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Historian Mike Amezcua on "Making Mexican Chicago"

The arch over 26th Street lets everyone who passes through know they are entering a largely Mexican enclave. But before it was rebranded as La Villita, it was a largely Czech neighborhood simply known as South Lawndale and that population shift wasn’t an accident.

The story of how La Villita and Chicago’s other Mexican enclaves developed is the subject of “Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification.” The book walks the streets of the city’s Mexican communities and explores the history of the forces that shaped them.

Author Mike Amezcua, who is also a history professor at Georgetown University, says the story of Mexican migration to Chicago starts much like many other groups’ migration stories.               

“The first immigrants from Mexico to Chicago came because of the kinds of industries that existed in the Midwest,” Amezcua said. “In Chicago in particular, such as railroads and the railroad network, steel plants in South Chicago as well as meatpacking and the packing houses in the Back of the Yards.”

Amezcua’s research uncovered a pivotal figure in Chicago’s Mexican immigrant community, real estate agent Anita Villarreal.

“She got her real estate license in the 1950s and upon being displaced, she began to consider how she could grow her business in communities like Pilsen and South Lawndale. These were communities that while we often think of them now as the mecca of Mexican Chicago were not very Mexican,” Amezcua said. “Anita began to buy and sell property in these neighborhoods. Not only that, she also had the foresight to imagine what it would take to sell a home to a Mexican immigrant. And often that involved building up the commercial thoroughfare of 18th Street and 26th Street in ways that would be hospitable and familiar to Mexican immigrants so that they can buy their groceries, buy their pan dulce. And in those ways Anita came to shape Pilsen but more importantly, La Villita by opening up neighborhoods and properties to representing the community.”

Read entire article at WTTW