Pilsen’s Good Friday’s Via Crucis (the Stations of the Cross) street procession has been held every year since 1977. This annual ritual attracts thousands of people and is an important marker of Pilsen’s Mexican and Catholic identity. Good Friday cross-carrying processions are fairly recent developments that have become common throughout this country, serving as an example of how U.S. Catholicism has blended into the broader Latin American and Latino faith. Pilsen’s Via Crucis is one of the oldest, largest and best-known processions in the country; this year’s procession will mark its 40th anniversary.
The parishioners of seven neighborhood churches inaugurated this universal ritual in 1977 to publicly demonstrate their faith and call attention to social problems affecting Pilsen. The first Via Crucis emerged as a response to a Christmas Eve apartment fire that killed 12 Pilsen residents, 10 of them children, traumatizing Chicago’s Latino community. The first Via Crucis was organized to remember their deaths, point out the social ills affecting Pilsen, and declare the community’s pledge to defend undocumented immigrants. Catholicism and the community’s most pressing social issues fused together in what might have been the first street Via Crucis in the country. Below is an account of how a community of poor and powerless people publicly declared their humanity by claiming to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ on Good Friday of 1977.
On the early evening of December 24, 1976, families gathered in a third-floor apartment to celebrate the ninth birthday of Jesús García. The apartment was located at 1811 W. 17th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. A short time later a fire erupted, killing two adults and ten children. The deceased belonged to St. Vitus parish and hundreds of people attended their funeral services. Driven by their collective grief, community residents raised over $50,000 to cover the cost of the funeral and the expenses of the surviving family members. They were buried at St. Mary’s cemetery in Evergreen Park.
A week later, on December 31 (New Year’s eve), and a block away from the Christmas eve tragedy, another building fire killed five people, including a mother and her three children. Just like the tragedy of a week earlier, the fire department declared the fire was caused by the “careless use of cleaning fluid.” The five were also members of St. Vitus parish. The family was buried in Michoacán. The following day, January 1, eight Puerto Ricans died in a building fire in West Town, a Latino neighborhood located four miles north of Pilsen. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans and Latinos attended their funeral services; two of them were buried in Guayama, Puerto Rico.
Given that ten of the twelve Christmas Eve fire victims were children, the tragedy received national and local press coverage. The press reported the Chicago Fire and Police Departments’ versions of the events that led to their death. According to them, Jesus’ older brother attempted to use lighter fluid to light the barbecue grill in the hallway of the apartment. The fire went out of his control and rapidly spread, trapping the third-floor residents. The firemen arrived and gave instructions in English to the families. Unable to understand the instructions, some jumped to their death while others burned on the third floor. Fire Marshall William Foley stated that “We’ve been taking care of these neighborhoods for 70 years. We had problems when it was Polish, too . . . But the main problem is there are just a lot of people in difficult buildings. The problem is flammable fluids in buildings.” Stated another way, it was the residents’ fault for overcrowding dilapidated housing and for their ignorance of the causes of fires.
As the community mourned their dead, Father James Colleran of St. Vitus refused to allow the media into the parish during the funeral mass of the Christmas Eve victims, knowing that residents were sensitive to the way the media reported the tragedy and their unwillingness to question the official verdict. Fully aware of how the press had portrayed Pilsen over the years, community leaders regarded the official version as a slander because it depicted Pilsen’s residents as ignorant Mexicans. They understood this version as another of many insults to the community because, as a resident pointed out, it “makes us look foolish and ridiculous.” The common view of the community was that this calamity could have been prevented if the firemen would have responded faster to the emergency (the local fire station was only three blocks away) and if they would have been able to communicate with the victims in Spanish. Aggrieved by what they considered as the unnecessary loss of human lives, a woman bluntly stated in Spanish, “Who’s privileged to be saved? Only those who speak English?”
