Michigan The Boom in Urban Barrios
The cities of Michigan, meanwhile, recruited Texas migrants to settle and work in booming factories. Jane Gonzalez, who moved to Muskegon in 1946, later remembered that the trucks would arrive and park themselves downtown in San Antonio. And there was a driver there who would give you the information, and the sign would say ‘leaving for Muskegon, MI, core-makers needed, welders needed.’6 Along with these direct recruits in Saginaw, Lansing, Muskegon, and Grand Rapids, many Mexican Americans settled out of the migrant stream, forming local barrios. The permanent Mexican-origin population of the state reached
65,000 in 1970, with almost all living in cities and working industrial jobs. More than 60 percent of the men in these communities were operatives in factories, and another 12 percent were craftsmen. More than half worked in motor vehicle or metal shops. Only in Detroit, with its earlier networks of migration directly from Mexico, were migrants from Mexico a large part of the growing Latino population. Overall, most of the new settlers were not migrants, but U.S. citizens. They maintained their ties to kin in the cities and towns of south Texas by sending a portion of their wages to relatives. Although they no longer returned to Texas for extended periods, many families in Michigan piled into cars for the drive to Texas to visit relatives during vacations. About 10 percent of Mexican American families that had settled in small and mid-sized Michigan cities by the 1960s owned property in Texas.7
These trips back south enabled Michigan settlers to compare their relative prosperity in Michigan with the violent segregation and widespread poverty suffered by their family members in south Texas. One member of the group Obreros Unidos in Detroit told a researcher in the early 1940s, Detroit is better . In Texas, especially in the small towns, people don’t treat us good. In some of the restaurants and soda fountains they have signs like this: No Niggers or Mexicans Served Here. In Detroit, the people treat us better.8 Yet, in Detroit, Latinos experienced the new, subtle, but equally destructive, forms of racial segregation that were emerging in American cities after World War II. Immediately after the war expressway construction cut through the center of Corktown, the commercial and social center of the growing Mexican colonia.
Then, in 1957 and again in 1966, city planners razed more of the neighborhood to make way for a light industrial corridor. Barrio residents then started to shift westward, along the river, until the center of Latino commercial and residential life was in Southwest Detroit, in the shadow of the Fisher Freeway. The federal government provided subsidies for the construction and financing of new suburban homes for the many whites moving out of central Detroit in these years. But a range of practices kept these suburbs closed to African Americans and to most Latinos. The only public efforts at resettling residents displaced from the old barrio were two new public housing projects in Southwest
Detroit. Officials also built two projects in the nearby town of Ecorse, one to house Latinos and white Southerners, the other to house African Americans.
Mexican American workers joined unions in the postwar years, seeking the benefits of postwar industrial prosperity. By one estimate 75 percent of Mexican American men employed in Michigan cities were union members in 1967.9 In many towns and plants, unions withheld leadership positions or preferred job categories from Mexicans in favor of white ethnic workers.
The Latin American Steelworkers Club, founded in the 1950s at the Great Lakes Steel Plant, actively fought for, and won, inclusion in union leadership positions and contested on-the-job discrimination. With the new influx of Mexican Americans, the Catholic Church also returned to its prominent place in the Detroit colonia. In 1943 a Michigan-born priest named Clement Kern began offering Spanish-language masses at Holy Trinity Church. Padre Kern became one of the principal social and spiritual leaders of Mexican Detroit, helping to revive the older cultural and patriotic societies and setting up social services for the growing numbers of migrants moving from the fields into the city. Kern was also an outspoken defender of migrant workers in the state, testifying before Congress to denounce illegal labor practices and poor living conditions. The Holy Trinity Parish established a credit union in the late 1940s to help Mexican Americans buy homes. The parish also offered English, citizenship, and homemaking classes.
Mexican Americans in Michigan created an array of political organizations in the postwar period. Many of these groups, like similar groups in Texas, promoted Mexican American politics, emphasizing their citizenship and service to the United States and denouncing incidents of discrimination to local human relations committees. The American GI Forum, organized by Mexican American war veterans, had chapters in Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, and Adrian. The League of United Latin American Citizens also founded chapters in the state. The Federation for the Advancement of Mexican Americans operated in Adrian, and Latin Americans United for Political Action took root in Grand Rapids. In Saginaw, for instance, in the early 1960s Mexican American civil rights groups staged a successful boycott of a local agency to pressure for the hiring of Mexican American staff. The American GI Forum also sponsored Mexican American candidates for public office, mostly tied to the Republican Party. Leaders in the American Legion Post 505, founded by Mexican American veterans in 1946, also kept the Comite Patriotico Mexicano alive in Detroit, continuing to promote the public celebration of Mexican patriotic fiestas.