Finding the Latinx City with Mike Amezcua and Pedro A. Regalado

“Sometimes Latino urban history is thought of as the history of a cultural community and that’s a little dismissive. I examine people contesting and reshaping the use of space.”

Mike Amezcua and Pedro Regalado have a lot in common: they are city kids, community college grads, and McNair Scholars. They’re also leading historians of the US and its metropolises, and of Latinx Americans.

In February 2022, Amezcua published Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification with the University of Chicago Press. His book recently earned the First Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. Amezcua’s research has appeared in The Journal of American History, the Journal of Social History, and The Sixties, as well as popular media, including the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Public Books. He is a frequent contributor to various news and public affairs outlets, where he has remarked on the state of Latinxs in Chicago and across the country. Starting this August, he will be a newly tenured associate professor of history at Georgetown University.

Regalado is developing his first book, Nueva York: Making the Modern City, at Stanford University, where he recently began as assistant professor of US history. His highly anticipated book will be the first history of New York City’s Latinx community throughout the twentieth century. His research has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Boston Review, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as other academic and popular venues.

Recently, the two hopped on Zoom to discuss the intersections of their work, from Latinxs’ relationship to capitalism, politics, and the built environment to the way these histories open new avenues in the study of modern US history.

Pedro Regalado (PR): Latinx history is booming—from work on electoral politics and social movements to work on religion and, of course, cities. As someone who is helping to lead that charge, what compelled you to write a book about Mexican Chicago?


Mike Amezcua (MA): I’m from Los Angeles, and some of the first books on urban history that were influential on me were about Los Angeles. LA, of course, is an important city. Yet during my graduate training, it was a place that historians were mostly reframing through the study of suburbanization. I wanted to return to the “inner city,” or the central city, so to speak. One of the questions that guided me early on concerned the role of Latinx people as custodians of that space. What innovations did they mobilize to survive? How did they navigate the very dramatic economic shift away from a production economy toward a service one?

Chicago really piqued my interest. If you think about that city’s built environment, it’s dominated by dense housing. So I was curious about how Latinx communities there made a space for themselves. How did they navigate segregation or challenge the power structure that upheld it? And in what ways did they double down on or reinforce that segregation? Ultimately, there was no other city that I could write about for my first book because Chicago had all the elements that I was interested in.


PR: Were there scholars who influenced your approach along the way?


MA: Absolutely. I really gravitated to Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, a classic text that was exciting for me personally because Mike Davis—may he rest in power—wrote about neighborhoods I grew up in, such as Pico-Union and South Central LA.

Another author who profoundly influenced me was my undergraduate advisor, Eric Avila, whose first book, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, grappled with the dialectic of space and culture. Avila was interested in freeways, theme parks, transportation, and their relationship to cultural production. And not always culture with a capital C, but also the bottom-up quotidian cultures that Davis dealt with in City of Quartz, referencing Third World decolonization movements, jazz artists, immigrants, and working-class people.

I asked myself those key questions too. What is the relationship between structure and culture? Sometimes Latinx urban history is thought of as the history of a cultural community, and that’s a little dismissive. I examine culture in the way Davis and Avila did, as relating principally to the voices of peoples who are usually at the margins, contesting and reshaping the use of space.


PR: Your work certainly reflects that. I also appreciate how you deal with class. Can you elaborate on why conveying Mexican Chicago’s class spectrum is so important to your story?


MA: Paying attention to the class dynamics within Latinx communities is so important because Latinx communities are diverse and driven by a range of interests. Sometimes mainstream newspapers write about Latinxs as a monolithic whole, but we historians can offer complexity. In the book, I write about shopkeepers working in distribution who become very successful.

Beginning in the 1950s, there was also a booming industry for Latinx real estate brokers in Chicago. Their politics changed with their fortunes, and their interests often diverged from those of the immigrant working classes they claimed to support. So keeping an eye on the class spectrum helps us connect the dots in terms of who was fighting for what, and who was able to use their class position to have a seat at the table with the alderman, the mayor, and/or the white establishment.


