By: Yoshira Macías Mejía

In this book the author, Deborah Kanter, exquisitely describes and analyzes the role the Catholic church played in the communities of Mexican immigrants and later generations of Mexican Americans in Chicago, Illinois. The book traces some of the first Mexican immigrants to settle in Chicago from the 1920s throught the 1970s and present times. In her account she discusses how the Catholic Church helped families survive and adjust to life in the United States and also how it served as the basis for developing and navigating a dual identity, as Mexican and American. The use of newspapers, documents, and oral histories allows Kanter to articulate the impact the St. Francis Catholic Church in Chicago had on welcoming several Mexican and Mexican American generations in Chicago. Through the oral histories, Kanter recounts the ways that St. Francis helped Mexicans and Mexican Americans build communities and establish their presence in Chicago amid microaggressions from Whites, the types of race relations that took place, class differences, and the barriers to integration into American society. The book also furthers our understanding of the role of religious institutions in shaping migrant communities in U.S. cities.

The book begins by providing a history of the first Mexican and Mexican American residents of Chicago. Men first began migrating from Texas and Mexico seeking employment in Chicago. Women, on the other hand, would stay back and wait for them, but this soon changed when many of the women began to leave Mexico after the Mexican revolution or leave Texas to join their fiancés or family members in Chicago. Once in Chicago, the generation that arrived in the 1920s would find it difficult to adjust to a new city and country that did not have a large Mexican population. Upon searching for community, many Mexican immigrants found it through St. Francis Catholic Church. This church became a safe haven for Mexicanos coming through the Bracero program and to Mexican immigrants in general. This was the place that would be labeled, by word of mouth, as the church that was welcoming to Mexicanos.

Several services were added to St. Francis once these groups of immigrants began to lay down roots. The school would be expanded, there would be a youth center, places for children to play and for families to gather. Included in these changes would be the paper started by the second generation of Mexican Americans titled St. Francis Crier’s, a newsletter that highlighted the latest films from Mexico, where to go to dinner, gossip columns, and announcements from the church, etc. This paper would ultimately be sent to Mexican American soldiers during WWII.  In short, St. Francis served as the place where community was formed for several generations of Mexican Americans.

Despite all the work that had been done to integrate Mexicans into the St. Francis Church, the University of Illinois campus would later displace many of the Mexican residents in the area near St. Francis. This would lead to the decline of Mexican students attending the church and would forcibly relocate Mexican families to other areas of Chicago. Many of those residents moved to Pilsen and established the first major Mexican community in Chicago. This was not without struggle as Polish residents were not welcoming the new residents which led to tension between the two groups. The Mexican residents would not always feel welcomed at the Pilsen churches by the Polish, Slovenian, and other White European Catholic leaders and members. These European immigrants did not understand the way Mexicans practiced Catholicism. The practices were new to the Eastern European groups and regarded as strange.

Due to differences in Catholicism, many Mexicans faced microaggressions and overt discrimination. They were called “dirty Mexicans” because of the way they made the holy cross with their fingers. The Mexican children who attended the schools of these parishes were not taught their history and were not included as much as their White peers.

These encounters with the Polish are documented through oral histories and make for a rich description of the integration of Mexicans into non-Mexican communities after their displacement from their previous neighborhood. What is missing in the book (even though it focuses on Catholicism) is more description on the relationships between Mexicans and Blacks in Pilsen and more broadly in Chicago. This is due to the tendency to compare racial and ethnic minority groups to the dominant group (Whites), but studies need to go beyond this to examine race relations further.

Following the narrative of how Mexican Americans later took over many of the Pilsen churches, there is great analysis on how some of these White European immigrants and non-Mexican and non-Latino priests began to cater to the Mexican American population in Chicago. It was not only the microaggressions from the non-Mexican community in Pilsen that affected the Mexicanos, so did the prejudices they experienced from the priests.

This prejudice affected the integration and sense of belonging in the Pilsen parishes. As a result, many Mexicans still traveled to St. Francis even though it was farther away, but for them it was better than attending a church where they were not welcomed. This began to cease slowly as more of the White members began to move out of Pilsen, which would later place pressure on the parishes to find ways to cater to the Mexican residents to have them attend the church. This would serve as a catalyst for change and integration into the Pilsen community for Mexicans.

Throughout her book, Kanter creates a beautiful narrative of the integration of Mexicanos in Chicago and the way the Catholic Church shaped their lives and how Mexicanos influenced the lives of the parishes. This book provides a thorough account of how various generations of Mexicanos evolved in Chicago. It also shows how racial and ethnic group integration took place and continues to take place currently. Kanter ends her book with views from one of her oral history participants who goes on to say how gentrification is affecting Pilsen and has led to the closure of several parishes in the city.