The following is an edited and streamlined excerpt from Mike Amezcua’s Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification, published by the University of Chicago Press.
In May of 1957, US marshals arrested 42-year-old homemaker and civic leader Anita Villarreal at her home in Chicago’s Near West Side. The federal government indicted her on three counts: producing fraudulent immigrant visas, presenting false documents to a government agency, and knowingly falsifying information.1
For over a decade, Villarreal had run a public notary business, a service that handles immigration paperwork typical of many barrio communities. She was one of many brokers who helped supply the regional labor market with Mexican workers, often with the consent and cooperation of US immigration authorities. Since World War II, local immigration officials relied on brokers like Villarreal to help place Mexican workers with employers in the city and across the greater Midwest. She arranged their immigration paperwork, housed them for a while, and then sent them off to their new employer. But priorities of the immigration enforcement apparatus changed in the 1950s, as it sought to exercise more control over the nation’s borders and to target workers now seen as “illegal” by the state—and considered potential security threats—amid anticommunist fervor.
Rather than recognizing the complicity of immigration agencies and capitalists in creating the marketplace for cheap labor, the US government targeted Villarreal as the individual responsible for bringing thousands of Mexican “illegals” to Chicago. A federal court punished and scapegoated her in an ever-shifting landscape where Mexican workers were increasingly criminalized for simply being in Chicago.
With her faith in the state now shaken, Villarreal began the 1960s armed with a real estate license and fully committed to making her mark in the private sphere through the selling and buying of property. By then, Chicago’s Latino population had swelled to an estimated 200,000.2 With the razing of the Near West Side, Mexicans searched for other nearby neighborhoods in which to live. Local real estate agents either capitalized on this Latino market or—in the service of white neighborhood preservation—stood in its way.
Villarreal had always been an astute observer of the political-economic realities shaping Mexican migration: namely, that capitalism naturally undermined the country’s desire for stringent control and deportation of border crossers. In short, as long as America needed workers—especially vulnerable, undocumented ones—those workers would need homes.
And homes she would sell to them, even if it meant crossing hostile neighborhood boundaries.
Villarreal’s 1957 conviction surprised few in Chicago’s Mexican enclave of 75,000.3 In recent years, the Near West Side had witnessed an intensified level of surveillance by federal agents in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), who created a siege-like environment as they apprehended undocumented Mexicans and those responsible for aiding them.4 Earlier, in 1954, the military-style campaign by the INS known as “Operation Wetback” had aimed to deport 35,000 Mexicans from the city.5
Latino residents knew well the broader Cold War terror campaign that had been unleashed upon them. Years before Villarreal’s own arrest, some of her close friends had been rounded up and deported. And even though she had six children of her own, Villarreal took in and raised the children of a friend who died undergoing deportation.6
Villarreal was not an immigrant herself. She was born in Kansas City, KS, to Mexican parents; later, the family moved to Chicago, where Villarreal was raised. As a child, she regularly encountered famous progressive leader Jane Addams at the Hull House settlement, where she spent her youth, and where Addams advised immigrants and their children on American customs. A raft of progressive social reformers surrounded Villarreal’s early life, influencing her passion for labor unions and immigrant worker’s rights: all of which aligned her politically with the tenets of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s Democratic Party.7
Later, in the aftermath of Villarreal’s 1957 arrest, rumors circulated in the Mexican Near West Side that the neighborhood—with its elaborate underground market for undocumented labor—would face an intensified federal crackdown. And yet, Mexican colonias (a common name given to Mexican barrios and communities) had long been spaces where undocumented workers found sanctuary.
If the government wouldn’t build homes for Mexicans displaced by urban renewal, Villarreal would find them herself.
The government’s sinister portrait of Anita Villarreal stood in stark contrast to her image in the community as a civic leader who cared deeply for her own people and for the everyday practice of democracy. During World War II, she organized the Mexican Progressive Youth Society, a group of Mexican American youngsters who helped support labor organizing drives in the Union Stock Yards, bringing baskets of food to striking families.8 In 1950, local newspapers heralded Villarreal as an ambassador of citizen participation during Chicago’s urban renewal. As her neighborhood came into the crosshairs of federal slum-clearance programs, Villarreal led community town halls to intervene. She often created maps to show land use, so residents could strategically and effectively advocate for better housing for the working-class families of the Near West Side—a skill she learned while taking real estate classes at night school. “When it’s likely to mean a better community for my children to grow up in,” she told a reporter, “I like to help with the work of the planning board.”9
But 1957 turned out to be a pivotal year for her. Not only did she plead guilty to the federal case bearing her name—United States of America v. Anita Villarreal—she was also stripped of her civic standing. Her association with conspiracy made it difficult for her to continue her work in advocacy planning.