PR: As a field, it’s worth contemplating how we effectively communicate the significance of that class conflict and its implications. Placing those who struggled to get by and those who summitted capitalism’s mountaintop in the same frame is something that your book does especially well.

Activists created their own insurgent community plan to envision what a landscape of refuge could look like.


MA: If you don’t mind me asking you a question, one of the fascinating things about your work and your future book—which is going to be so innovative and instructive for our field—is that you tap into understudied informal economies, in particular the illicit drug industry.

You’re walking a fine line as a Latinx urban historian in that you are talking about drugs in the barrio, but you don’t want to wade into stereotypes perpetuated by the media. At the same time, you offer serious historical insight into the role that drugs play in the Latinx city. What do you think is the payoff of looking at this illicit economy?


PR: Fantastic work is being done in the carceral histories realm, but I think we need to know more about the historical contours of modern drug capitalism on the local, national, and global scales. In the later chapters of my book, I delve into the history of how previously lucrative real estate became unprofitable, paving the way for an illicit drug economy to take root in residential housing.

I’m particularly interested in Dominican New Yorkers in the 1970s and ’80s. And my foundation for comprehending their relationship to the illicit drug trade is rooted in a spatial question: How did New York’s Old and New Law buildings become points of production, distribution, and administration for cocaine, and later crack? Rather than telling the story of one or two entrepreneurs’ commercial prowess, I try to center how New York’s Dominican drug capitalists and the workers who generated their wealth engaged with the social history of the built environment, thereby transforming New York’s economy and the way that Dominicans and other Latinxs related to it.

From this perspective, we might understand this industry as part of a much broader history of urban development in New York. After all, the height of the crack trade coincided with innovations in public and private redevelopment. The drug trade undermined such innovations, and the ensuing conflict is something that we really don’t know much about.


MA: The way that you’re linking the drug economy at multiple scales is so creative. I can already picture the ways real estate speculators were thinking about those areas where they might not have wanted to take on the risk of development because of the folklore and narratives around the drug economy and low-income people.

Also, in terms of intra-Latinx politics, you mentioned redevelopment, but I’m also thinking about respectability within the Latinx community.


PR: Talk about walking a tightrope, especially since I’m interested in understanding the cultures that drug capitalists and workers themselves generated. I’m thinking about these cultures in two ways. The first relates to the focus on the “block” as a part of one’s self-making that drug workers helped to develop. The historian Eric C. Schneider has shown how youth gangs were a major part of postwar street culture in New York. But by the 1980s, you start to see less identification with the gang forms of old and more with one’s block. Nearby Dyckman Street, you have the Thayer Players or the Nagle Boys. In Washington Heights, you have a group called 1889, which is an alliance between those in 188th Street and 189th Street.

The other question is: How do Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and Dominicans relate to one another in this context? During the 1980s, Columbians were less interested in selling to anyone but Dominicans for a variety of reasons. But the issue of “overaccumulation” on their part made it such that they had to sell to those they viewed as undesirable, namely African Americans. So as you might imagine, this is a rich area to try to understand the dynamics and politics of Latinx racialization. In the end, I think understanding these cultures helps us to paint a broader picture of the “communities’ response” to drug capitalism than we’re typically offered.


MA: This reminds me of a terrific article you published for the Journal of Urban History some years ago titled, “The Washington Heights Uprising of 1992: Dominican Belonging and Urban Policing in New York City.” The 1990s was a rich decade of urban rebellions when you think about Latinx history. There was Washington Heights but also Washington, DC, where Central Americans protested the shooting of a Salvadoran man in 1991. Then, of course, LA erupted in 1992. That rebellion, which I lived through, is thought of as an African-American uprising, but we know that it involved Latinx people as well. What sets of questions guided you as you thought about Dominicans in 1992?


PR: I started working on that article early in graduate school. Much of the literature on Dominicans up to that point had mostly focused on the un pie aquí, otro allá (“one foot here, one foot there”) narrative. I was interested in that scholarship, but I was particularly enthusiastic about how Dominicans related to New York City’s broader power structure.

