Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary

Rima Schultz, Chicago historian spent ten years researching and editing her book Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary (Indiana University Press, 2001)

Women Building ChicagoThere are as many “stories” about how researchers, writers and editors collaborated to complete Women Building Chicago 1790 -1990: A Biographical Dictionary as there are individual biographies contained in the volume. Some of these anecdotes are about the strategies we employed to get at hard-to-research subjects.

Our goal was to make the volume inclusive and comprehensive. We refused to be limited only to writing about privileged white women whose records were more abundant in libraries and archives. Instead, we searched for materials to write about women from all walks of life, backgrounds and communities.
One of the most challenging areas in the study of women in the Midwest is the exploration of the history of women in the Mexican communities in Chicago. While immigration from Mexico has been a major source of Chicago’s population for many decades, our knowledge of the lives of individual women from this tradition has been very sparse.

When Martha Elena Espinoza joined our project’s staff as a work study student while she completed her B.A. degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, our efforts to research Mexican women got an enormous boost. Martha challenged us to do better and recognized that there were no Mexican names on the list of the book’s biographies. “Why not?” she inquired, and then volunteered, “Let me try!”

An immigrant from Mexico herself (and the first to become a naturalized citizen in her family) she took on the role of researcher and writer with persistence, dedication, and intelligence. In a short amount of time Martha conducted many oral interviews with women activists in the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities, winning their confidence and convincing them of the importance of the project. She transcribed and translated the interviews. She researched the Spanish language newspapers published in Chicago and produced excellent and highly useful translations of pertinent articles.

Reading secondary sources, she found the material on Chicago to be limited. As an undergraduate, she was entering a relatively unchartered research area; she found leads, made telephone calls, pursued clues, and thought of new and imaginative ways to get at the subject. She conducted many oral interviews with family members, co-workers and community leaders in order to complete her research.

As a result of her excellent research work, she was able to write the biographies of Angelina Moreno Rico (1898-1984), a cultural activist; Maria Diaz Martinez (1952-1990), a social worker and founding member of Mujeres Latinas en Accion, the first Latina women’s agency in Chicago; and Maria del Jesus Saucedo (1954-1981), a community activist, poet, theater performer, teacher, and revolutionary. Martha’s biographies are the first ever to be published on these women.

One of the largest groups of immigrants in the post-1945 period were the Mexicans. Nearly 275,000 Mexican immigrants arrived legally in the United States in the 1950s. By the 1960s and 1970s there was a vital Chicano (Mexican American) movement in the United States.

Maria del Jesus Saucedo, community activist in Chicago, came to the United States during this period and with her family settled in Pilsen, a growing Mexican neighborhood. Graduating from Northeastern Illinois University where she had founded with fellow students the Chicago Student Union in 1974, Saucedo also founded and edited Contra la Pared (Against the Wall), a newsletter that addressed Chicano issues. She was part of the Compania Trucha, a street theater in Pilsen, that was part of the political activism of the community. In the context of the larger women’s liberation movement, Saucedo used the Compania Trucha to address women’s issues.

Not calling herself a feminist, she did not see the Latino male as the primary problem for Latinas, but believed in a unified struggle involving both men and women. She taught school after graduating from college and co-founded the Mexican Teacher’s Organization.

Social worker Maria Diaz Martinez was one of the founders of Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latin Women In Action), the first Latina women’s agency in Chicago. A rebellious adolescent who was pregnant at age fifteen and forced to marry her child’s father, Martinez had a second chance when she enrolled in the University Without Walls, an outpost of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago that enabled Chicanos who had not completed their education to continue their studies. Martinez received a bachelor’s degree in social work and served as a crisis intervention and counselor with Mujeres Latinas en Accion. Returning to school, Martinez enrolled at Roosevelt University, Chicago, where she received a master’s degree in social work.

Chicago’s economic and social development is tied to the transformation of the nation from a largely agricultural to an industrial society with multi-ethnic and multi-racial urban centers peopled by migrants from the American countryside and small town and by immigrants from foreign lands. All the elements of this transformation are part of Chicago’s history. Here new American forms emerged at the same time that neighborhoods retained cultural institutions adapted from the Old World.

When the latest immigrants to occupy the Pilsen neighborhood developed Compania Trucha, they dipped into their Mexican heritage and styled their contemporary street theater after Teatro Campesino, which had been used by Cesar Chavez and Luis Valdes. Now secular and focused on current events, these street and political theaters drew upon a long tradition of religious theater in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Earlier in the 1940s, Mexican immigrant Angelina Moreno Rico had brought a traditional dance to the West Side of Chicago to encourage young Mexican-American children to look with pride on their traditions. In the context of the 1970s, Martinez and Saucedo explored their identities as women, as Latinas, and as Americans. As in earlier periods of immigration, they coalesced with other women of their ethnic background and developed organizations of self-help and social outreach.

Immigrants to the city in the last part of the twentieth century continued to create opportunity for themselves by utilizing education as the major source of social mobility. The biographies of Rico, Martinez and Saucedo illustrate how significant was the role of gender in this pattern of socialization and adaptation to American society. They also show that women had important roles in maintaining traditional cultures. Through the process of education, women trained themselves and returned to their own communities to develop ways to live in urban settings that promoted the well-being of the next generation.

Just as Catholic women religious (teaching sisters in parochial schools and settlements) had forged structures of education designed to foster balance between assimilative and autonomous goals for immigrants and their children Mexican women found ways within their own traditions to accomplish similar agendas. In the process women achieved economic autonomy for themselves and established new pathways for female social mobility.

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