The Past and Future of Mexican Chicago

Located in Chicago’s historic Pilsen neighborhood, 1831 South Racine Avenue is currently the site of a luxury shared-living complex. Advertised as having “eliminated things that make city living a challenge,” Pilsen Coliving offers its tenants private beds and bathrooms inside a completely furnished suite that they share with others. Outfitted with hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, washers and dryers, subway-tiled bathrooms,

and sterile white walls, the units are cleaned every week, and basic household items are resupplied whenever they’re needed. Residents are pampered with a lavish list of amenities: The complex contains a fitness center, a theater room, a picnic patio, and a lounge area. Even though this means the residents hardly need to leave the building, they can also, if they’re feeling adventurous enough, explore a “culturally diverse neighborhood with a booming art scene, authentic fare, and exciting nightlife.”

The structure at 1831 South Racine was built in 1905 by the Women’s Presbyterian Society for Home Missions. It was christened the Howell Neighborhood House and provided services to recent European immigrants. In 1970, community activists replaced and renamed it Casa Aztlán, and it was soon a space for activists to build coalitions, rally against police brutality, organize against the criminalization of immigrants, and provide essential services to the Pilsen community. Casa Aztlán’s exterior became a canvas for muralists who created radiant pieces of art. Incorporating a dazzling array of colors and concepts, the murals that covered the outside walls were influenced by Aztec symbolism, revolutionary figures, and the militant spirit that was alive throughout the city and country. For the 40-plus years of its existence, Casa Aztlán was arguably the cultural and political capital of Mexican Chicago. The story of how a place like 1831 South Racine went from being the Howell House to Casa Aztlán to Pilsen Coliving is the focus of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification, a new book by Georgetown University historian Mike Amezcua.

Taking his readers on a walking tour of Pilsen, as well as Little Village, the Near West Side, and Back of the Yards, Amezcua chronicles how these neighborhoods, in the aftermath of World War II, became the nucleus of Chicago’s emergence as a Mexican metropolis. Whereas other important works on Latinx Chicago, such as Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas’s Latino Crossings and Lilia Fernández’s Brown in the Windy City, examine Mexicans and Puerto Ricans alongside one another, Amezcua is interested in situating the “Mexican experience” and “its everyday contests over neighborhoods, segregation, and the white defense of property rights” in a broader multiracial and multiethnic narrative. Ultimately, he provides critical insights into how Mexicans and Mexican Americans fought for inclusion—residentially, politically, economically, and culturally—in the Windy City.


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