Although Mexicans are often thought of as recent immigrants, local historian and activist Antonio Delgado points out that they've lived in Chicago and its suburbs since the 1920s. Back then enforcement of immigration laws was lax, and there was plenty of work to be had at the factories, the stockyards, and the railroads. Consequently an estimated 20 to 30 thousand Mexicans traveled to the city, settling in the far south side, Back of the Yards, and the area around Taylor and Halsted streets. The latter hosted one of the largest enclaves, called Little Michoacan, which thrived in what is now thought of as a historically Greek and Italian neighborhood. From 1951 to 1963 the city even had its own Mexican lifestyle magazine, called Vida Latina. Delgado bought a rare nearly complete set of issues for $150 from the publisher in 1978--after failing to drum up any interest from local historical societies.
"No one was willing to put up the money," he says. "Now I get calls when people find out I have them, and they're interested in having me donate them to different university libraries."
Despite a series of protests, Little Michoacan was pushed west to Pilsen in 1963 to make way for the University of Illinois Circle Campus. Now some fear that Pilsen will be in the way of the university's new expansion plans. "A lot of people are being threatened for the second time in their lives," says Delgado. His own grandmother's house stood on the present site of the Behavioral Sciences Building.
By clearing up misconceptions about the past, Delgado says he hopes to influence the future. "People internalize the belief that we've only been here a short period of time," he says. "It's what I refer to as the missing pages of American history, and the little work I've been able to do just begins to scratch the surface of what's out there."
Delgado will give a free lecture Monday called "Early Mexican Chicago." It's at 5 in the video theater of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. His presentation will be followed by a related slide show by library archival specialist Andrea Telli. Call 312-747-4050 for more information. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Davis Square Park, 44th and Marshfield, 1930s photo.