Besides the blind acceptance of the official version, community leaders criticized the media for neglecting to report on the “real” cause of the fire: the poor housing conditions and the city’s neglect of social services in the neighborhood. They blamed landlords for not fixing their dilapidated buildings. The poor housing conditions had created an atmosphere of fear among tenants: they could be the next victims of fires. They also blamed firemen for their inability to communicate in Spanish, an example of how the city had neglected to provide adequate services to Pilsen. Only 20 of the 4,500 firefighters in Chicago had Spanish surnames in 1976, an insignificant number for a city where Latinos made up over 10% of the population.
To appease an aggrieved and angry community that demanded accountability, Mayor Michael Bilandic ordered a crash course of a few basic Spanish-language phrases and words for firemen stationed in Latino neighborhoods. Although this was nothing more than a minor political gesture, the crash course generated a number of unexpected negative commentaries in the media, primarily via letters to the editor that blamed the victims for the fire tragedy. It was their fault for refusing to learn English. A few examples highlight the thread of this reaction: “What does it take to bring home to those stiff-necked Latinos that when they move to a foreign country the least they could do is attempt to learn the language?”; “It would be a fitting memorial to the victims of the fire if the Pilsen community . . . provides the children of the community with the tools they must have to survive and thrive in an English-speaking country”; “They are going to learn English, just as millions of other immigrants did before them, or they will never realize the full potential of the American Dream that presumably brought them here.”
Even though the Spanish language crash course involved no more than a few words and phrases such “fuego!,” “no brinque!,” and “sálganse!,” Jack Gallopo, the president of the Firefighters Union, opposed the course calling it “foolish and un-American . . . This is America, let them learn English.” Along with this thread of “learn (English) or burn,” a letter to the editor of The Chicago Tribune pointed out that the Christmas Eve inspired crash course in Spanish should “not be used as an excuse to push Chicago still further toward becoming a permanent bilingual city.” What explains such a strong reaction from a relatively minor policy? Answers to this question require us to locate Mexican Pilsen within the changes provoked by Chicago’s urban crisis.
The 1976 Pilsen and West Town fires were not isolated tragedies that hit unfortunate communities. 1976 was not a good year for Chicago when it came to deaths resulting from fires, accidental and intentional. The year began when an arsonist set fire to a nursing home, causing the death of 23 senior citizens; it ended with the death of 25 Latinos in the three separate apartment fires of the Holiday Season. Altogether fires caused the deaths of 156 people in Chicago in 1976, compared to 27 in 2011 and 16 in 2013.
These fires were symptoms of an escalating urban crisis, a part of a larger phenomenon that reflected the extent of Chicago’s urban decay as of the mid-1970s. Over twenty years in the making, Chicago’s urban crisis began in the 1950s as the result of the advancing losses in manufacturing employment and population largely due to the “white flight” to suburbs. One of the features of the urban crisis was the large supply of housing that went unfilled in the wake of the “white flight” to the suburbs.
While whites flocked to the suburbs, large numbers of Latinos and African Americans settled in Chicago. New residents could not fill the available supply of housing, much of it dilapidated and old. They inherited neighborhoods that were slums or on the verge of becoming so. As property values spiraled down, property owners sought to get whatever they could before it was too late. Aiming to collect insurance money, many buildings were torched, especially in the 1970s. Not including non-arson fires, the numbers of “arson for profit” fires in Chicago increased almost threefold, from 347 to 979 between 1974 and 1977. Half of the arsons concentrated in nine of Chicago’s 77 communities in 1977, all of them in African-American and Latino neighborhoods such as West Town, Austin, and Humboldt Park. Large portions of these communities resembled bombed European cities of World War II.
At once Pilsen was an old neighborhood and a new community. Founded in the aftermaths of the great Chicago Fire of 1871, Pilsen was one of the oldest communities in the city. It was new in the sense that Latinos began creating their own communities as Pilsen changed from white to brown, beginning in the early 1950s. They primarily came from Texas, Puerto Rico, different parts of Mexico, and what is today the University of Illinois at Chicago area. Their numbers grew to the extent that Pilsen was one of the few inner-city communities in Chicago where the housing vacuum left by the neighborhood’s white flight was not felt. In fact, Pilsen documented a small increase in residents during the 1970s, ending the slide of four successive decades of population loss that began in 1930. For that reason “arson for profit” was not felt as severely in Pilsen compared to other inner-city neighborhood.
