanas joined mother's clubs, English classes, sewing circles, and various social organizations. Many of these groups organized fiestasópartiesócommemorating particular holidays like Mexican independence day (September 16th) and Cinco de Mayo (Battle of Puebla). Parents negotiated many kinds of generational tensions as their children learned English in schools and took part in the spreading venues of mass culture, from jazz music and swing dances to movie houses.

Amidst the tumult of the New Deal and World War II, those Mexicans who remained seized new opportunities for employment, mobility, and power to combat discrimination. Local non-publicly funded aid organizations like the Immigrants' Protective League, the Chicago Area Project, and neighborhood organizations tried to help through various "Americanization" campaigns. In the late 1930s, bolstered by the Wagner Act, a few Mexican male workers joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to win better wages and working conditions. Many Mexican women also supported striking workers. During the "Little Steel" strikes of 1937, 25 percent of the strikers were Mexican. The women's auxiliary marched alongside Steel Workers Organizing Committee leaders, including Max Guzman and Guadalupe (Lupe) Marshall. News reel film of the Memorial Day Massacre that followed even shows Lupe Marshall being hit by police and arrested. Others joined in the war efforts, believing that

The Moreloettes, a baseball team from the Near West Side of Chicago, circa 1929
Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago
(Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).


Virginia Martinez, then Executive Director of MALDEF leading a citizenship class. Circa early 1980s. Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

by doing so they were claiming a stake in the United States as Americans.

During World War II Mexican migration into Chicago rose once again as war-time industries faced labor shortages. As with those who came during and after World War I, the new influx of Mexicans was predominantly male. Between 1943 and 1945, more than 15,000 bracerosó "guest workers"ócame to work in Chicago under contract with the United States government and under the auspices of the Mexican government. Many stayed after their contracts ended or returned to Chicago in the years after the war. By the late 1940s, existing Mexican settlements recovered most of the population lost during the Depression, and other settlements grew outside the city as well. A few, like Aurora and Blue Island, had been areas of Mexican settlement since the end of World War I, but these were newer enclaves at Arlington Heights and Bentsenville, As a result of the Bracero Program (1982-1964) and increased in-migration after the war, the ratio of Mexican women to men once again reached the disparities of the 1920s.

1959 LULAC Queen, Maria Luisa Ramirez crowned at Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Mexican community leaders concerned themselves with fighting discrimination and new threats of repatriation of Mexicans brought on by "Operation Wetback." Mexicans supported the education of workers and the development of civic and community institutions like the Mexican Civic Committee, founded in 1943. As before the war, employers sought to use Mexicans as strike breakers to stymie the growing labor movements in Chicago. Inland Steel, for instance, imported 250 Mexican workers from Texas in May 1947 to work in place of striking steelworkers. That those Mexican workers marched in solidarity with strikers and demanded transportation back to Texas indicated the growing power of Mexicans in Chicago and the spread of inter-ethnic cooperation. In the 1950s Mexican women and men went on to found branches of organizations already active in the Southwest, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the GI Forum, and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), each of which worked to fight discrimination and to ensure economic stability for Mexicans. Over the years, LULAC, for instance, has held fund-raisers and has offered college scholarships to Mexican youths.

Economic stability remained elusive for Mexicans during the 1950s and 1960s as the city faced the turmoil of deindustrialization, suburbanization, and white flight. Outmigration of other groups, however, opened new opportunities for ownership among those who remained, and by the mid-1950s there were a several Spanish-language movie theaters, usually owned by Mexicans. The Gomez


Mosaic-tile mural on the entrance of the Jose Clemente Orozco Academy, Pilsen.
Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

family, for instance, owned the Gayety Theater in South Chicago. Other civic organizations blossomed, like La Sociedad Civica Mexicana, which continues to participate in Chicago's Mexican events such as fiestas pathas. Bowling was also popular among Mexican women as bowling leagues increasingly developed teams for women. By 1960, Chicago's primarily working-class Mexican community of nearly 56,000 was fractured along lines of citizenship, legal status, and language. Few civic organizations represented or lobbied for the growing populations of indocumentados, those Mexican nationals living in the U.S. without papers.

Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

Mexicans continued to live in the colonias of Back-of-the-Yards and South Chicago. On the Near West Side, however, the erection of a major freeway through the area in 1956 and construction of the University of Illinois Chicago, from 1961 to 1965, forced the majority of Mexicans living there to move out. Most went south to the Pilsen neighborhood, settling along La Dieciocho (named for the 18th Street commercial vein). In the mid-1970s, this colonia expanded past 26th street and became known as La Villita (Little Village) or La Veintiseis. Together La 18 and La 26 have become the fastest growing areas of Mexican, and increasingly Central American, settlement in Chicago.

Ignited by the Chicano movement in other parts of the United States, a very vibrant Chicana and Chicano mural movement emerged in the Pilsen in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Mexican women and men from the Pilsen neighborhood worked in the 1970s and early 1980s to improve housing and education while fighting the employment and social discrimination that many still faced. Among those activists were Juan Velasquez, Linda Coronado, Danny Soliz, and Rudy Lozano. Political and community activists founded organizations like the Spanish Coalition for Jobs (with Mary Gonzalez Koenig as recent executive director) and the Latino Institute. Many others are still active today in groups like Centre de la Causa, Casa Aztlan, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, Pilsen Neighbors, and Latino Youth, Mexican women were indispensable in the struggles to create Mexican institutional spaces like Benito Juarez High School and the highly acclaimed Mexican Museum of Fine Arts. In the 1970s and 1980s Mexican women broke into the ranks of business, founding the Mexican Business and Professional Women's Association. They also entered city institutions like the Chicago Police Department. In fact, police officer Irma Ruiz had a Chicago Public School named after her when she was killed in the line of duty in September 1988. Ana Castillo became a noted author, and, Sonia Silva became the first Mexican woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Cynthia Soto and Susana Mendoza, elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2001, are both emblematic of the growing generation of politically active Mexicanas.

Recent community organizing highlights the transnational aspects of Mexican life in Chicago by focusing on home


Michoacan immigrants, 1998.
Courtesy: Rita Arias Jirasek and Carlos Tortolero, Mexican Chicago (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

town associations like the Federation of Michoacan Clubs in Illinois. Indeed, Mexicans from Michoacan were the single largest group in Chicago by the late 1990s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are an estimated one million Mexicans living in the Chicago area. Currently 25 percent of children in Chicago Public Schools are Mexican, and by 2010 Mexicans will be the largest cultural group in Chicago. In less than one century, Mexicans in Chicago have grown to be a significant, politically powerful, and dynamic force that is positioned to actively shape the future of the city and the region.

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