I didn’t know what I would discover, but I learned a lot about the relationship between first-generation and second-generation Dominicans in Washington Heights as well as the interplay between electoral politics and policing in the city that Giuliani’s rise revealed. But, in typical historian’s fashion, I also found myself going further back to understand what made the uprisings of the 1980s and ’90s in Miami, Washington, DC, and Washington Heights different from those of the late 1960s and ’70s.

The 1968 Kerner Commission’s classic formulation of two societies—one Black, one white—helped crystallize understandings of racial inequality at the time. And it has largely framed most historical accounts of American urban uprising since. But the commission also mentioned other groups, describing the nation’s “people of Spanish surname” as those who had “continued to keep faith with society in the preservation of public order.” That simply wasn’t true. Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans rebelled in dozens of uprisings beginning in Chicago in 1966 and continuing through the 1970s.

I’m working on an essay for an edited volume spearheaded by Andrew Sandoval-Strausz where I interpret these earlier uprisings through two related lenses: as coming-of-age moments for postwar urban Latinxs who reached critical mass during those years, and as flashpoints over how to best frame the community’s meteoric growth at the national level. Ultimately, I find that ignoring their prevalence and the conditions that provoked them became instrumental to the imagined “Spanish-speaking” community that some elected officials and federal administrators sought to construct at the same time that national politics was turning rightward. This is an essential story that speaks to the specificity of violence in each of these two periods. So there are important intersections between the 1966 Division Street uprising and the 1992 Washington Heights uprising, for instance, but we are reaching a stage in the study of Latinx violence where that historical specificity really matters.


MA: We definitely need a more capacious understanding of Latinx participation in urban rebellions. Sometimes it flew under the radar of elected officials or even the nation writ large. When you mentioned the Kerner Report, I immediately thought about Otto Kerner, who was the chairman of that commission. At the same time that he was writing this report, he was attending dinners and galas with members of the Mexican American Democratic Organization (MADO). Kerner’s emphasis on the “two societies” narrative (“one Black, one white”) belies the fact that he was personally connected with Latinx Chicagoans and familiar with their struggles. He often projected his own aspirational values on the Mexican community as upwardly mobile, potentially as a model minority, but certainly not as people who would ever participate in a rebellion, despite the fact that rebellions were happening in Chicago in response to police violence, or as part of efforts to control community resources.


PR: Yes! Even Latinx elected officials were invested in the supposed impossibility of Latinx violence. On the flip side, you have leaders like Senator Joseph Montoya wielding the threat of violence as political leverage. That is, if Latinxs were not granted certain privileges, then violence was inevitable.


Mexico City Chronicles

By Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo


PR: Mike, we’re both interested in how Latinx people inhabit the so-called “slum,” a concept that had previously been tied pejoratively to certain ethnic groups who lived in poor urban neighborhoods. Can you talk about the evolving relationship between space and Mexican identity in Chicago, in terms of both how Mexican Americans related to their neighborhoods and how, from the outside looking in, they were fastened to certain ideas of Chicago neighborhoods that made them easier to clear?


MA: Your focus on the term slum is so generative because, of course, slums became central to the spatial manifestation of municipal and federal power, especially after World War II. In the context of Chicago, that word has remarkable material consequences. It allowed the city and the federal government to bulldoze the Near West Side and make way for major redevelopment, including the creation of educational institutions like the University of Illinois Chicago.

Words like revitalization did similar work. But Mexican Chicagoans during the 1970s were on to it. For instance, in Pilsen, whenever the city talked about “revitalizing” the area around the Loop, activists had their antennas up because they knew that this word meant that whatever these activists were already doing in the community was not seen as “revitalization,” even though, of course, they were living in and improving their neighborhoods.

Consider that in 1973, Mayor Richard J. Daley, along with the city’s local central business elite, initiated a plan called Chicago 21, a reimagining of what the city might look like in the 21st century. The imagination embedded in that plan was that the city was best suited for an upwardly mobile, white-collar workforce. The wished-for return of suburbanites into the city, if you will. Now, if you think about the economy in the 1970s in a city like Chicago (I would add New York to this), those entering finance and related fields didn’t usually include Black and brown people. And so, working communities of color were excluded from the economy that the plan imagined, and thereby from the city’s future.

