Beginning in the late 19th century and persisting until the steel industry’s collapse, immigrant populations from all over the world chose to make Southeast Chicago their home. By 1900, Southeast Chicago was a booming industrial power fueled by hardworking immigrants. At this time, only 58% of South Chicago’s population was born in the United States. The remaining 42% were mostly from Europe, with Polish, German, Swedish, and Irish immigrants making up the largest foreign-born populations, respectively. European immigration to Southeast Chicago continued into the 20th century, but largely stopped when World War I began, as the vast majority of Europeans were either busy fighting or unable to move because of the war.
Starting around 1915, European immigrants in Southeast Chicago were joined by Mexican immigrants, many of whom were fleeing civil war. The first wave of Mexican immigrants to Chicago arrived when railroad companies sent maintenance workers to the Chicago area. After this first group of Mexican immigrants arrived, others were soon to follow.An interview with the Martinez family—one of the first Mexican families to arrive to Southeast Chicago—makes it clear that Mexican immigrants were not immediately welcomed. Olga Martinez recounts that men would often shout “No Mexicans crossing the street!” when she and her siblings were on their way to school. It is important to remember that the Southeast Chicago community, while vibrant and rich, comprises identities of many people, which sometimes brings tension. For example, racial tensions heightened in 1919, when tens of thousands of American steelworkers across the country went on strike. In Chicago, many of these workers were European immigrants or the descendants of European immigrants. Unable to reach an agreement with the striking workers, the higher-ups in Southeast Chicago’s steel mills turned to immigrant labor to restore their workforces, which generated tension because these immigrant laborers looked different from the striking laborers.
Mexican immigrants were not the only population relocating to Southeast Chicago during the early 20th century. At this time, the Great Migration was well underway as tens of thousands of African Americans from the South migrated to industrial regions in the North. Despite arriving in Chicago during its industrial boom, there were significant barriers to many African Americans seeking work. As such, Black Chicagoans were forced to be flexible and adaptable when it came to employment. Many African Americans found work in service jobs as porters, waiters, janitors, or elevator-operators. Others found work in the stockyards, packing meat. Still others worked in Chicago’s steel mills or commuted to Gary to work in the mills there.
In the early 1980s, Wisconsin Steel—a mill located on 106th and Torrence—closed abruptly, leaving 3,000 laborers without a job. This marked the turn of an era of deindustrialization in Southeast Chicago, eliciting tremendous social, economic and environmental change. While it was common for community members to ‘get married... get out of high school and go straight to the mills’—according to James Rodriguez—this was not a reality for the next generation of Southeast Chicago residents. During this era, this region saw a lot of turnover in demographics with an establishment of ethnic enclaves in the East Side and South Deering communities. After the closing of the mills, many moved away from the city in order to pursue cheaper living in Indiana or the suburbs of Chicago.
When speaking to Maya Rodriguez, lifelong East Side Resident born in the 1990s, it was clear that young people today feel the need “to go get an education because [they can’t]rely on... union jobs that a lot of [their parents had].” Maya made it evident that the current generation of the community was more unified than those that preceded it. With a greater emphasis on education and the political underpinnings of the city in hand, there is a great power brewing in Southeast Chicago, one that brings together all community members and allows their voices to be heard.
The present community has been shaped by a constellation of waves of immigration, community tensions, and remnants of deindustrialization. Yet, what we see today is a diverse community forged in steel and kept together by its rich history. Roman Villarreal, a local sculptor and artist behind “A Tribute to the Past”, remarked that “Our children [the children of the Southeast side] are the steel of the community now. They are the future.” In the present day, it seems that the divisions between ethnic groups have been set aside in order to build a sustainable, healthy future for the posterity of the Southeast side. (Audio from an interview with a resident of Southeast Chicago)