More than any other Latino group, Mexican immigrants contributed most to Pilsen’s numerical growth. After California and Texas, Chicago turned into the main destination point for Mexican immigrants. Employment at the lower end of the pay scale was still available in spite of the progressing deindustrialization of the city. Mexicans came to fill these jobs. On this migration, a journalist in 1969 noted, “They come by the thousands through hope, despair, and whatever else it is that causes a man to give up an old familiar way of life and take up the unknown . . . whatever the reason, they come to Chicago to wait and see if life will better for them here.”
Many of them landed in Pilsen, turning it into the main port of entry for incoming Mexicans in the 1960s and 1970s. The low rents, proximity to various sources of employment, and the comfort of being around many Mexicans brought them to Pilsen. Mexican immigration fueled the increase of the city’s Latino population as their numbers increased from 7 to 14% of Chicago’s population during the 1970s. Their growing numbers turned Pilsen into a predominantly Mexican community by 1970, one that was increasingly immigrant. During the 1970s the foreign-born population in Pilsen increased from 25.6% to 44.7%, a figure that was much higher due to the fact that many undocumented migrants were not counted in the census. As one of the 77 communities that make up Chicago, Pilsen became the first community in the city’s history to have a Latino majority. Containing over 100 restaurants, 60 grocery stores, 110 taverns, 8 pool halls, and 8 Catholic parishes in the mid-1970s, Pilsen had become the face of Mexican Chicago. “For many Mexicans,” a journalist wrote in 1969, “Chicago became synonymous with Pilsen.”
With most of the housing dating to the late 19th and early 20th century, Mexicans inherited an old neighborhood with a decaying housing stock. As Mexican poured into Pilsen, the number of housing units dwindled, losing 1,100 units between 1960 and 1977, a loss of 15% of its housing stock. In turn, it became an overcrowded neighborhood with dilapidated housing. Given this social landscape, the city of Chicago was seriously considering labeling Pilsen a “blighted” neighborhood at one point in the 1960s, the first step for bulldozing down it in the name of “urban renewal.” Strong opposition from the community saved Pilsen. However, Pilsen continued to be a “tenement district” during the 1970s, a place where living and housing conditions were as bad as any other inner-city slum.
Besides the white flight to the suburbs, other features of the deepening urban crisis served as the backdrop for the increasing Mexicanization of Pilsen and neighboring Little Village. From 1963 to 1976 Chicago lost 127,000 manufacturing jobs. In 1981 Chicago had one-fourth fewer factories than in 1970, causing high unemployment and much devastation in working class communities, especially among African American and Latinos. Many factories that employed Pilsen residents closed forever such as the Union Stockyards in the Back of the Yards neighborhood (1971) and International Harvester located at Western and Blue Island (1970). Moreover, over 100,000 people were laid-off in Chicago during the economic recession of 1974-1975. The official unemployment in Pilsen reached 14.2 % in 1977 (unofficially the rate was much higher) and double that rate for Mexican youth.
Half of the 600,000 inhabitants that Chicago lost between 1950 and 1980 occurred in the 1970s when the urban crisis reached its climax. The loss of employment (many of them high-paying union jobs) and population eroded the city’s tax base, leading to greater poverty and decaying schools, infrastructure, services, and the loss of thousands of small businesses. All of this happened when Chicago rapidly changed from a white to a minority-majority city.
