Catholics of Latino origin have often been invisible in American society, even to other American Catholics. Spanish-speaking Catholics have resided in this land since before the United States was founded, and many neighborhoods and parishes have been shaped and reshaped by their contributions. Yet they have been overlooked in most historical accounts of significant events in U.S. history. Chicago Católico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican—the fruit of eighteen years’ worth of research by Deborah E. Kanter—helps correct this omission by documenting the contribution of Mexican-American Catholics to one great American city.
Catholic immigrants from Mexico found a place of refuge in their new Chicago parishes, which provided not only the sacraments but also spaces for social and community functions. These were the anchors of their new neighborhoods: Near West Side, South Chicago, Pilsen. The parishes had once been home to other immigrant communities—to Polish, Irish, and German Catholics who had arrived in this country decades earlier and had since been assimilated into mainstream American culture.
Chicago Católico is grounded in parish documents—including bulletins, annual reports, letters, parochial records, and parish newspapers—but it also makes good use of recorded oral histories. Kanter delves into the everyday details of how Mexican immigrants and their offspring made parishes their own. It relates the experiences of women who organized las guadalupanas, of religious teachers and school children, of soldiers fighting abroad while remaining closely connected to home through the mail. We read about Corporal Teófilo Arevalo opening a package from home as his unit made its way to Germany during World War II. Inside was a copy of the St. Francis Crier, a twelve-page newspaper published by his parish back in Chicago. It brought him news of friends serving throughout the world: Pfc. Manuel Martinez, Cpl. Sixto Zaragoza, and Pvt. Joseph Reyes.
Kanter’s book is divided into five chapters that follow Mexican migration and integration from the 1920s through the 1970s. She focuses on several Chicago parishes, tracking their transformation through this period of half a century. One chapter is devoted to migration between 1920 and 1939, which often took place in stages—from Mexico to Texas and finally to Chicago. The reader follows Elidia Barroso and her family as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 1916. Crossing the border was then a simple process for the educated middle-class traveler. Elidia and her family wouldn’t have encountered Customs and Border Patrol (an agency created in 1924) at militarized entry points. As Kanter writes, even in the 1930s, “Mexicans, if they could pass the literacy test and pay the eight-dollar head tax, easily entered the United States.” Today, of course, they would need a visa or an asylum claim, and both of these have become increasingly hard to come by in recent years.