Fear grips a Mexican-American neighborhood

Family members walk home from school in Chicago’s Little Village, where most people live within walking distance of schools. Murals, many with religious themes, have been painted on many buildings in the community. This garage has been inscribed, “Rise up, my son, and go in peace.” (Photo copyright by Philip Langdon, used with permission)

When Donald Trump promised during the presidential campaign to deport millions of undocumented Mexicans, most Americans probably didn’t stop to consider what such a huge exodus might do to the neighborhoods where immigrants have settled. Now, with the inauguration a few weeks away, would be a good time to belatedly begin thinking about it.

Many Latino neighborhoods across the U.S. are deeply frightened. Certainly that’s the case in Little Village, a section of Chicago that I got to know when I spent time there, studying it for a book about walkable communities.

Little Village, about 5 miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop, has long been a working-class area. It was home to tens of thousands of Czechs from around 1900 onward. When the Czechs departed for the burgeoning suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, the housing they left behind — mostly brick bungalows, “two-flats” and “three-flats” (apartments stacked one on top of another) — soon were filled with Spanish-speaking immigrants. Of the 79,000 people now living in Little Village, more than 80 percent were born in Mexico or descended from Mexicans.

Three out of 10 Little Village residents speak only Spanish, so I invited my old pal Kirk Peterson, who for years taught Spanish at Paul Smith’s College, to join me in Chicago and translate for some of my interviews. Both Kirk and I were impressed with how tidy and well organized Little Village is.

The buildings are now roughly 90 to 120 years old, yet the great majority of them look well cared for. Residents have installed black metal fences between the small front yards and the sidewalks. On some of those fences, Little Villagers hang plastic bags — the kind that supermarkets use — so that passersby will have places to deposit candy wrappers and other litter. The effect may not be elegant, but it demonstrates how much people care about keeping their surroundings neat and clean.

Parents pick up their children at Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez Elementary School as a vendor sells cotton candy in the Little Village, Chicago. Many children walk home with their mother or father. (Photo copyright by Philip Langdon, used with permission)

One of the advantages of Little Village is that many of the things frequently needed by residents — schools, grocers, health clinics, corner stores — are within walking distance. Quite a few people operate small businesses in their homes or garages. If your car breaks down, you don’t have to go far. There’s probably an “alley mechanic” in a garage around the corner.

Pushcart peddlers circulate throughout the neighborhood, selling tamales, fruits, beverages and Mexican treats. The most enterprising peddlers eventually succeed in opening their own cafes and restaurants. Entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

Less than a week after the November election, I received an anxious mass email from Katya Nuques, head of Enlace Chicago, Little Village’s leading community organization. “Beloved Community,” she began. “As I reflect on the results of the presidential election, I cannot help but wonder what the rest of our community is going through. Disbelief, grief, uncertainty, fear are just some of the words that come to mind.”

Fear has intensified because, by Nuques’s estimate, more than a quarter of the neighborhood’s residents are undocumented and vulnerable to deportation. Up to half the families have at least one undocumented member, and many are afraid they will be broken up.

“The day after the election, the first thing my daughter did was start crying,” says Jaime di Paulo, executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. “She said, ‘My best friend is going to have to leave.’ My daughter was born in the United States, but her friend wasn’t.” Nuques says there have been “a lot of instances of kids crying in the schools, and actual panic among adults.”

Andrea Munoz, active in Little Village civic causes since the 1970s, says she’s heard neighbors talk about selling their furniture over the next few months in preparation for voluntarily leaving the U.S. at the end of the school year. Unease has been sown by Trump’s pledge, during the campaign, to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers some legal protection to hundreds of thousands of people who were brought to the U.S. as children and stayed here illegally.

“My niece arrived at age 3. She speaks only English and is about to graduate from high school with a 3.9 grade-point average,” says Michael Rodriguez, a Democratic committeeman. “She would qualify for DACA, allowing her to work and go to school legally in the U.S. Trump said he would take that away on his first day in office.”

“I know a young man, 28, a business owner, who is thinking of moving to Windsor, Canada,” Rodriguez adds. “He is undocumented. He was in the DACA program. He was thinking about going to a university in Iowa for an MBA. That’s all gone.”

It’s true, of course, that many immigrants failed to go through standard government procedures for becoming permanent residents of the U.S. But these people have now been here for years — in some cases decades. Most have worked hard and contributed significantly to their community. They are not our enemies.

This is the wrong time to launch an indiscriminate deportation program. The huge wave of Mexican migration to the U.S. ended several years ago. Since 2009, “more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here,” the Pew Research Center reported in November 2015. “From 2009 to 2014 1 million Mexicans and their families (including U.S.-born children) left the U.S. for Mexico.” The border has quieted down.

It would be a shame if the Trump administration were to destabilize immigrant neighborhoods, where the vast majority, documented or not, are trying to build productive lives and decent communities. Perhaps the long-standing civic activism of Little Village will help prevent the community from being undone.

“We are a highly organized neighborhood,” Nuques says. “That is a great advantage.”

Philip Langdon lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and is the author of “Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All,” to be published by Island Press in April 2017. Portions of this article appeared earlier in CityLab, an online newsletter.