Event—Scholarly Seminars

Lilia Fernandez, University of Illinois-Chicago & Antonio Ramirez, Elgin Community College

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Working in a Deindustrializing City: Latinos and Chicago Labor Unions, 1945-1985

“Illegal” and Essential: Mexican Workers in 1970s Suburban Chicago

Lilia Fernandez and Antonio Ramirez

Working in a Deindustrializing City: Latinos and Chicago Labor Unions, 1945-1985

Lilia Fernandez, University of Illinois at Chicago

This essay comes from a larger book project that seeks to highlight the central role that Latinos have played as laborers throughout U.S. history, particularly in various sectors of Chicago’s industrial economy in the twentieth century. From the earliest Mexican railroad and steel workers of the 1920s, to the Mexican, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican migrants who worked in warehouses, manufacturing, garment, and auto plants into the 1980s, Latinos provided critical labor that sustained these economic sectors. As immigrants, many Latinos commanded lower wages thanU.S.-born workers thereby generating greater profits for companies before many relocated to the U.S. South or abroad. Nonetheless, many Latinos were eager to join labor unions and demand better wages, protections against unsafe working conditions, and comprehensive benefits. Through their efforts, unions continued to organize and unionize workers, though they missed enormous opportunities by overlooking and marginalizing Latino workers. While Latinos continue to be erased in our contemporary black-white binary understandings of race, and are perpetually portrayed as only recent newcomers, this essay reveals the ways in which Latinos have been essential to urban economies like that of Chicago for at least half a century.

“Illegal” and Essential: Mexican Workers in 1970s Suburban Chicago

Antonio Ramirez, Elgin Community College

This paper centers suburban labor in late twentieth century Latinx history. Deindustrialization, the suburbanization of employment, and rising Mexican immigration in the 1970s made Chicago’s suburbs a site of tension between growing national anti-immigrant sentiment and suburban employers’ desire to profit from an immigrant workforce. Despite existing on Chicago’s periphery, suburban Latinx communities during this period were at the center of state scrutiny of undocumented immigration. In the 1970s and beyond, working-class Mexicans made the dangerous journey to connect with plentiful employment opportunities in suburban Chicago. In the process, they remade race and labor in greater Chicago.


Respondent: Geraldo Cadava, Northwestern University

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This event is free, but all participants must register in advance and space is limited. Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.

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About the Seminar Series

The Newberry Borderlands and Latino/a Studies Seminar provides a forum for works-in-progress from scholars and graduate students that explore a variety of topics in the field. Seminars are conversational and free and open to faculty, graduate students, and members of the public, who register in advance to request papers.

The Newberry Labor History Seminar provides a forum for works in progress that explore the history of working class people, communities, and culture; class and state policy; unions and popular political movements; and other related topics. Co-coordinators are Peter Cole (Western Illinois University), Colleen Doody (DePaul University), Liesl Orenic (Dominican University), and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer (Loyola University Chicago).

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