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Chicago silhouette, Chicago, Illinois, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Unfolding Research: Making Mexican Chicago

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Unfolding Research is a recurring series in which people answer questions about their experiences conducting research in the Manuscript Division. This entry was written by Mike Amezcua.

Tell us about yourself: Who are you? Where you are from? What did you research?

I’m Mike Amezcua. I’m an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. I was researching the invention of Latinx segregation in the American city, with a particular focus on Chicago, and the resulting politics, urbanism, and economic movements that resulted from that segregation. The culmination of this research was my first book, Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2022.

Head and shoulders portrait of a man with glasses in a blue suit.
Portrait of Mike Amezcua.

In general, what are your research strategies and how have they changed over the years?

I’m not sure if I have a research “strategy” per se. I just try to go out and search for things on my topic where it makes the most sense to me. I generally keep a notebook where I jot down all of the archives and collections I’m interested in looking at, and try to check them off my list one by one. At least that’s how I approached my first book. You would think that a book on Chicago would take me to mostly Chicago-area archives, but I literally went coast to coast and everywhere in between to source this book. I think my approach remains the same, to cast a wide archival net, no matter how specific the topic is.

Your book, Making Mexican Chicago, utilized numerous archives, including the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. Where did the Library fit into this geography of archives?

I was living in South Bend, Indiana, at the time and made plans to fly out to DC to visit the National Archives in College Park. It was only by happenstance that I decided to spend a day at the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, initially to look at the David S. Broder Papers. I knew that Broder had covered the resurgence of the Republican Party in the 1960s and 1970s and I was curious about what he thought about Chicago during this period as it related to the growing white backlash in the bungalow belt communities of the city, an area of importance in my book. On this same trip I discovered that the Manuscript Division held the papers of John Bartlow Martin, a journalist who frequently wrote about Chicago for various outlets during the midcentury years. He was very committed to pursuing stories that revealed the injustice that could spawn in the darkness of cities. He wrote about slums, vice, crime, inequality, and tons about Chicago and the Midwest. I extended my stay so I could take a deep dive into Martin’s notebooks.

What specifically did those sources reveal about Mexican Chicago that pushed your research further?

John Bartlow Martin wrote a couple of feature stories in the late 1940s and early 1950s for McCall’s and the Saturday Evening Post that were not necessarily about Mexican Chicago, but about events that took place in Mexican Chicago. For McCall’s he wrote about Saul Alinsky’s influential community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. The Back of the Yards was a neighborhood in Chicago made up of packinghouse workers and slaughterhouse pens that was in the midst of a major demographic change as more and more Mexicans were moving into the predominantly Polish and Lithuanian neighborhood. For the Saturday Evening Post, Martin wrote about a Chicago policeman who had shot and killed some youngsters in cold blood, including some Italian American and Mexican American youth, in what was then the largest Mexican American community in Chicago in the 1950s, the Near West Side.

For both of these stories, Martin had done extensive research, filling pages and pages with handwritten notes that contained eyewitness accounts, man-on-the-street perspectives, police reports, court transcripts, neighborhood details, and much more. On his work in the Near West Side in the early 1950s, for instance, Martin was able to capture dimensions of Mexican urban life that were invaluable for me. In his notes he wrote down how federal immigration agents frequently descended on the community, entering tenement buildings in search of unauthorized Mexican workers. Martin captured the changing political climate for Mexican immigrants living in Chicago at the time as a regime of immigration enforcement was being fueled by Cold War anxieties. Martin’s detailed note-taking made it clear he allowed for very little to go undetected as he made his way through neighborhoods; he would often write things like “The neighborhood has gone Mexican” and “Mexican slum area here,” often accompanied with a hastily scribbled map of streets and intersections. He was careful enough to note where the panaderias and tortillerias were. For an urban historian, this is gold!

Handwritten text on tan paper with some red pencil brackets
Notes by John B. Martin for his coverage of the Moretti trial which focused on police brutality directed toward Chicago’s Mexican/Mexican American community, September 12, 1951. Box 140, John B. Martin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Image under copyright. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates.

What’s the funniest or most interesting document you encountered in the Manuscript Division on this project?

The most interesting document I encountered was also in Martin’s notes and I’ll add that it led me to a major breakthrough in my research. In my book, I write about the first Latina real estate agent, a woman by the name of Anita Villarreal, who helped open up ethnically and racially restrictive neighborhoods for Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans on the southwest side of Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. But before she did that, she appeared in Martin’s notepad in the early 1950s as a public notary who also helped place Mexican immigrants with jobs in the city. Villarreal had made a living for many years in handling immigration paperwork, dealing directly with employment agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as a kind of informal broker for Mexican immigrant labor. Martin was a thorough investigator, and talked to anyone and everyone he could to get a better grasp of the communities he was writing about. In one of his notes, he mentioned the Villarreal agency and next to it he wrote, “They send whole families.” For a while, I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. But as I examined the context further and corroborated with other sources I already had in my possession, I came to the conclusion that what Martin was saying was that Villarreal was in the smuggling business. She was bringing in entire families from Mexico. She was one of many Chicago-based handlers for unauthorized Mexican immigrants, with a large network that arranged the migration from point of origin within Mexico, to the border-crossing, to the arrival in Chicago, culminating in job placement in a factory. This clue in Martin’s notebook put me on a path to search and then find a 1957 case called United States of America vs. Anita Villarreal, in which the government indicted her on charges of violating U.S. immigration law. All thanks to Martin’s comprehensive notetaking.

Optional: If you were at a cocktail party or getting coffee with friends, how would you describe Making Mexican Chicago? What does it tell us that we didn’t know?

I would say that Making Mexican Chicago is really a book about the creation of America’s third housing market. Not white or Black, but a Latinx housing market that has gone unexplored and under historicized. This was a market that was relationally-created and policed by a variety of stakeholders with the goal of upholding Black containment away from white communities, and making room for Latinx peoples without disrupting the established racial order of housing.

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