Lilia Fernández. Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 392. $30.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780226244280.*

About the Author:

Lilia Fernández is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Ohio State University. She obtained her PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California at San Diego in 2005. Brown in the Windy City (henceforth, BWC) is her revised dissertation and first book; the project was originally called “Latina/o Migration and Community Formation in Postwar Chicago: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Gender, and Politics, 1945-1975;” and her committee chairs were Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Vicki L. Ruiz. Lastly, Fernández is a native Chicagoan who grew up at least partly in one of the areas that is the subject of her study, the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen.

Overview:

BWC is the first intertwined history of Puerto Rican and Mexican-American immigrant communities in postwar Chicago, from roughly 1942 to 1975. The work contextualizes the migration, community formation, racialization, and social activism of these groups during a tumultuous period of Chicago’s history. Overall, Fernández offers an intimate look into how two Spanish-speaking ethnic groups built their identities in a shared climate of racism, housing discrimination, deindustrialization, urban blight, gentrification, dislocation, urban renewal, and activism in a major, postwar American city.

Audience:

Fernández is writing to American, postwar urban historians—particularly those working on questions of immigration, race, neighborhood racial succession, and social activism—who have previously ignored Latino populations.

Argument:

Fernández argues that the Mexican-American and Puerto Rican immigrant experience in Chicago has been unexplored, overshadowed by a bias for a black-and-white binary in racial politics. She believes that neither African American nor European immigration history can provide an effective model for studying urban, Latino history. Therefore, she wants to study the “Brown” space created by Chicagoans in between this black/white binary. She does this to analyze the racialized struggle of Spanish-speaking people and to complicate “our dualistic understanding of race in the urban north,” (7). Fernández claims that this “Brown” identity is “truly elastic,” “racially flexible,” and:

“The term brown does not represent a universal color of all Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Rather, in the racial taxonomy of the United States, brown stands in as a placeholder that captures the malleable meaning assigned to the social difference most Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are believed to embody,” (17).

Fernández’s thesis is about the ethno-racial formation and incorporation of Latinos (9). She argues that, by 1980, these two immigrant communities had coalesced around four distinct neighborhoods and had built separate community organizations. They had undergone a dramatic transformation of racial consciousness and become forces “to be reckoned with” in the urban landscape of postwar Chicago (205, 266). They had become members of “an ‘other’ race” who “articulated a distinct racial subject position,” (7). To Fernández, this transformation was the product of a complex storm of historical factors—factors that were negative and positive. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago, for example, were affected by riots, housing projects, police brutality, and white youth gangs as well as by the Chicano Movement, the Young Lords Organization, and gendered and civic activism in local organizations like ALAS and MLEA.

Structure:

Chapters 1 and 2 trace the transnational “parallel labor migrations” of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans to the Chicago neighborhood of the Near West Side between 1942 and 1954 (7). The origins of both groups can be traced through federal government programs, like the bracero program for Mexicans and Operation Bootstrap for Puerto Ricans. Chapter 3 examines the dismantling of this neighborhood and the displacement of its Latino residents by way of racial housing programs, federal highway projects like the Eisenhower Expressway, urban revitalization efforts, and the construction of the Circle Campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Chapters 4 and 5 follow displaced Puerto Ricans to Lincoln Park and the Near North Side, and then to Humboldt Park and West Town. Fernández also discusses the civic activism and gendered dimensions of a multi-ethnic yet Puerto Rican-led group called the Young Lords Organization. Special attention is paid to one of the founders, José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez, and the group’s collaboration with other movements like the Black Panthers.

Chapter 6 follows displaced Mexicans into the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, examining how their contested settlement interacted with the contemporary Chicano movement. Fernández also discusses the development of local organizations like Casa Aztlán and El Centro de la Causa. Finally, chapter 7 examines the women’s political activism of a Pilsen-based, Chicano social service organization called Mujeres Latinas en Acción (also MLEA or Latina Women in Action). A conclusion evaluates Latino, ethno-racial formation in the context of an historic 1980 census.

Sources:

Among more traditional sources like transnational newspapers and government records, Fernández draws upon individual community and social service organization records, oral histories with local residents, census data and annual volumes of the Local Community Fact Book (a compendium of neighborhood statistics), and various private archives from such organizations as El Centro de la Causa and MLEA. For more information on the major sources, see her list of archival abbreviations (269 and 270).

Criticism:

BWC has several issues that stem from its status as a pioneer study, an identity-based study, and a dissertation. Like other projects conceived under similar circumstances, the individual chapters are often disconnected from each other and from larger, underlying questions. What is the larger connection, for example, that can explain why Latinos in Chicago are marginalized during periods of gentrification (like on the Near West Side) and periods of neglect (like in the modern barrios)? Perhaps a larger, more sustained discussion of race and culture as concepts of analysis could have cleared this up.

