Latino Chicagoans Kick Off Independence Celebrations With Flag-Waving Caravans

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It may come as a surprise to people in other parts of the country that the Midwest, being so far from the coasts and so far from the Rio Bravo, has a robust Latino population. But here, it’s a well-known fact that Chicago has been a city of migrants for more than a century and that the Spanish- and bilingual-speaking demographic is growing to the point of comprising one third of the population.

As the calendar marks the start of Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM)—yes I know; the word Hispanic is a misnomer to many, especially due to this next fact—it’s worth noting that it aligns with the independence of various Latin American nations. Independence from whom or what? From its former colonial power, Spain.

This month, on the 15th, Guatemala celebrated its 200th anniversary from Spanish rule and was joined by the rest of Central America, while Mexico’s War of Independence started about a decade earlier, on September 16, 1810.

In a Chicago context, the city’s most prominent Latino groups celebrate their heritage through annual parades, neighborhood festivals, and other community gatherings. The oldest parade among local Latinos is the Mexican parade in South Chicago, which goes back more than 80 years. And apparently there was an even older Mexican parade that would take place downtown, but now can only be found in newspaper archives.

The Guatemalan parade took place this Sunday along Montrose Ave. in the North Side. The first guatemalteca elected official in Illinois, Delia Ramirez, shared these words with her constituents: “Our Pueblo is struggling to survive and many have risked all they have and even their lives to migrate to this country. The resilience of our people leaves me in awe and reminded of the work and responsibility I, along with my colleagues, have to fight for them here and there.”

The city’s historical Puerto Rican community holds their own cultural parade a few months before HHM. Since 1978, the community has organized a parade that always falls on Father’s Day weekend. And during the Chicago Bulls’ glory days, I’m told, the parade would perfectly coincide with the NBA championships—resulting in the Northwest Side exploding in celebration of their Puerto Rican and Chicagoan identity.

Today, the most popular parade, drawing tens of thousands of Mexicans from the suburbs, other parts of the state, Indiana, and the greater Midwest, is the one that takes place on 26th St. in the Little Village neighborhood, on the Southwest Side, every second Sunday of September.

This year, like last year, however, the 26th St. parade was cancelled by its organizer, who cited COVID-19 as the reason. But the cancellation is causing Mexican residents to feel “a certain type of way” as they observe the Chicago Park District and some public officials continuing to green-light profit-driven events in our parks. It seems like a double standard, like our celebrations are being suppressed.

Just to provide one example: I can hear Riot Fest happening as I type this, a music festival that mainly attracts non-local white people.

The public safety component simply cannot be ignored. The Chicago Police Department has become notorious for its handling of our communities during and after Latino parades. As squad cars and barracks are positioned in major intersections, blocking crucial—and relatively safe—Latino thoroughfares, drivers are pushed into residential streets, gas stations, and dead ends, sometimes forced to cross gang lines.

CPD’s crowd control tactics are tone deaf to what’s happening on the ground. After the Humboldt Park parade this summer, the police-controlled bumper-to-bumper traffic resulted in an accident that was followed by what is suspected to be a gang clash that left a young Puerto Rican couple dead.

Sure, there are things to be said about the proliferation of guns on the streets and the factors that lead to interpersonal violence. But something can also be said about the “No Cruising”, “No Loitering”, no tolerance, no care agenda from the police on our “one day” of cultural self expression in our communities.

It’s not uncommon for 26th Street to get shut down, even when there is no parade scheduled. This year, Little Village police began posting up in the neighborhood on Saturday afternoon, five days before Mexican Independence Day, again, despite there being no parade.

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Police have been recorded previously yanking away Mexican flags and breaking flag poles, ticketing people for cruising downtown, and pulling over harmless youth. That’s why car clubs have become more organized over the last five years, summoning people to meet up in empty commercial lots and to follow certain routes, and offering other cars some sense of protection.

There is no shortage of cultural richness in Chicago, and mid-September is a time for unity and solidarity among the city’s Latino groups. No one can stop us from celebrating who we are as we face the challenges that come with living in this great diverse city.

Jackie Serrato is the Editor-in-Chief of South Side Weekly, Contributor to Chicago Reporter’s Voices.