Marcos Raya, a well-known artist, recalled the impression that Pilsen left on him when he saw it for the first time in the mid-1960s, stating that it “looked like Tijuana in the 50s-I thought I was on the set of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It was dark, violent, and dangerous, with a lot of vice, gangs, drugs, and poverty…. I was very scared.” This dark impression of Pilsen became even darker in the 1970s. In addition to being a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, Pilsen was a community of young people. With a median age of 18.3 years in 1977, the urban crisis ravished young people. They suffered from high rates of unemployment (as high as 30% in the late 1970s), while 77% of them dropped out of school before completing high school. Unemployed, uneducated, and many without immigration documents caused many of the young to engage in destructive behavior such drug addiction, especially heroin (Pilsen was a major distribution center for Mexican heroin in the Midwest), and gang violence. A study claimed that 2,000 young people belonged to gangs in Pilsen; the summer of 1977 registered 15 gang-related deaths in the neighborhood.
The letters to the editor of newspaper opposing the firemen’s Spanish crash course indicated a growing xenophobia against Latinos. This xenophobia was an expression of the hardships caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs, especially the high rates of unemployment. It was not difficult for opportunistic politicians and the media to convince public opinion that “illegal aliens” were taking jobs from “hard working American citizens.” “Illegals” became an escape goat for the economic decline of Chicago. Take the case of the title of an “investigative” report produced by the State of Illinois Legislative Investigation Commission, “The Illegal Mexican Alien Problem.” Presented to the state legislature in 1971, the report emphasized that the “Illinois economy is being victimized by the employment of illegal aliens in the state,” and that “the illegal aliens situation in Illinois primarily concerns Mexican nationals.” In spite of the fact that Illinois contained large numbers of undocumented Poles and other Eastern Europeans, Mexicans became associated with the term “illegal alien,” a point that the mass media constantly reinforced.
Having a community with a Mexican majority, one continuously replenish by thousands of newly arrivals, did not automatically translate into a community with political power. Mexicans in Pilsen (and elsewhere in Chicagoland) were relatively powerless in the 1970s. To be powerless did not mean that residents were apolitical. On the contrary, they had an acute sense of politics. More precisely, a recognition of their relative powerlessness in relation to those who wielded power over them. Their powerlessness manifested itself in a myriad of ways, including: at least until the mid-1960s, they were devout Catholics but could not attend mass in the neighborhood parishes that “belonged” to the older “ethnics”; slumlords violated housing codes and ignored the basic housing needs of their tenants; public schools neglected the language and cultural needs of the growing Spanish-speaking student body; the City of Chicago disregarded neighborhood public services; and elected officials representing the community, such as Alderman Vito Marzullo, did not heed the needs of the community.
A survey conducted in the late 1970s demonstrates their recognition of their powerlessness in relation to those individuals and institutions who held power over them. On the category of “bad to very bad,” landlords top the list with 73% of the surveyed having of negative view of them, followed by real estate (64%) and urban renewal agencies (59%), Immigration and Naturalization Service (60%), the police department (58%), schools (57%) and the press (54%). The Catholic Church topped the “good to very good” category with 49% approval rating. These numbers indicate that Latinos had “bad to very bad” relations with the agents of housing, law enforcement, schools, and the press. We will see below why the Catholic Church had the highest “approval “rating.
There are various reasons that explain their powerlessness. The most important had to do with the large immigrant composition of Pilsen, including a large undocumented worker component. In the case of the undocumented, their condition of “illegality” led to all types of abuses on them. They could not appeal for justice to any authority or institution because of their “illegality.” Moreover, their illegality made them into deportable people, a condition that was real in Pilsen and in other communities. Consequently, fear of deportation made them powerless and muted them in expressing their concerns about housing, schools, crime, and employment.
By 1970 Pilsen had become the face of Mexican Chicago. Consequently, Pilsen became associated with “illegal aliens” and, therefore, a prime target for the Immigration Naturalization Service (INS), “la migra.” In the 1970s la migra was busy working in Pilsen, picking up “illegals” in the streets, outside of movie theaters and churches, and storming into people’s apartments. A Jesuit activist reported that, “Immigration officials used to show up outside the churches and wait for people to go outside.” La migra’s actions in the neighborhood generated an atmosphere of fear among immigrants. A veteran of the immigrant rights’ movement in Chicago, noted that fear of la migra reached such heights that immigrants refused to open their apartment’s door when people knocked. A Catholic activist recalled that while he lived in Pilsen there were “a lot of people [who] never left their basements [apartments]. I know this sounds insane, but there were people, especially women, [who] were undocumented and had families. They were scared shitless if you went and knocked on their doors.”