Pilsen activists fought to stop these kinds of redevelopment plans. And to do that, they had to actually conceive of the kind of community they wanted. That meant engaging with progressive urban planners. They looked to scholars and allies who taught them about the legacies of redlining. Latinx urban history is often left out of contemporary discussions about redlining, and it is too bad, because any good student of urban history during these years (the 1970s and ’80s) will tell you that many Latinx people were aware of the practice and fought it. These activists were budding historians. They went back to the 1930s to consider how Latinxs were portrayed in the HOLC (Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, created in June 1933 by the US Congress to refinance mortgages in default to prevent foreclosures) maps’ descriptions of their communities.

Ultimately, the story I tell in the book is how these activists created their own insurgent community plan to envision what a landscape of refuge could look like—indeed, what Pilsen should look like if it were reimagined by the very people who lived there, who didn’t want it to be a so-called “slum,” who didn’t want it to be “revitalized,” but who actually wanted a stable community.

MA: Pedro, New York City is arguably the most famous city in the world. As a historian, how does one approach the study of one of the most chronicled cities on earth?


PR: Where do I start!? New York is a sum of worlds, and there are certainly pros and cons to writing about it. As somebody who is writing a first book, the greatest benefit is that I have so much fantastic work to build on: Josh Freeman’s Working-Class New York, Johanna Fernández’s The Young Lords, Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, Mason Williams’s City of Ambition, Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof’s Racial Migrations. I can go on and on. I feel very lucky that I get to think with these scholars.

The other side of that coin is the potential trap of falling into frameworks for thinking about the city that don’t line up with one’s own research questions. I remember workshopping a chapter on Banco Popular de Puerto Rico at Temple University. It was well received, but I remember Bryant Simon offering me pivotal advice about reimagining the starting point and shedding the historiography.

I’m also fortunate to have grown up in New York. You and I are city kids, and I think our experiences as low-income urbanites give us intimate knowledge of these places that inform our research questions. My goal, like yours, is to offer Latinx New Yorkers a sense that they’ve been stewards of Gotham for over a century. That’s a special mission that keeps me going.


MA: Simon’s advice to you really resonates with me. LA was so central and formative in shaping my idea about Latinx urban history that I almost had to dislodge that to reorient myself to Chicago. Relatedly, we are in this renaissance period where we get new histories of classic Midwestern and Northeastern cities through a Latinx perspective. A book that just arrived in my mailbox the other day is Delia Fernández-Jones’s Making the MexiRican City, about Grand Rapids, Michigan. It makes for a really exciting time to be a Latinx urban historian.


PR: We could chat all day! Let me ask you a concluding question. One of the interesting trends I’ve observed in the past few years is the notion that Latinx history is a new field. In some ways, there is some truth to that. But that idea also overlooks the labor and contributions of earlier generations of scholars whose shoulders we stand on. Is this something you’ve observed? If so, how should we approach this paradox?


MA: Yes. On the one hand, we do stand on the shoulders of trailblazing urbanist scholars. I’m thinking here of George Sanchez’s Becoming Mexican American, a key text that was published in the 1990s. And Sanchez himself was building on earlier scholars like Ricardo Romo. On the other hand, what makes this moment new is that the academy has many more Latinx historians who are training many more scholars. For instance, you and I were both trained by Steve Pitti (a student of the great Al Camarillo).

However, one major challenge all of us face in this moment is that we are not being read by folks who are doing “just” US urban history. Our field is often sidelined. Our books don’t get the coverage that other books get. We are not included in many important conversations. Hopefully that will change, because not thinking about how Latinxs change our understanding of housing, racial capitalism, informal economies, the environment, etc., is missing a huge piece of the modern historical puzzle.


PR: Hear, hear!

Thanks so much for this conversation, Mike. Congratulations on your book! And I look forward to following in your footsteps soon.


MA: Thank you, brother. icon

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image provided by Mike Amezcua.