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Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago

Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago

by Lilia Fernandez


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226212845
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/21/2014
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 466,115
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lilia Fernández is associate professor in the Department of History at Ohio State University.

Read an Excerpt

Brown in the Windy City

Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-24425-9

Chapter One

Mexican and Puerto Rican Labor Migration to Chicago

In the spring of 1945 in the city of Chicago, a local Mexican American organization, the Mexican Civic Committee, alerted the Council of Social Agencies' Committee on Minority Groups about the presence of several hundred Mexican migrant contract workers (braceros) in the city. Most of the men worked on local rail lines while others labored in agriculture or on railroads elsewhere in the region and had made their way to the Windy City. By late 1946, the Committee on Minority Groups established a Subcommittee on Social Services to Mexican Migratory Workers to address the population's needs. At its first meeting in December of that year, the subcommittee discussed the status and social problems of the workers. Many braceros had poor working and living conditions, inadequate clothing for midwestern winters, inadequate food, and substandard wages. Some men had "skipped" their contracts and arrived in Chicago without money, a place to sleep, or a way to get back home. The subcommittee discussed how local social agencies could provide services to these migrants and help those who wanted to return to Mexico.

That very same month, another group of Chicago residents also turned their attention to a different sort of "braceros" who were experiencing comparable conditions—Puerto Rican migrant female and male contract workers who had been placed locally as domestic servants and foundry workers, respectively. A group of students at the University of Chicago and other sympathizers began investigating worker complaints of employer abuses, unfair wage deductions, and overall bad experiences. What were these two different sets of workers doing in Chicago in the mid-1940s? What had brought them to the city? Although they garnered attention separately from each other, the simultaneous migrations and problems of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were not coincidental. Their notable presence signaled the beginning of a dramatic postwar labor migration, one that in fact was solicited by the United States and coordinated with the governments of Mexico and Puerto Rico.

* * *

From World War II through the 1960s Mexicans and Puerto Ricans became subjects of state-sponsored mass labor importation programs in the United States. Both served as viable labor pools to fill American economic needs in the mid-twentieth century, but they were beckoned by the US government through contradictory and competing policies. The Emergency Farm Labor Program, or Bracero Program, called for the temporary recruitment of Mexican men for agricultural and railroad work. American government officials initially argued for the urgent need for such recruitment during the "wartime emergency" based on employers' complaints of severe labor shortages. Contract labor agreements between the United States and Mexico, however, were renewed repeatedly after the war, extending until 1964. Puerto Ricans became labor migrants under the auspices of the Puerto Rico Department of Labor's Migration Division, as part of the island's larger modernization and economic development campaign known as Operation Bootstrap / Manos a la Obra. Broadly speaking, their migration had the two-pronged goals of alleviating the island's widespread unemployment and controlling its putative "overpopulation." The legal status of the two labor pools, however, differed sharply. Mexican migrants (whether braceros or not) entered the country as citizens of a sovereign nation and therefore were identified legally as "aliens" or temporary immigrants. Puerto Ricans came as residents of an American colonial possession and therefore US citizens as established by the Insular Cases and the Jones Act of 1917. They were thus identified as "domestic migrants." While these two migrant labor programs differed in significant ways, their end result was the same: both programs sent workers to do similar labor in the mainland United States for specified periods of time. Both populations were extremely vulnerable and exploitable in unprotected labor sectors. Though the majority of Mexican braceros labored in agricultural fields or on railroads in the Southwest, and most Puerto Rican labor migrants worked on the East Coast, the two converged in the fields, on the railroads, and, eventually, in the factories of the Midwest.

The same economic considerations that led Mexican men to take temporary labor contracts and Puerto Rican men and women to travel north also motivated Mexican American migrants and non-bracero Mexican immigrants (with or without visas). In the wartime production boom and the post war era of economic prosperity, internal migrants from throughout the country—southern African Americans, southern whites, Native Americans—had begun abandoning agricultural labor and rural regions in search of higher-paying, industrial employment in urban centers. Mexican American migrant farm laborers, including many who had worked the seasonal circuit from Texas to the Midwest (Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois), were particularly compelled to head north by the competition from the very braceros that farmers began hiring for lower wages. The Bracero Program thus drove increasing numbers of Mexican Americans out of the farm labor stream in search of more lucrative work in urban areas. The economic boom also inspired Mexican immigrants without bracero contracts—both men and women, authorized and unauthorized—to migrate north, especially by the late 1940s and 1950s, in search of reportedly plentiful work opportunities. In an era of European immigration restriction and at the end of the second Great Migration of southern African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican nationals, and Mexican Americans came with the hopes of gaining economic security just as employers hoped to hire them for the lowest wages possible.