As the survey indicated, Latinos had a low opinion of the mass media. They had good reasons for that. The reporting of the Christmas eve tragedy serves as a good example for the low opinion that Latinos had of the media. By not questioning the official version of that tragedy, media reporting portrayed Pilsen as a community made up of ignorant Mexicans who lived in overcrowded housing and refused to learn English. They were sensitive to the media’s portrait of Pilsen as a community made of “illegal aliens and wetbacks” who “stole” jobs from American citizens. Moreover, the neighborhood was often depicted as dirty, violent, and dangerous. A good example of these portrayals is provided by The Chicago Tribune. It assigned two reporters in 1971 to report on the Mexican world of Pilsen. The “investigative” reporters rented a room in Pilsen and went undercover for three weeks. Ignorant of the Spanish-language and all things Mexican (they reported that the jukeboxes at taverns played “bullfight music”), they wrote “Pilsen is a community filled with suspicion of the Anglo world-a world of distrust and sometimes fear, and often a bad deal, a shakedown, or a put-down. There are wetbacks in Pilsen, and it is the Anglo world that finds them and sends them back.”
Barrio leaders understood that this type of reporting on Pilsen was an insult not only directed at Pilsen but to Mexicans and Latinos in general, humiliations that they, as “a people,” faced on a regular basis. In spite of the transparent racism manifested in The Chicago Tribune article, the reporters emphasized the insults, humiliations, and poor treatment that residents, mainly the undocumented, faced on a regular basis.
Those who held power over Mexicans and Latinos in Pilsen and other neighborhoods-slumlords, school officials, service providers, police, politicians, employers, and la migra-treated them poorly because they viewed them as powerless, as “gente que no importa.” This does not mean that they did not have community organizations and activists. They had local organizations and outspoken activists but the community as a whole did carry much political weight because most of its residents could not vote due to age and legal status. Moreover, Latinos had not established powerful city-wide and national organizations that could defend them, and they had no influential local or national leaders that could speak for them. For that reason, politicians like Vito Marzullo, the alderman representing most of Pilsen since 1953, could ignore their needs and even insult them by associating Mexicans in his ward with “dogs, rats, and mouses.” He could get away with that comment because Mexicans did not carry the political weight to electorally challenge him (he would be challenged in the early 1980s). For Marzullo and others Mexicans were “gente que no importa.”
Pilsen was a suffering community in light of the high unemployment, high dropout rates, high rates of poverty, youth violence, police abuse, migra raids and other social problems that were components of the urban crisis of the 1970s. It was also a community living in fear: fear of deportations, fear of dying in building fires, fear of violence, and fear of not finding employment. Moreover, as a community, it was insulted by the media and humiliated by those who held power over the residents. All of these conditions shaped the social and political landscape of Pilsen.
It is within this backdrop of a suffering community, living in fear, and constantly insulted that helps us to understand the symbolic importance of the first Via Crucis in Pilsen. The Christmas Eve tragedy turned into an event that united the Pilsen community, albeit for a short period of time. The fire tragedies brought people to mourn collectively, collect donations for the surviving victims, and make claims on the city of Chicago. This was a rare occasion because, despite the growing reputation as a community of activism, Pilsen was a divided neighborhood. Divisions ranged from gang warfare over street corners to political divisions between competing organizations, such as the naming of the new high school (eventually named Benito Juárez High School), one of the great victories of community activism.