Moreover, the perverse course-change that urban renewal took in Chicago also dispossessed her family of their home and community. The city bulldozed the entire Near West Side soon after, displacing thousands of people. The housing Villarreal envisioned back in 1950 never materialized. Urban renewal and immigration control came to shape Mexican Chicago, and especially Villarreal, whose life would be forever changed by the ways these two projects intersected.10
In the 1960s, Villarreal shifted her attention to selling real estate. If the government wouldn’t build homes for Mexicans displaced by urban renewal, she would find them herself.
She set up shop in the longtime Czech and Slavic neighborhoods of Pilsen and South Lawndale, working-class communities on the Southwest Side of the city filled with sturdy but aging housing stock in an assortment of single-family cottages, two- and three-floor flat-brick and greystone buildings, and large 19th-century apartments. In the lower section of South Lawndale were rows of pristine brick bungalow homes, built in the first decades of the 1900s for well-to-do Eastern Europeans who hoped to avoid the density of the city.
Villarreal bought and sold whatever she could get her hands on, confident that white racism against Mexicans would give her an upper hand in the market, as Latino clients would flock to her. To some extent, this turned out to be the case: many white homeowners teamed up to practice a “keep them out” policy.11
But Villarreal still had competitors, including Bohemian realtors who quickly seized on the opportunity to profit from cash-carrying Mexicans ready to put down money on their first home. One white real estate agency put out newspaper ads in 1964 on behalf of a Mexican American family they had sold a home to, hoping it would attract more Latino buyers: “We are very happy and thank Mr. Svoboda … for a good house which we bought and for good financing,” one ad read. “Can recommend him as an able and honest broker to everyone.” It was signed by “Mr. and Mrs. M. Ontiveros.”12
Villarreal had her eyes—and fortunes—set on South Lawndale’s housing stock. But changing white neighborhoods into Mexican ones was not as harmonious a process as Svoboda’s ad made it seem. Even strong-willed Villarreal understood she would face major resistance.
In the early 1960s, a major anti–civil rights movement—organized against fair-housing ordinances, school integration, and any action that outlawed barriers against Black Chicagoans—was emerging in South Lawndale. This agenda was spearheaded by the mostly white neighborhood’s prominent civic leaders, owners of savings-and-loans institutions, and real estate agents.13 Meetings were often held inside a real estate office on 26th Street, the once vibrant Czech corridor that collapsed under white flight, abandonment of properties, and business closures. The boarded-up environs only helped animate the Property Owners Coordinating Committee, as they were known. The group held kaffeeklatsches (political discussions over coffee), circulated petitions, and picketed City Hall to lobby for their white “rights” as taxpayers and homeowners. In 1963, the Black-run Chicago Defender covered one of their actions with a plain-spoken headline: “Racists to March on City Hall.”14
To those in the civil rights movement, South Lawndale was garnering a reputation for racism. Meanwhile, members of the white business establishment were more concerned about property values. These merchants were fearful that racial diversity would spell doom for the valuation of their properties, causing more white families to sell and flee, taking their capital with them. To the business community, keeping whites in their homes was of paramount importance.
To Richard A. Dolejs, an enterprising young real estate agent whose family had sold property since 1901, promoting pride—not fear—was his solution to “stabilizing” South Lawndale. In 1964, Dolejs proposed a total rebranding campaign to sever the community’s association with neighboring North Lawndale, which had transformed from primarily Jewish to Black in a few short years, causing panic among whites.
Dolejs’s new name for South Lawndale was “Little Village,” evoking a tranquil Czech hamlet from which his forebears might have come. He described the necessary change in a 1964 memo: “The undesirable reputation of Lawndale, be it North or South, has already permeated the citizenry; and our community bears undeservedly the shame of conditions that exist primarily to the North. We must sever any connections with Lawndale if we are to attract responsible home seekers.”15
The name stuck. But so did the racialized battles over succession, property, business, and leadership.
Urban renewal and immigration control came to shape Mexican Chicago.
