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From Protests To Parades


June 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CHICAGO SUN-TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

First of two parts.

It was a hot Sunday 35 years ago when Puerto Ricans flexed their muscle in Humboldt Park.

Carlos Castro, then 24, remembers. He was relaxing at home when some people knocked on his apartment door. The police, they said, had just shot a man in the leg, and people were angry.

"I put my shirt on, and there was a lot of commotion with the police. All hell broke loose when police brought dogs. We said to them, `You are treating us like animals,' " Castro said.

It was June 12, 1966, Castro said, "the day we changed history."

That day and for most of the week, Puerto Ricans rioted in Humboldt Park. The scene was one enacted often in the 1960s: shootings, looting, Molotov cocktails, mass arrests--followed by efforts at conciliation.

But the rioting, coming at a time when Puerto Ricans had little political representation or clout, marked the beginning of a new era.

A portrait of that new era was on display Saturday at the annual Puerto Rican Day parade that started at Columbus and Balbo. Famous Puerto Rican boxer Felix "Tito" Trinidad was the parade grand marshal.

Among the notables in the local 150,000-member Puerto Rican community are many of their dozen elected legislators and judges, business people and civic leaders.

Prominent among them is U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a native of Puerto Rico and the first Latino congressman from Illinois. Gutierrez received national attention for his protests over the Navy bombing at Vieques, but he also carries a big stick in Chicago, where his political influence is felt in several wards.

The community he came from now has higher levels of education and income, and voting power that is recognized by Democrats and Republicans.

But demographics and neighborhood gentrification are starting to work against the Puerto Rican power base here.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Puerto Ricans in Illinois grew only 8.1 percent--from 146,059 to 157,851--while the Mexican population increased by 83.5 percent--from 623,688 to 1,144,390.

In Humboldt Park, Puerto Ricans are being driven out by booming real estate prices and property taxes, just as a generation ago they were displaced from a gentrifying Lincoln Park. They are spreading to other areas of Chicago--often northwest of Humboldt Park--and the suburbs.

Carlos Montanez is selling his grocery and liquor store at 1415 N. Ashland, which he acquired in 1978.

In the last decade, Montanez' business has declined by 50 percent because Latinos have moved out. There used to be six other Puerto Rican business owners nearby. Now he is on his own, and he said city inspectors are giving him too many tickets.

"I feel I'm being cornered, definitely," Montanez said.

Felix Padilla, an independent publisher in New York and author of Puerto Rican Chicago (University of Notre Dame Press), said economic displacement is "the new monster. Instead of racist practices to displace the people, we turn to the economy."

Montanez plans to relocate to Tampa or Orlando in Florida and possibly open a laundry there. "The properties are more affordable in Florida, and the taxes are a little bit lower," he said.

Indeed, Florida has become the home of choice to increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans, those coming from the island and some leaving Chicago and New York for the warmth, affordable housing and job opportunities. That has contributed to Chicago's declining role as a port of entry and the slowing of Puerto Rican population growth here.

Newly arriving Puerto Ricans in the Chicago area are likely to be professionals, and they often skip right over the big city and settle in the suburbs.

Ginny Ysa, for instance, a 26-year-old chemical engineer, never has lived in Chicago, choosing to go straight to the suburbs to be close to a job. Ysa works in Kankakee for Savis, a consulting company for pharmaceutical industries, and spends the weekends at home in Aurora.

But Gutierrez says the dispersion of Puerto Ricans beyond Humboldt Park won't diminish their political power here because their strength lies in union with other Latinos.

"I got elected in 1986 by the Puerto Rican constituency at their base. Today, that is no longer the case. Today, you must look within the Latino community first and then form a base there if you are going to be successful," Gutierrez said.

Monday: How Puerto Ricans have moved up and out since large numbers first came here in the 1950s.



Spain proclaimed Puerto Rico independent on Nov. 25, 1897, and a provisional Cabinet was installed on Feb. 10, 1898. But five days later, the USS Maine blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and on April 25, the United States went to war with Spain. U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico that summer, and Spain ceded it to the United States in December. In 1917, under the Jones Act, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. Luis Munoz Marin was sworn in as Puerto Rico's first elected governor in 1949, and on July 25, 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established.

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