Seeking to maintain community unity, the St. Vitus pastoral team and parishioners approved the idea of remembering the victims of the fire tragedies with a neighborhood Via Crucis on Good Friday of 1977. The other six churches agreed to participate and each parish assumed an assignment within the Via Crucis’ division of labor. Dr. Robert Stark, a Pilsen activist, Jesuit, and a member of the St. Vitus pastoral team, wrote an excellent Ph. D. dissertation with a thick description of making of the first Via Crucis (unfortunately it has not been published). Much of this article is informed by the work of Dr. Stark and it will only dwell on the political character of the first Via Crucis.
A year before the first Via Crucis of 1977, Pilsen’s parishes offered a joint Easter Day sermon entitled, “Easter People made Strangers Welcomed.” The sermons boldly called on the community to refuse cooperation with the immigration authorities and to make a commitment to defend the rights of undocumented immigrants. The sermon circulated widely throughout the neighborhood under the “Proclamation Concerning the Gospel and the Undocumented.” As a response to la migra’s raids in Pilsen and other immigrant communities, the proclamation made the claim that the community constituted the Easter People who “reaffirmed their commitment to the process of liberation in Christ’s resurrection,” and that “since we are indeed Easter People, we must change all forms of injustices in our community.” As Easter People, the community pledged to engage in the struggles affecting their neighborhood, including “unconditional amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, “a just living wage,” for “(public) services,” and to “help those who live in fear and insecurity.” It also pledged to fight “against discriminatory laws against immigrants“ and “prosecute those who exploit immigrants.” The parishes called for unconditional amnesty for undocumented workers and offered persecuted immigrants sanctuary in the parishes. (It should be noted that Pilsen’s churches were among the first in the U.S. to declare their parishes as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, a few years before the rise of the sanctuary movement that mainly catered to Central American political refugees.)
Compared to today’s timid demands and actions coming from the “leadership” of immigrant rights’ organizations, so-called “pro-immigrant” politicians, and the Catholic Church leadership, the “Proclamation Concerning the Gospel and the Undocumented” was a bold declaration. What led to the call for “unconditional amnesty” and sanctuary for immigrants? Such a proclamation coming from the Pilsen parishes would not have been made ten years earlier when Pilsen was on the verge of shifting from white to Brown.
A decade earlier the parishes were not that welcoming to Mexicans who were moving into Pilsen in large numbers. They were treated as unwanted strangers, as unwelcome distant Catholics cousins. Church ushers would stand outside the entrance of St. Pius and tell Mexicans to move on, pointing in the direction of St. Francis Church, the Mexican parish on Halsted and Roosevelt. Parishes had signs announcing “no Spanish masses” which for Mexicans meant that they were unwelcomed. It was not until 1963 that St. Pius offered a Spanish mass—at the basement. Latinos in Chicago were known as basement Catholics—another of many insults they experienced as the latest arrivals into the city. St. Vitus, the parish of the Christmas and New Year’s Eve victims, offered its first Spanish-language mass in 1969.
The change from unwelcome to welcome was, in part, due to practical reasons. Parishes recognized that their future and of their parochial schools depended on opening the doors to Mexicans and Latinos in lieu of the of the neighborhood’s white flight. Their existence had now become depended on Mexicans. It also had to do with major changes within the Church. In the mid-1960s a new generation of priests, nuns, and seminarians entered the Church and became active in the social movements of the era, including the Civil Rights movement and the United Farmworkers Union’s grape boycott. Given this shift, a group of 20 Catholic ministers and activists formed the 18th Street Ministry in Pilsen. Influenced by “Theology of Liberation,” this Catholicism ministry mixed religion and with local politics, becoming very active in the many political struggles affecting Pilsen. St. Vitus, for instance, worked closely with the Asociación Pro-derechos Obreros (APO), a workers’ organization involved in many confrontational campaigns against the discrimination hiring practices of Latinos, such as the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Fire Department, and St. Luke’s hospital.