Whether braceros, Mexican immigrants, Tejanos (Texas Mexican Americans), or Puerto Ricans, the majority came to occupy the same occupational stratum—unskilled or semiskilled labor in agriculture, on the railroads, in steel mills, meatpacking houses, or manufacturing. Like other immigrants of the past (Irish, Italians, Poles, Slavs, and others), the newly arrived generally occupied the bottom of the employment ladder—relegated to the lowest-paid, most dangerous, and undesirable work. Yet their labor migration differed in several important respects. As Chicano/a scholars of Mexican immigration have noted, Mexican immigration has carried with it the unique history of US-Mexican relations, the historical racialization of Mexicans that has accompanied those relations, and the continued (and often contested) racial ascriptions assigned to Mexicans and Mexican Americans throughout the twentieth century. Puerto Ricans brought with them a distinct colonial legacy. Yet for both Mexicans and Puerto Ricans who migrated to Chicago in these decades, their racial formation in the city was shaped both by their encounters with others and by the colonial pasts they carried. The role that the state played in recruiting them, moreover, made their migration that much more intriguing and paradoxical as the state sought to regulate and restrict their mobility once on the US mainland.

Prelude to Migration: Legacies of Colonialism

Numerous scholars have established that migrant labor has been a constitutive feature of the capitalist world-system. Indeed, "the relationship between capitalism, the nation-state, and human migration" has become a central feature of contemporary scholarship that has taken a transnational approach to the study of migration. Since at least the seventeenth century, colonizing nation-states have sought out low-wage workers in the colonies and later in the metropole for the production of goods for local and global markets. Such colonization of labor has occurred primarily through the distinct racialization of those populations as inferior and subordinate to the dominant group contracting them.

Both Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have functioned as colonial labor in their respective places of origin—Mexicans as miners and petroleum workers for American and European corporations in Mexico, for example, and Puerto Ricans as needleworkers, or agricultural workers on US-owned sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations on the island. Their migrations to the US mainland have also been a result of the economic, social, and political dislocations that such imperialism and colonialism have produced. Indeed, most studies of Puerto Rican migration analyze the phenomenon as part and parcel of the island's colonial relationship to the United States, interpreting "such a large-scale displacement [a]s an essential feature in the total process of colonialism, not only as it has operated in Puerto Rico, but as it manifests itself around the world today." Chicano historians and other scholars have advanced this argument in relation to Mexican migrants as well. Gilbert González and Raul Fernández contend that "more than a century of economic domination of the United States over Mexico" has produced varying waves of migration to the United States since the mid-nineteenth-century conquest of Mexico's northern territory. This obtains for Mexican Americans as well, who either were folded into the nation through conquest in 1848 or are the descendants of subsequent immigrants. Indeed, Chicano scholars embraced the concept of "internal colonialism" in the 1970s to describe the subordinated status of Mexican Americans in the United States. Mae Ngai has likewise characterized the phenomenon of both Mexican and Mexican American labor migration in the United States as "imported colonialism," a dynamic that racializes ethnic Mexicans as laborers and positions them outside the nation-state regardless of their citizenship or birthplace. According to her, Mexican and Mexican American workers have essentially served as a colonized labor force under the guise of voluntary (im)migration and free labor conditions.

These processes of colonization and imperialism have rested upon and reproduced racial logics that enable the economic, political, and social subordination of colonized groups. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have had distinct histories of racialization vis-à-vis the United States. US conquest of northern Mexico in 1848 resulted in the racialization and proletarianization of Mexican people as an inferior, degraded, low-wage laboring class. Such subordination allowed American colonizers to establish social, political, and especially economic control over the newly acquired territory and its seventy-five to one hundred thousand Mexicans. The colonization of the island of Puerto Rico, exactly five decades later, similarly depended on the subordination of the island's people. Puerto Rico's much larger population, however, was racialized less as low-wage peons than as exotic, foreign, deficient, racial "others" in need of American paternalism and civilization. The ambivalence about incorporating the population into the nation translated into an ambivalent political condition, the island's "belonging to—but not part of—the United States." American hesitancy to incorporate islanders resulted in contentious debates over their constitutional claims to US citizenship. Their colonial racialization vis-à-vis white Americans and their subsequent incorporation as subordinate citizens (much like African Americans and Native Americans) mutually reinforced each other and thus constructed Puerto Ricans as exploitable low-wage labor on both the island and the mainland. Rather than securing the full privileges and rights of white American citizens, the majority of the population was relegated to low-wage labor. Mexican and Puerto Rican racialization reflected the differing geographic locations, sociopolitical obstacles, and economic opportunities that they presented to American imperialist ambitions. Still, regardless of their local idioms, both populations were deemed unmistakably inferior to white Americans, and, thus, their incorporation into the national body as equal citizens would remain largely impossible.

