Exploring the Latino Metropolis: A Brief Urban Cultural History of US Latinos

The Face of the Puerto Rican Chicago.

The second large group of Latinos to arrive to Chicago was Puerto Ricans. Unlike their Mexican counterparts, Puerto Ricans did not face legal problems thanks to their citizenship. Rather, it wouldn’t be until racial tensions rose in the 60s that Puerto Ricans would begin to feel alienated from the rest of Chicago (Padilla 44)

While there were small enclaves of Puerto Ricans during the 30s and 40s, Puerto Ricans did not begin to move to Chicago in mass until the 1950s (Padilla 40). Similar to Mexicans, Puerto Ricans came to Chicago to seek employment. Thanks to the US transforming Puerto Rico’s “multicrop agriculture economy” to be reliant on a single cash crop, many Puerto Rican farms went out of work (Padilla 39). In fear of economic collapse, the Puerto Rican government encouraged people to come to the US. This was made possible thanks to The Jones Act of 1917, which gave citizenship to Puerto Rican citizens. As such large industrial companies like Castle, Barton and Associates took advantage of this legal statues and began recruited Puerto Rican men to work as unskilled foundry laborers and Puerto Rican women to serve as domestic workers in 1946 (“Puerto Ricans”). While at first, many Puerto Ricans moved to New York City (to learn more, please visit the NYC group, links located below), thanks to limited employment options Puerto Ricans began moving west (Padilla 39-40). As such, the Puerto Rican population size in Chicago would then double between the 1950s and 1970s.

During the 50s-70s years, barrios or small Puerto Rican neighborhoods began to be established in Chicago. Puerto Ricans did not join their Mexican counterparts in the South Chicago (Steel), Back of the Yard (packing houses), and Near West Side (railroad), bur rather towards the center of the city (Padilla 40). Segregation for Latinos was not as strict as it was for African Americans. As such, Puerto Ricans often settled in predominately white neighborhoods without any real pushback from the community—a strong contrast to the alienation Mexicans faced from the very beginning (Padilla 40-41).

This difference is thanks to a lack of economic competitiveness. When Puerto Ricans came to the US, technology was reducing manufacturing job, leaving most of the Puerto Rican work force poorly paid, menial, service jobs (Padilla 43). By 1960, only 1.6% of the Puerto Rican workforce was in white-collar, business jobs. These menial jobs were often jobs that blacks and whites would overlook for better economic opportunity, leaving very little interaction between the groups in the work force. As such, these groups were indifferent to the Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans managed to integrate themselves into the Chicago culture by establishing neighborhoods in diverse neighborhoods (Padilla 44).

However, that indifference changed to open hostilities in the late 1950s and 1960s thanks to housing tensions. As Puerto Ricans became a larger and large population, whites no longer tolerated Puerto Ricans as their neighborhoods. Tension only rose as police became openly violent against Puerto Ricans in barrios. Soon, Puerto Ricans were being priced out of their neighborhoods after being charged higher and higher rent (Padilla 45-46). Soon Puerto Ricans had moved to three large neighborhoods, one of which is still majority Puerto Rican: West Town and Humboldt Park (“Puerto Ricans”).

In response to the open hostility Puerto Ricans faced from their white neighbors, many Puerto Ricans began creating organizations and cultural festivals to unite and create guidance for their community (Padilla 49). Los Caballeros de San Juan (the Knights of St. John) was one of Puerto Ricans’ first religious and social organization. Los Caballeros focused on integrating into American life while maintaining a cultural identity. Los Caballeros also wanted to “heighten the Puerto Rican awareness of their ethnic oppression; it heightened the expectations of Puerto Ricans about improve their lot; and it increased their impatience with existing racial/ethnic arrangements,) (Padilla, 50). In 1966 El Día de San Juan celebrations were renamed the Puerto Rican Parade. On June 12, 1966, the first Puerto Rican riot broke out in protest against police brutality after a cop shot a young man (“Puerto Ricans”).

Rioting would continue until June 14th and drew attention to the strife and poverty of the Puerto Rican communities. It lead to political groups such as the Spanish Action Committee of Chicago (SACC), the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO), and, in the early 1970s, ASPIRA Association and the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. After a month of rioting, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations provided Puerto Rican leaders a forum to discuss problems their communities faced such as discrimination in housing and hiring. This led to a continued Puerto Rican presence in local government and, in turn, led to policy changes in how Puerto Ricans were treated (“Puerto Ricans”).

Unfortunately, this does not mean that everything was fixed. In response to the riots, barrio leaders acquired a more militant approach to erasing the cycle of poverty, poor education, and gang violence in their neighborhoods. In 1967, the Young Lords, a former street gang, became a militant activist group similar to the Black Panthers. They often staged takeovers where they occupied political buildings or landmarks to gain attention for their communities concerns. The community also began to emphasize participation. Where the government fell short, community members stepped in creating programs for welfare and to end gang violence. Many leaders of these organizations went on to participate in politics and continue to influence policy (Padilla 53-54).

Today, 113,055 Puerto Ricans line in Chicago, making them the second largest Latino population in Chicago, second only to Mexicans. Despite policy changes and anti-discrimination laws being put into place, a majority (60%) of Puerto Rican men and women work in manufacturing industries or in the service sector of the Chicago economy despite significant improvement to education. Puerto Ricans also continue to pursue integration into the Chicago community, moving into other neighborhoods while Humboldt Park contains the strongest concentrating of Puerto Ricans (“Puerto Ricans”).

To learn more about the current political state of Chicago continue to the links below. 

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