In these community struggles the 18th Street Ministries came into direct contact with their Mexican parishioners, coming face to face with their daily social ills. They became familiar with their social conditions along with their fears and aspirations. They became aware of the insults and humiliations that la gente que no importa experienced on a daily basis. They came to embrace the community, recognizing it as a flock that suffered, lived in fear, and was daily insulted. Instead of viewing them as unwelcome strangers, they identified the community as the “Easter People” — la gente de Cristo who were struggling to free themselves from their oppression.
The Church was an integral part of Pilsen’s political struggles of the 1970s. So much so that it would be difficult to find another place in the U.S. where local parishes established such close bonds with their poor and powerless parishioners as in the case of Pilsen. This was a fairly recent and important development because Mexicans and Latinos had no powerful allies in Chicago at that time. Latinos did not carry much in electoral weight, had not established powerful political local and national organizations, and had no influential leaders that could speak on their behalf. Nor could they count on elected officials to represent them or other institutions, such as the labor unions. One of the lessons that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans learned from the their struggles of the 1960s was that they had to fend for themselves because no powerful outsider was going to lift a finger to help or defend them. The local parishes became their first institutional allies.
While the local parishes provided institutional legitimacy to the struggles of immigrants, the Centro de Acción Social Autónoma-Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA-HGT) emerged as the main organization fighting for immigrant workers in Chicago. In all likelihood, it influenced the Pilsen parishes pro-immigration declarations and activism. Founded in 1974 by former members of a chapter of La Raza Unida Party, CASA-HGHT constituted a branch of a national organization that was founded in 1968 to defend undocumented immigrant workers. The Chicago chapter of CASA-HGT was founded as a response to the growing anti-immigrant political sentiment and la migra’s heightened campaign against undocumented migrants, including raids in Pilsen. Led by the charismatic Rudy Lozano, CASA-HGT became Mexican Chicago’s most important political organization. It organizes around key issues affecting the Mexican community from fighting Plan 21 (gentrification threats in Pilsen and other inner-city communities) to defending immigrant workers. (Dr. Myrna García wrote an excellent dissertation on CASA-HGT).
According to Dr. Robert Stark, a Jesuit activist in Pilsen, CASA-HGT was “the only organization that had members that were open, militantly working for the rights of undocumented workers, whether it was in the workplace or in the community space.” Regarding the undocumented as members of the working class, CASA-HGT also initiated the May Day marches in Pilsen, beginning in 1975. The demand for “unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants” and “halt all deportations” became two of CASA-HGT main contributions to the struggle for immigrant rights in this country. CASA-HGT, in other words, provided the “political line” that influence the political Catholicism in Pilsen, as did the theology of liberation, and this is clearly manifested in the “Proclamation Concerning the Gospel and the Undocumented.”
The Via Crucis is a universal Catholic ritual with a long history. It arrived in the Americas after the Spanish conquest. Used primarily as a tool to indoctrinate the indigenous people, it was performed as a play on Good Friday. There is not a good history of this important annual Catholic ritual that is performed throughout towns and cities in Latin America. Iztapalapa, an ancient Indian pueblo that became incorporated into Mexico City, holds the largest Via Crucis in the world. It originated in 1833 after a cholera epidemic wiped out a good portion of the pueblo’s population. As an expression of popular Catholicism, it grew massively over time. Today two million people attend the Via Crucis in this Mexico City borough which forms part of the world’s largest mega-slum, a four million concentration of poor people.
Pilsen’s first Via Crucis procession was an importation from Mexico, a migrating ritual that immigrants reproduced in Chicago. As a symbolic ritual it was new in Pilsen but an old tradition with immigrants. Prior to the 1977 procession on 18th Street, the Good Friday event was commemorated as a play inside the parishes. This ritual was taken into the streets in 1977. Highlighting the burning issues affecting their parishioners, the organizers of the Via Crucis had no difficulty in associating the suffering of the community with the suffering of Christ.