This was the context into which Villarreal stepped when she began buying and selling Little Village homes to, primarily, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. Her white competitors in real estate frequently denied her access to the available property listings they shared among themselves. When she offered to join the local chamber of commerce as a friendly overture, they turned her away. Villarreal recalled them telling her: “We don’t want to take your money yet. Wait six months and see if you still want to join,” suggesting her business would not last very long. She responded, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll still be here in six months.”16
But without the financing available to Bohemian real estate brokers, Villarreal’s hard-nosed approach could only get her so far. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican homebuyers in Chicago were often confronted with a kind of brownlining: the exclusion of Latinos from loans by local white financial institutions, not only because of where they lived, but because of who they were or how they were “read” by lenders. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican Chicagoans would organize against these practices.
Still, house by house and storefront by storefront, Villarreal bought and sold “La Villita” to her clients. She did this by mastering two pitches: The first was tailored to immigrants from Mexico who sought homes for their large families but also envisioned themselves running a small business, such as a supermarket, a fruit stand, or a taqueria, along 26th Street’s commercial corridor. She promised these families a neighborhood of consumers for their products.
The second pitch was to white home sellers, promising them high house values and, therefore, another incentive to break up with the city. No sooner had she created this third marketplace—a Latino one, joining the existing white and Black property markets—than she was picketed by white civic groups. They called her a “blockbuster”—a housing speculator who fearmongered to encourage white families to sell their homes, only to resell these homes at inflated prices to Black homebuyers and other market-restricted groups—and opposed her opening up the all-white neighborhood to other demographics. “We’re going to be the first Mexican suburb,” Villarreal would tell anyone who would listen.17
Her influence on La Villita’s civic and economic affairs only grew through the late 1960s and 1970s, spearheading an upswing of commercial activity and property values in what became Chicago’s flagship Mexican community. All of this made her an invaluable political ally for Mayor Richard J. Daley. He made sure to visit La Villita to court the Latino vote.
All of Anita Villarreal’s work was tied up in titanic shifts of the 20th century: urban renewal, mass deportations, residential segregation, finance and loans, and politics and campaigns. At present, Chicago bears no visible plaque, mural, or honorary street named after this hugely consequential Latina businesswoman, civic activist, political operative, and mother of six (plus two foster children), who broke open new neighborhoods for Mexican Chicago.
Perhaps it is so because Villarreal is hard to place, given her different layers of significance and assorted interests. Or maybe her erasure has more to do with her controversial arrest, the accusations that she was a blockbuster, her later battles with the Chicano movement, her loyalty to the Daleys, or her eventual support for Ronald Reagan. Whatever the case may be, she has been largely left out of the story of the remaking of America’s Midwestern metropolis.
It is important to be cautious in ascribing enormous historical weight to one actor. Still, to erase Villarreal is to obfuscate a political trajectory that has largely gone underexamined—but that remains instructive to scholars of American politics and Latinx history.
What does it mean to place Latinos at the center, instead of on the sidelines, of the major political and urban transformations in the US? To not do so might mean missing out on a lot.
- United States of America v. Anita Villarreal (1957), 57 CR 315, US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Records of the District Courts of the United States, RG 21, NARA Chicago, Chicago, IL. ↩
- “US Latins on the March,” Newsweek, May 23, 1966. ↩
- See James McPharlin, “Final Report of a Survey on the Mexican-American Population in Chicago” (1955), 9, box 373, folder 4, Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago Records, Chicago History Museum. ↩
- Amezcua, Making Mexican Chicago, 37–41. ↩
- “50 Await Ouster” Chicago Daily News, September 24, 1954. ↩
- Morton Kondracke, Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson’s Disease (Ballantine Books, 2002), pp. 7–9. ↩
- “Anita Learned Her Lesson Well,” Little Village Community Reporter, March 21, 1971. ↩
- “Anita Villarreal: The Feminine Link Between Women Libbers and Sugar and Lace,” Fiesta Magazine Vol. 1, No. 4 (January 1975). ↩
- “Near West Side Board Elects J.R. Humphreys,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 30, 1950. ↩
- Amezcua, Making Mexican Chicago, chapter 2. ↩
- “Pilsen Neighbors–Brotherhood in Action,” Chicago Daily News, February 18, 1963. ↩
- “We are very happy…,” Austin News, August 5, 1964. ↩
- “UPG Circulating Petitions on Willis, Open Occupancy,” Garfieldian, October 2, 1963. ↩
- “Racists to March on City Hall,” Chicago Defender, September 10, 1963. ↩
- Greg Paeth, “Story of Dick Dolejs and ‘Little Village,’” Lawndale News: TV Times Supplement, April 11–17, 1971. ↩
- George Estep, “La Villita Chiquita: Oasis of Harmony in the Inner City,” Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1977. ↩
- William Braden, “Group Posts Garbage-Care Rules,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 17, 1978. ↩