Sometimes Fernández wants to explore global topics. Other times, she narrates the insular history of one neighborhood organization. These sections do not always harmonize. For instance, Fernández never really proves that “activism…laid the groundwork for more formal electoral participation,” (19, 265). In order to do this, she would need to trace direct connections between those involved in organizations like YLO, ALAS, and MLEA and voter registration and voter turnout numbers, and those who worked on campaigns for local and municipal office. For this, she may need an eighth chapter on the early 1980s, particularly the interracial coalition building of Rudy Lozano and Harold Washington.

More generally, the first half of BWC does not mesh that well with the second half. If Fernández’s thesis is about the growth of an ethno-racial consciousness among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans—a move from trying to become white to embracing a Latino/a identity—then more attention should have been paid to how Latinos in the city perceived themselves previously. What were the local, conservative groups that mirrored the national politics of LULAC and the G.I. Forum? In other words, what were the institutions that had attempted to pursue the path of ethnic Europeans in becoming white? What happened to these groups? Can we see them in the 1980 census, with the significant proportion of “Hispanic/Spanish-origin people” who are still identifying as white, (266)?

Next, as an identity-based study, readers should ask themselves whether BWC misses any opportunities to consider the impact or influence that outsiders could have exerted on the history? Does Fernández assume that her readers already know about the involvement of outsiders? Last, does her desire to explore a shared history between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans encourage her to downplay any inconvenient narratives? This last point is worth considering more deeply because it concerns execution and not just intention. Fernández intends  BWC to be an interwoven history, but it often reads like the parallel stories of two groups. The issues that affect both of these groups are often the same, and so are the ways in which they respond to change during the postwar era; however, there is very little direct contact between members of the groups. Their stories are like parallel rail-tracks, running in the same direction, but rarely connecting. Perhaps Fernández overestimates the degree to which Mexican-American and Puerto Rican immigrants explicitly collaborated.

What Does this Work Contribute?

Fernández argues that BWC is long overdue. She is right. While many Americans know that Latinos/as now constitute 17% of the US population—the largest “minority” group—fewer know that Chicago has the second-largest Mexican population, and the fourth largest Puerto Rican population, of all US cities. In fact, as of 2010, Latinos made up almost thirty percent of Chicago’s population, and most of these people were Mexican-American and Puerto Rican American. Very few people will know that Latinos/as have had such a strong presence for much longer than they have in other cities. Their dominant presence in the city is not a post-1965 phenomenon as it is often thought to be. These facts considered, it is astounding that no historian had undertaken an intertwined study of postwar, Latino immigration to Chicago before Fernández’s 2012 work.

But BWC is also timely. In some ways, we are still living at the end of Fernández’s book. Most of the areas that became the main barrios in the late 1970s still retain their dominant Latin character today, though for how much longer has come up for heated debate. The Pilsen neighborhood, like many Chicago communities, has become a flashpoint in the gentrification wars of the past decade, as in-migration recovers. As more young people want to live in the city again, they seek out cheap rent in “trendy” neighborhoods close to schools like UIC. As often happens, these renters are followed by cliché or culturally specific businesses that out-compete local shops. As Fernández summarizes in a long epigraph by Squires et al. on page 132, these migrations are not “a spontaneous expression of natural forces.” Rather, they are supported by “key institutional actors.”

There is much more to be said about renewed gentrification in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Humboldt. If you are interested, I have cited a few recent articles in a footnote to this paragraph. In regards to BWC, however, it should simply be noted that, in order for a given community group to defend its right to remain in one place—and not be perpetually shuffled to new neighborhoods every few generations—it helps to have an established place in the urban narrative. Fernández has begun that work with BWC. Critics will probably quibble about which civic organizations and historical events were the most important to the Latino community’s formation. They will quibble about who represented this community more, and how this community “really” interacted with various outsiders like white liberals and other non-white radicals. Regardless, they will no longer be able to pretend that this community is either new or that it never existed.[1]  

 Notes: 

[1] Ymijan Baftijari, “One Girl Shows What’s It Like When Your Neighborhood Gentrifies,” Vivala.com, July 30, 2015. Accessed on 4-22-16. http://www.vivala.com/chicago/gentrification-pilsen-chicago-mexican-american/417; Ashok Selvam, “Anti-Gentrification Sign Makers Strike Bow Truss Pilsen For 2nd Time,” Chicago Eater, January 26, 2015. Accessed on 4-22-16. http://chicago.eater.com/2015/1/26/7915993/anti-gentrification-sign-2nd-time-bow-truss-pilsen; AJ Latrace, “The Onion Gets in on Humboldt Park Gentrification Narrative,” Curbed Chicago, August, 28, 2015. Accessed on 4-22-16. http://chicago.curbed.com/2015/8/28/9925916/onion-humboldt-park.

*This overview was written with Viridiana Hernandez, a fellow graduate student in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. It was written as part of the course “HIS 202H, At the Crossroads: Recent Latina/a History,” taught by Professor Lorena Oropeza. 

For a video lecture by Lilia Fernández on Brown in the Windy City click the following link.