Darkness of a Different Color: Mexicans and Racial Formation in Greater Chicago, 1916-1960

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This dissertation examines the history of Mexicans' changing racial status in the Chicago metropolitan region, a place where race has traditionally been understood in strictly black and white terms. From World War I through the 1930's whites violently resisted Mexicans moving into their neighborhoods in Chicago, East Chicago, and Gary, Indiana. Realtors classed Mexicans as a greater threat to property values than blacks, and local chambers of commerce and municipal commissions considered legal means for segregating Mexicans along with blacks. By the 1950's, however, the tables had turned. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were largely integrated with whites and at times participated in white efforts to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. A number of factors contributed to this striking transformation in Mexicans' racial position. First of all, even though Mexicans experienced segregation during the 1920's and whites viewed Mexicans as an inferior and non-white race, there remained a great deal of confusion and disagreement among whites about Mexicans' precise racial identity. By the 1930's, Mexicans (and some Progressive-minded white advocates) successfully capitalized on this ambiguity, using day-to-day social interactions and venues such as the 1934 Chicago World's Fair to promote racially lightened images of Mexican-ness. Racial concepts from Mexico - particularly the idea of race as a potentially malleable and multi-leveled (rather than binary) category - played an important role in this process, encouraging Mexicans to actively manipulate, rather than passively accept, popular white ideas about Mexicans' racial identity. However, these efforts would not have changed Mexicans' racial status had they not worked alongside other important changes at the neighborhood, parish, and union level. The large-scale outmigration of Mexicans from Chicago neighborhoods during the Depression greatly reduced the perceived threat that Mexicans posed to white neighborhoods and jobs. In this less charged atmosphere, Mexicans' growing incorporation with whites in Catholic parishes and CIO unions (and subsequent wartime images of Mexico as a "Good Neighbor") helped promote the idea that Mexicans were partners in working-class whites' efforts to make a better life for themselves, even when this "better life" involved the exclusion of blacks.

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  • 08/27/2018
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