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Lessons from Community Beginnings: Chicago’s Mexican Community

ANSWERING A CALL for curricula reflecting Chicago’s Latino community, the Chicago Metro History Education Center introduces Lessons from Community Beginnings: Chicago’s Mexican Community. Using primary sources and providing thought-provoking questions and activities, the curriculum encourages middle school and high school students to explore life in the Mexican colonias during the period of 1916-1938. A companion curriculum, Chicago's Puerto Rican Community is available as well. Contact the CMHEC office for ordering information. Both volumes of Lessons from Community Beginnings can be found at Chicago Public Library branches throughout the city.

Here is a sample lesson which poses compelling questions to students and uses primary sources--excerpts from personal interviews, a map, and a photograph--to look at the first group of Mexican immigrants in Chicago.

Mexican Labor in the United States

During the 1930s, sociologist Paul Taylor conducted interviews with Mexican immigrants living in Chicago. Although Taylor does not identify the individuals with whom he spoke, his study is still valuable since there are very few direct investigations available from this period of history.

Each of the four interviews begins with observations by Taylor, who provides the reader with some additional insight into the lives of the people with whom he spoke. Lack of understanding of English, the poor and uncertain living conditions in which they found themselves, made racial/ethnic prejudice from others made their lives very difficult.

Interview One

Paul Taylor writes: The interviews took place at one of the railroad labor camps of a type frequently seen in and near Chicago. The camp consists of old box cars taken from their tracks. Additions have in some cases been built to provide extra rooms, covered porches, or open floors. There are gardens, chickens, and even pigs, with the usual cats and dogs. The first woman I spoke to lived in a boxcar with no additions. She had a family of four children and her husband. One of the little boys had had an eye pecked out by one of the chickens and her little baby was badly bow-legged. The house inside was rather dark and dirty.

My husband has been in this country ten years. He spent many years in Missouri, working on the railroad. I knew him before he left Mexico and we always wrote to one another. Our family was not friendly with his. They would not let us get together down there. Seven years ago (1921) he came back to Mexico because things were bad here. But they were worse down there so we got married there and came u here. All our children were born here in the United States. It is four years since we have been living in this camp. Before, we lived out in Iowa. There were few people from Mexico along the tracks; they were mostly in the cities or in the betabel. I feel very lonely and sad out there. Here, there are more people from Mexico and I have someone to talk to and visit with.

It is very nice here but I miss the vida alegre of Mexico very much. I long to go back and enjoy the fiestas and ceremonias of our country. We seldom leave our camp here. I do not care for the movies so much. They are nice but I cannot read the titles in English. My husband knows a little but sometimes we miss the meaning of things and we are lost. We have very few people who speak English coming here. At times some of our friends from el pueblo come over for a nice cool Sunday to spend the day with us. But I wish I were back in Mexico.

Interview Two

The next man I spoke to had a box car with the addition of a covered porch and a screen for flies. His wife was sick but the rest of the family was well. He had lately been an inmate in the Casa de Coreccion for having carried a knife while on a spree in town.

I left Mexico in 1919, when there was good work in Texas. My first job was digging ditches and excavating worked down there. The good work lasted about a year and a half. Then came la crisis and I was laid off. So were many, many Mexicans. Some of them had worked there a long time but they kept the Americans. It made some of us mad but what could we do? Nothing.

I went North to Detroit in hope things would be better. Then to Pittsburgh. But they were worse. In 1923, I came to Chicago and worked for the steel mills. I like the work there. It pays well. It is very hot and heavy but I could stand that. Then I was laid off. I did not work for three months and I was desperate. Finally I landed here. I have been here four years.

The track work does not pay so well but it is steady. Out here we get our coal and water free. That makes it very nice in the winter. In the summer we have ice and that is a great luxury. We have no rent bill to pay and that makes it very much better than in town. There is always plenty of fresh air and sunshine and the children like it here because they can play in the open country.

We get La Prensa here and when I finish reading it I pass it to someone else. Some of the others get papers from other places in Texas, and there is one man that gets a paper from Los Angeles in California. That is a pretty place and I have often heard so much about it. There are many Mexicans there and we hear from them very often. Many of the people around here would like to go there. They say the people down there are so very happy and it is not cold like it is here.

