Detroit’s Mexicantown by Rodríguez does much more than just document the Mexican immigration experience through text. The book puts a face on the story through pages of historical photographs, many of them supplied to the author by members of the community. These images, which formerly had only been seen by family members, are now shared with the entire community to create a tribute to the living legacy of the pioneers who paved the path.
As Rodríguez points out in several well-done essays, it is worth noting again that immigration has always been a part of US-American history. But the Mexicans, who came to the United States in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, did not disembark from boats at Ellis Island. Instead, they waded across a shallow river called the Rio Grande and paid a couple of dollars at a US Customs booth for what was designated as an “Alien Head Tax Receipt.”
It was clearly a much simpler era.
Rodríguez looks at why these pioneers chose to move to a far harsher climate and cope with the vagaries of a different language and lifestyle, all simply for the sake of their families.
She poses and answers the obvious question – Why settle in Detroit? The answer is similar to the reasons given by the pioneering Mexican families who also chose Toledo, Lorain, Cleveland, and Chicago as well as to the reply one would receive from so many other ethnic groups.
Jobs, jobs, jobs!
It was a world filled with employment opportunities in the automobile industry. The news of Henry Ford’s offer to pay workers $5 a day had spread like wildfire on a prairie.
But there was more.
Coming from Mexico, a land where droughts were frequent, the vastness of the Great Lakes held even greater appeal.
And by choosing Detroit, these immigrants, mainly from central and northern Mexico, knew they could avoid the blatant racial discrimination rampant in the US-American southwest.
Rodríguez tells how the first Mexican-owned stores, mainly those for making Mexican food, congregated in the area originally known as “La Bagley.” It wasn’t until years later that the designation of Mexicantown was applied to southwest Detroit, in an area adjacent to the bridge connecting the United States and Canada. .
By the 1930s, there were Mexican restaurants flourishing in Corktown, the area of mainly wooden working-man’s houses built by the wave of Irish immigrants who had settled in Detroit—that area has since vastly expanded.
Other restaurants could be found on Porter Street, Michigan Avenue, and, of course, Bagley. Indeed, by the mid-1930s, there were 35 Mexican-owned businesses on Bagley and on Michigan Avenue. The first of the tortilla factories opened in the 1940s.
Today, as Rodríguez proudly points out, there are more than 1,000 Latino-owned businesses within a three-mile radius of Mexicantown. That figure includes 45 restaurants.
Having grown up a few short blocks down Michigan Avenue, this reviewer fondly remembers the old Baker Street Trolley which ran from downtown Detroit out West Vernor Highway all the way to the Ford Rouge Plant.
There were also three GM plants in southwest Detroit, and workers could easily walk to and from work if they chose. Alas, these plants have long since been closed in the name of progress and so-called corporate efficiency.
Rodríguez well documents the onset of US-American involvement in World War II and tells – mainly in vintage photographs – how the Mexican-American community, which has always valued patriotism and loyalty, responded to the challenge.
But the Mexicantown area was dealt a major blow when large areas were bulldozed in order to make way for the construction of the I-75 freeway.
Also devastating to the community was the decision by the Archdiocese of Detroit to begin merging many of the area’s Catholic schools.
But the sheer stamina of the Mexican community overcame these setbacks and not only survived, but thrived. Originally nurtured by the Southwest Detroit Business Association and later by the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation, Mexicantown became a destination site. Indeed, it was the only part of the city of Detroit that grew in the 1990s.
It is worth noting that while many other Detroit ethnic groups fled the city to settle in the suburban enclaves of Oakland and Macomb counties, for the most part, the Mexican community has remained stable in southwest Detroit.
Other Latinos contribute to the growth of Mexicantown
And while the area is called Mexicantown, there were many other Latinos from other Latin countries that helped this large barrio grow and prosper. Among the many success stories Rodríguez tells is that of the Hernández family, who own and operate both the Mexicantown Bakery and Armando’s Restaurant.
In 1991, Mexicantown Bakery was developed by Omar Hernández, who emigrated from Cuba at the age of 3; he restored the building at its current location on West Vernor Hwy and believed a bakery was needed in the area, having learned his baking skills from his father, Nicasio, who had a bakery in the 1970s and 1980s two blocks away, called West Vernor Bakery.
The Hernández family purchased Armando’s in 1986 from Armando Galán, who opened his restaurant in the late 1960s. [Armando’s son now owns and operates Los Galanes Restauran on Bagley Street.]
Although there is a great emphasis upon the economic aspects of the Mexicantown success story, Rodríguez does not overlook the other vital aspects of the community.
She pays a well-deserved tribute to the beloved Father Clement Kern of Most Holy Trinity Church on Porter and Sixth Streets. It was Father Kern who helped pioneer Spanish-speaking masses in Detroit.
The first church that was built by the pioneer Mexican families in Detroit was the ill-fated Our Lady of Guadalupe, which opened in 1923 but closed in 1936.
There is an absolutely wonderful photograph showing the great muralist Diego Rivera with Frida Kahlo and the legendary architect Albert Kahn in which the caption all-too-briefly recounts how Rivera and Kahlo once attended a baptismal in nearby Toledo. That photograph, along with so many other iconic vintage images, was loaned to the author for this book by Sylvia Salmon Ross.
Born and raised in Detroit, Rodríguez was president of the Mexicantown Community Development Association, and is the perfect person to have compiled and authored this worthwhile history.
Detroit’s Mexicantown is published by Arcadia Publishing, known for their local and regional history books. Priced at $21.99, it would make a wonderful Christmas gift for anyone with memories of the area. It is available at local retailers in Detroit, online bookstores, and through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling (888) 313-2665.