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The story of this beloved community was engraved on church cornerstones. It has been carved on the pediments top of nineteenth-century homes and told at the entries ways of factories. Artist chiseled the name Pilsen in old-world craftsmanship. It’s a story of different languages and ethnicities from people who came looking for work and freedom. While the story of Pilsen, Chicago was never easy, its history had begun with a Bienvenidos or welcome.
In the 1840s, Chicago was a part of the American frontier. But in famine-ravaged Ireland, there was word of opportunities in this growing western gateway. Housing was affordable for immigrants. The Irish, the first major immigrant population, later arrived in the area now called Pilsen. They worked on the construction of the Illinois and Michigan canal that connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Not long after German immigrants arrived, bringing skills in printmaking and beer brewing.
The migrants were joined together by new arrivals that came from, what is now the Czech Republic, Poland, and Lithuania. They found work in furniture factories, lumber yards, iron works, and most famously the stockyards; where the conditions were difficult, dirty, and dangerous. Then the labor movement and development of unions started in 1877. A violent clash between protesters and armed troops on South Halsted Street led to dozens of demonstrators dead or injured.
Social Reformed Pioneer Jane Addams, established one of the first settlement houses in the U.S. located just outside of Pilsen. The Hull House, and later Gants Hill, helped lead the way in what would be an ongoing struggle for fairness. In the housing and social services in underserved communities. But manufacturing jobs in Pilsen declined in the first half of the twentieth century. The Great Depression brought about what was later termed a blighted community. In the 1950s, however, a new wave of immigrants started discovering Pilsen.
Search for a Better Life
Among them was the father of the former alderman, Danny Solis who didn’t have more than a third-grade education. As he got older, the idea of moving to Chicago for a better life was his main goal. Solis had friends over here so he came here to Chicago for a couple of years. Three years before his children did, to ensure his children received their papers first, that’s when his family came to Pilsen. He didn’t have his papers until his children arrived. He made sure they were all legal before coming to Chicago. Before that he was undocumented.
Teresa Fraga is a Pilsen resident whose parents were migrant workers living in Texas in the 1960s. They took whatever agricultural work they could get in the western U.S. After three years of working in the fields, Fraga’s godmother told her that she should go to Chicago. The godmother had just returned from her first year in Chicago. She said that she didn’t have to move around, there were factories and she could work there. Fraga and her husband, Refugio, were first profiled by channel 11, in a 1981 documentary focused on the struggles of the Mexican community in Pilsen.
Like many of the immigrant groups that preceded them, the growing community of the 1960s and 70s faced many obstacles, from affordable housing to social and health services and proper schools. Pilsen was later built to be changed by City Hall. As the first daily administrations’ highway and UIC expansion projects, which pushed many families out of their homes. In the late 1960s, Fraga forefront of the education reform for her newly adopted community. Fraga said they needed a high school for their kids adding there was a 77% dropout rate. The Benito Juarez Community Academy school will have taken five years to complete.
But more challenges awaited, unemployment skyrocketed and social services lagged. The community took it upon itself to establish the help that it needed. With organizations such as Pilsen Neighbours, The Resurrection Project, and Casa Aztlan, a community organizer by the name of Carmen Velasquez tackled the need for health services by founding the Bellevue Medical Center.
Growing Gang Activity in Pilsen
Among the residents who began wielding political influence in Pilsen in the late 1970s and early 80s was Rudy Lozano. He was killed, some say assassinated by a reputed gang member, in his Pilsen home on June 8, 1983d, only months after losing a bid to become the first Mexican American alderman in Chicago.
The 1980s and 90s growing gang activity brought another challenge to Pilsen. But it also saw the election of its first Mexican American alderman, Juan Solis in 1987, followed by Ambrosio Medrano in 1991. Both men left office following legal problems. In 1996 Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Danny Solis who remained on the job until 2019.
Every ethnic group that has come to Pilsen has set up its own clubs and organizations as a way of preserving its own language, culture, and even sporting traditions. The communities pride in its heritage is also reflected in many traditions. Such as the 18th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade which took place in mid-September. The large scales and colorful murals reflect both the traditions of the Mexican communities and the aspirations for the future. But just as it has for more than 150 years, Pilsen is once again on the brink of change.
By: Zaylah De La Torre
WTTW: History of Pilsen
Encyclopedia of Chicago: Pilsen By Erik Gellman
Pilsen_Historic_District_Prelim_Summ.pdf: PRELIMINARY SUMMARY OF INFORMATION
Featured Image Courtesy of Thomas Kraus‘s Flickr Page – Creative Common License
Inset Image Courtesy of Thomas Kraus‘s Flickr Page – Creative Common License