The migration of both populations to the mainland United States during the mid-twentieth century carried with it the legacy of this colonial past at the same time that it perpetuated and reinforced that colonial racialization, or "reracialized" those groups. Americans had some knowledge of Mexicans and Mexico, remembering the recruitment of American soldiers to capture Pancho Villa in 1914, seeing film depictions of Mexico as a "barbarous" land, and seeking out the country for exotic travels. In the Midwest, specifically, white Americans had fewer encounters with Mexicans in the early twentieth century than in the Southwest, and they struggled to locate them among African Americans and European immigrants. As much as Mexicans complicated racial categories in the Midwest, however, Gabriela Arredondo argues that ultimately by the 1930s Chicagoans had ascribed this group a noncitizen/alien, nonwhite, and non-American racial location, marking them firmly outside the national body. Mexican immigrants represented a nonwhite "other." Their class status or "labor category," moreover, was decidedly inferior to that of native-born white Americans as well as European immigrants, who staked increasingly firmer claims to whiteness. The Bracero Program and accompanying "illegal" immigration by the forties, fifties, and sixties perpetuated their subordinated socioeconomic status, a condition that seemed to improve little for second-generation Mexican Americans.

Puerto Ricans also presented a relatively new group of "others" to be incorporated into the racial and ethnic landscape on the mainland, and they complicated American racial taxonomies further. As Laura Briggs notes, "The work of incorporating new nationalities into modern racial categories change[d] in the post–World War II period with the implementation of policies encouraging the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland." If Mexicans were racial others, Puerto Ricans were even more indecipherable. They challenged Americans' categories of racial knowledge even further, being "Americans" and yet "foreigners" at the same time. Like incoming Mexicans, they confounded the nation's black-white binary at a moment when European immigrants had consolidated their "whiteness" and black migrants to the urban industrial north had been firmly cast in their "blackness." Puerto Ricans' heterogeneity in skin color and phenotype and their "racial" ambiguity marked them as some "other" nonwhite group despite their American citizenship. Regardless of the differences in their specific histories of colonization and conquest and the particular technologies and local contours of their racialization, when both Mexicans and Puerto Ricans came to the mainland as labor migrants, they were unmistakably "subordinate with respect to the Euro-American population within the United States as a whole."

The political status of the (im)migrant groups' respective homelands shaped the conditions of labor (im)migration and the contours of state-sponsored labor migration programs as well. As a sovereign state, Mexico had relative autonomy in negotiating with the United States compared to the colonial possession of Puerto Rico. Mexico's contract negotiations constituted part of the United States' foreign relations with its hemispheric neighbors. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy framed, at least discursively, the way in which American officials handled initial Bracero Program negotiations. Officials deployed Good Neighbor rhetoric to entreat Mexican cooperation with American labor demands and to emphasize that the United States wanted good relations with its southern neighbor. While Mexico was a sovereign, independent nation, it felt pressure from the Western Hemisphere's superpower to comply with its request for workers. Labor agreements thus were not marked by equity. Although during World War II, Mexico had some leverage vis-à-vis the United States and was able to protect its laborers, over the years, this power waned and Mexican workers were left essentially at the mercy of American employers.

In contrast, Puerto Rico had an explicitly colonial relationship with the United States. The much-celebrated change in Puerto Rico's designation to commonwealth status under the governorship of Luis Muñoz Marín in 1952 did little to change this colonial status. US citizenship made labor contracts much more informal and kept them outside the scope of foreign policy or diplomatic relations. Ironically, however, the United States had less official control over the movement of Puerto Ricans than Mexicans since the former could migrate freely like other American citizens. As a colonizing power, however, the United States played a more direct role in the social, political, and economic conditions and policies that prompted, even encouraged, unemployed or impoverished workers to leave the island in search of work.

By World War II, American economic conditions and needs made both Mexico and Puerto Rico viable choices for temporary, low-wage, low-skilled labor. Modernization and industrialization campaigns, agricultural displacement, environmental catastrophe, and government policies made Mexico and Puerto Rico ripe candidates for exporting workers. In the case of Mexico, it initially lent its citizens at the urging of American officials and employers.


Excerpted from Brown in the Windy City by LILIA FERNANDEZ Copyright © 2012 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Chapter 1 Mexican and Puerto Rican Labor Migration to Chicago
Chapter 2 Putting Down Roots: Mexican and Puerto Rican Settlement on the Near West Side, 1940–60
Chapter 3 Race, Class, Housing, and Urban Renewal: Dismantling the Near West Side
Chapter 4 Pushing Puerto Ricans Around: Urban Renewal, Race, and Neighborhood Change
Chapter 5 The Evolution of the Young Lords Organization: From Street Gang to Revolutionaries
Chapter 6 From Eighteenth Street to La Dieciocho: Neighborhood Transformation in the Age of the Chicano Movement
Chapter 7 The Limits of Nationalism: Women’s Activism and the Founding of Mujeres Latinas en Acción




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