Interview Three

The third man had quite an imposing dwelling. It had been expanded from a single box car by the addition of three rooms and a good covered porch with floor. He had about 30 chickens and over 100 chicks with a good chicken house. He had a large garden of tomatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables and was quite proud of it. he was the oldest resident of the camp, having come here in 1920. He had a large family of his own and some relatives were with him for the time.

So you have come from California. I have been there too. Have you been in Los Angeles? Isn’t it a pretty town? And you know there are many, many Mexicans there. There are many sociedades and two Mexican churches there. I spent five years there; the work was always good. I left Los Angeles in 1918, because I heard that work was much better in the east. If I had not been here so long I certainly would like to be back there.

When I came from Mexico in 1910, I went to New Orleans. There were a lot of Negroes there and I did not like it. I have never liked them and try never to get work near the Negroes. I do not like to go into Chicago because there are so many of them there. It made me mad when I was in Texas and Oklahoma to be treated like a Negro and sometimes called one. That is another reason I like California. The people there understand the Mexicans and treat them well. They have known them for a long time and are used to them, I guess.

I know a little English, but I wish my children to know all there is to know. They are going to school now and I see that they study at night. I like to hear them go over their lessons and sometimes I try to learn something but it is very hard for an old head to learn. My wife and girls like to go to the movies and often go with them to accompany them. But I like it here and do not care so much about them. I can’t read English so I don’t get any English papers. Sometimes the boys bring some home and I read the rotulos and look at the pictures.

Interview Four

I quit my work at the roundhouse, where I had worked as a laborer since 1916, and went to work as a machinist’s helper at Plamondon Company. One Mexican machinist was working there and he got me the job. In July, 1920 I asked two months permission to go to Durango. There I met a friend of my sister’s who had been a girlfriend of mine and married her. When we returned to Chicago in November, 1920, the factory was closed. My mother had moved because they were tearing down the other house for a garaged. We lived with her for two years, and one child was born there. My mother had heart trouble and was disturbed by the crying of the baby so we moved. I didn’t have very much work. I had some at Armour Elevator Co. and then went to the Globe Die Company foundry, where I worked until 1923, repairing machines. In 1924, I worked in the steel yards at 16th and Kedzie. I got jobs there for seven roomers at my mother’s house.

In 1917, I bought a hand printing press and printed cards and handbills. I printed the rules of the Benito Juarez Society when it was reorganized in 1921. I printed in the basement of my mother’s Globe Die foundry. I saw an ad in the Chicago Tribune for drill press men. I went and got the job. We drilled Spanish combs, bracelets, etc., for stones. On piece work I made $50 to $75 per week. I made more than the others; I made my own drills from steel, while the others used iron which got dull quickly. I stayed there a year until the combs went out of style and there was no work. I had saved some money, so I bought another press and started in the printing business. I was paying $65 a month rent, but there was not enough business, and on May 1, 1926, I moved there.

Questions to Consider

  1. According to the Mexicans interviewed, in what ways is it comforting to be living with people of their own culture, whether in Chicago or Los Angeles? In what ways do the speakers miss “Old Mexico?”
  2. From these interviews, describe in your own words what it was like to live in a railroad workers’ camp. How would you respond to these conditions? How would you go about changing them if you could? What difficulties would you face?
  3. Is Los Angeles seen as a good, or even better, place to live? What are the aspects of the developing Mexican community in Los Angeles that make it especially attractive? What is another good thing about living in Los Angeles?
  4. Why is it that the Mexican worker at this time was forced to move from job to job? Are there still immigrants living in this situation? Why do you think this happens?
  5. In the third interview, the man speaks about his dislike for African Americans, or as he terms the men, “Negroes.” Why does this individual feel the way that he does? Is there any indication that his feeling is justified? How do you interpret his saying, “It made me mad, when I was in Texas and Oklahoma, to be treated like a Negro and sometimes called one.”
  6. Make a list of the kinds of jobs described in these interviews.
  7. What examples can we see in the interviews of the developing Mexican community in Chicago: of family life, clubs, cultural events, and community identity?