Book review: “Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940” by Michael Innis-Jimenez

innis-jimenez --- steel barrioOn July 7, 1931, Thomas A. Green, a municipal judge in Chicago, caused an international incident when he tossed the acting Mexican consul into jail for six months.

Adolfo Dominguez went to Green’s courtroom in support of an unemployed Mexican immigrant arrested on vagrancy. But, after hearing Green make insulting comments about Mexican “idlers” who were a “burden” on the city, the consul approached the bench to protest.

Green didn’t want to listen. Dominguez wouldn’t back down. So the judge sent him to Cook County Jail.

“It took a State Department letter to the Illinois governor to force Green to retract his decision regarding Dominguez,” writes Michael Innis-Jimenez in Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, just published this month. (Dominguez served only four hours behind bars.)

Decades later, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the South Chicago neighborhood were still talking about Green, not only for his jailing of the consul but also for his general mistreatment of their compatriots.

Yet, the anti-Mexican prejudices expressed by Green are only part of the complex account that Innis-Jimenez provides about the early years of the Mexican community in South Chicago.

It is an account of living in two cultures, of negotiating the tricky question of language, of being citizens without citizenship papers and of creating a home away from home.

South Chicago

Although Steel Barrio is steeped in the growing scholarly literature on the Mexican experience in the United States, Innis-Jimenez tells a very specific story about a very specific community in a very specific place. South Chicago is like many other U.S. areas where immigrants from Mexico have settled — and it’s not.

That is true, even in Chicago.

In the first half of the 20th century, two of the three neighborhoods with high Mexican populations — the Near West and Back of the Yards — were served by settlement houses. These were important sites for education, recreation and social services and helped shaped the Mexican communities they served.

South Chicago, the third neighborhood, had no settlement house so immigrants from Mexico had to find their own way. The building blocks for their community included Spanish-language businesses and newspapers, mutual aid societies, churches and, interestingly, sports teams.

(A comparison of the three neighborhoods and how they have evolved — which was beyond the scope of Innis-Jimenez’s study — would be likely to provide important insights. Consider, for instance, that, today, the Near West Side has few Latinos while, just to the south, Pilsen and Little Village represent Chicago’s largest and most concentrated Mexican community.)

Push and pull

The Mexicans who came to South Chicago a century ago were being pushed out of their country by political unrest and violence and pulled to that neighborhoods by steel mills needing workers, especially during the strike of 1919. Innis-Jimenez writes:

The devastating effect of revolution on everyday Mexican life is arguably the most prominent factor prompting the large exodus of Mexicans to the United States. War disrupted an already fragile agricultural economy, creating widespread environmental devastation, malnutrition, lack of work, and inflation. Many men volunteered to fight in one of the four principal armies of the Revolution of 1910, and many who did not want to fight fled to the United States fearing conscription….Civilians feared for their lives as violence was not confined to the military battlefields.

Those who ended up in South Chicago found a steel mill-dominated neighborhood that was no Garden of Eden. Indeed, the descriptions in Steel Barrio parallel similar passages from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle about what Lithuanians and other immigrants were facing around the same time in the Back of the Yards area:

[T]he never-ending smokestacks spewing plumes of black smoke and ash framed by a grey, polluted sky, the large mill buildings, the stench, the rundown houses, the dirt alleyways littered with the refuse of everyday life, and the soot that covered everything were daunting and disorienting….

Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith Abbott, leading Chicago academics and social workers,…described in fine detail the dismal conditions of wide “unpaved and unkempt” streets with a “dreary succession of small frame dwellings, dull in color, frequently dilapidated, uninviting and monotonous” on both sides…An environment “made for industry, not for men and women and little children,” overwhelmed visitors to South Chicago.


Nonetheless, with all its ugliness, South Chicago represented hope and financial opportunity, writes Innis-Jimenez. It was a place of economic and civil stability.

And one more, very important thing: Unlike the Lithuanian characters of The Jungle, most Mexicans who settled in South Chicago weren’t expecting to stay.

They saw themselves as sojourners in the neighborhood. They planned — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day — to return to Mexico, ideally with enough money to buy land and live comfortably back at home.

Other immigrant groups came from much farther away and crossed oceans to get to the United States. In making the trip, they were committing to a new life. That wasn’t true for Mexicans.

In fact, in 1928, Jose Vasconcelos, a prominent Mexican scholar and activist, came to Hull House to address Chicago’s Mexican community. (It might seem like an odd trip for him to make since he was running for president back home. However, he knew some of his listeners were likely to return to Mexico in time to vote in the election.)

Innis-Jimenez reports that Vasconcelos told his audience that they were “the children of Israel who are passing through our Egypt here in the United States” — but only temporarily.

He appealed directly to a Mexican sense of cultural responsibility and duty to persevere for themselves, for their family, and for their patria, or homeland. For them, he was saying, the United States was not a promised land but its prelude: “good Mexicans” ought to “expect to return” to Mexico “and to escape” the conditions they faced in Chicago.

“Change flags?”

During the early decades of the migration, few of South Chicago’s Mexicans were interested in becoming naturalized American citizens, and few were interested in assimilating into the mainstream U.S. culture. And few wanted to learn much English.

“What! Did Mary Diaz change flags?” said Esperanza Gonzalez in the late 1920s when she learned that a neighbor had taken out naturalization papers.

This disturbed the nativist enemies of the Mexican immigrants, but also many of their friends. (And it still does today.) And it added fuel to the fires of discrimination that those from Mexico faced.

Like many immigrant groups, Mexicans were described as “dirty, but Innis-Jimenez writes:

When applied to Mexicans, “dirty” also carried racial connotations of being darker-skinned and therefore inferior to whites….In 1928, an experienced settlement house worker…saw that “there is beginning to be race feeling” against Mexicans in Chicago; other immigrants “are beginning to say they are black.”…Not surprisingly, by doing so, newer southern and eastern European immigrants could move up the social ladder and closer to the white end of the racial spectrum.

A restrained approach

It was within this context — and at the height of the Depression — that Judge Green made his anti-Mexican comments.

Yet, while many Chicagoans shared his sentiments, city and state leaders took a much less draconian approach to Mexican residents during those hard economic times than many other places. In California, Texas and even northwest Indiana, public campaigns forcibly sent thousands of Mexicans back to their homeland.

There was little involuntary repatriation in Chicago although Innis-Jimenez notes that it is impossible to know how much indirect coercion was responsible for the decision of many Mexicans to leave the city. (Between 1930 and 1934, the Mexican population in Chicago fell 34 percent to 13,201.)

Why such a restrained approach? Innis-Jimenez writes:

Because Chicago institutions and settlement houses had experience helping and working with many different population groups who had settled in the city, including white ethnic Europeans, African-American migrants from the American South, and Mexicans, they had an institutional tolerance that was absent in most other American communities with significant Mexican populations.…

Active opposition by immigrant advocacy groups, settlement houses, and Mexican groups prevented the same type of forcible repatriation within Chicago [as was happening in many other places].

Patrick T. Reardon