Latinos and Mexicans have had a strong symbolic attachment to the suffering Jesus who carried the heavy cross on Good Friday. Visit a parish in Mexico, Central, South America, and the U.S. and you will find people engaged in intimate prayer in front of the image of the suffering Christ. This intimate praying is repeated millions of times every day. Go to any home and you will find the image of the suffering Jesus. Visit any prison and you will see inmates with tattoos of the image of Jesus with his crown of thorns and the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (bleeding). Mexicans and Latinos revered the image of the suffering Jesus more than Christ the King of the world, an indication of how they connect their individual suffering to the suffering of Jesus.
This connection to the suffering Jesus is strongest among the poor in Mexico, Latin America, and the U.S. It is also ingrained in the immigrant’s notions of what is justice and injustice. A letter to Sin Fronteras, CASA-HGT national newspaper, demonstrates how an immigrant from Chicago used the suffering found in faith as a lens for making sense of the world. This immigrant wrote, “This letter is in memory of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who struggled for the poor people of the world and was an exemplary human being . . . [he] may have been sacrificed for the simple act of struggling for peace, love, and equality such as Allende in Chile and the massacre of thousands of workers by Judah Pinochet. . .”
As an importation Catholic ritual that is performed in the open in the form of mass theater throughout Latin America, the Pilsen Via Crucis serves as an example of how immigrants influence the cultural identity of Mexican Pilsen. U.S.-born Latinos and Mexicans were introduced to this brand of popular Catholicism that is more geared for the streets than the inside of parishes (for example, the posadas and the mass pilgrimages to sacred shrines, such as the Basílica of Guadalupe on December 12).
The aim of the Pilsen’s first street Via Crucis was to turn this ritual into “an event that is happening daily in our community; Christ abandoned; Christ undocumented; Christ sick; Christ unemployed; Christ imprisoned. We wish to say through the Way of the Cross that Jesus Christ is alive and suffering in our city.” The community, as the embodiment of Jesus, was abandoned, sick, unemployed, imprisoned, and undocumented. The community used the Via Crucis not only to express its suffering but also to use its suffering to make political demands on the powerful such as unconditional amnesty for undocumented immigrants and ending with discriminations in schools and employment.
On April 8, 1977, and for one day, the community became the embodiment of Christ and Pilsen became Jerusalem, a sacred space. As the embodiment of a suffering community, Jesus began carrying the cross on Providence of God Church on Pilsen’s eastern edge, then proceeded down 18th Street, and ended crucified at Harrison Park (Calvary). In each of Jesus’s 14 stations there was a prayer and brief sermon on a major issue. Jesus’ second “fall (due to the weight of the cross)” occurred on 18th and Ashland in the heart of Pilsen. Symbolically, this was the spot where months earlier APO and other community members blocked city busses from proceeding to protest the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) discriminatory hiring practices on Latinos. Jesus last “fall” occurred on 1811 W. 17th Street, the site of the Christmas Eve fire, to symbolize the 10 children and two adults who died in “the cross of discrimination.”
Without major adjustments, this Good Friday event is now forty years old. This annual ritual has symbolically served as a link between the dead (the past), the living (the present), and the yet unborn (the future generation). Our past now includes the “12” who died on December 24, 1976.
R.I.P./Q.E.P.D: Otilia García (32 years old), Juanita García (10), Herminia Reyes Reséndez (24), Juan Reyes Reséndez (4), Adelina Reyes Reséndez (1) Julisa Reyes Reséndez (11 months), Michael Martínez (3), Michelle Martínez (4), Bertha Castro (4), Leticia Castro (2), Sergio Miranda (5) y Leno Castro (4).
Photos: Robert Murphy.
Juan Mora-Torres. Associate Professor of Latin American History at DePaul University. A former Teamster, he has worked in the agricultural fields, canneries, and as an adult education instructor. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Wayne State University (Detroit). His research and writings focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, Mexican migration, popular culture, working class formations, and Mexicans in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border (University of Texas Press, 2001), and he’s currently working on Me voy pa’l norte (I’ m Going North): The First Great Mexican Migration, 1890-1940. The Making of the Mexican Border won the Jim Parish Book Award. Mora-Torres is the Board President of El BeiSMan.