In the 1950s, a growing community of Mexican immigrants leapfrogged from South Chicago into Pilsen on the Near Southwest Side. In the 1970s, the community spread just west and south into what is now called Little Village, or La Villita, and then into the suburb of Cicero.
Today, Pilsen and Little Village make up the largest Mexican-American community in the Midwest and, nationally, come in second only to East Los Angeles. While the communities are more alike than different, they are not carbon copies of each other.
Older and closer to the Loop, Pilsen is better known to outsiders. Young artists and non-Hispanic whites have been moving to the neighborhood for well over 20 years. The highly regarded Mexican Fine Arts Museum, built in 1987, and an annual Art Walk festival of galleries and showrooms draw people from throughout the city.
The political leadership of Pilsen is uniformly involved with the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), a coalition with close ties to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Pilsen’s alderman, Daniel (Danny) Solis (25th), was appointed by Daley in 1996 and is now president pro tempore of the City Council.
Previously, he headed the powerful United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), an early backer of both school reform and Daley. Commentator Juan Andrade calls him “the best politically and financially connected alderman” in the city.
The West Side Technical Center, the Lozano branch of the Chicago Public Library and the arts museum are evidence of the community’s long-standing political power.
Pilsen also has a firmly established set of social service organizations, and UNO has invested much time and energy in schools, launching, for example, its own charter school, Octavio Paz, in 1998.
Stretching west along 25th Street from Western Avenue, Little Village is more industrial in character. Bungalow’s and two-flats line residential streets, but old, shuttered factories dot 31st Street, and unused train tracks crisscross the neighborhood.
Little Village is also younger, larger and more homogeneous. “Little Village is more Mexican than Pilsen is,” says Martha De La Vega of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a lot more ethnic here.”
Lusila Ramirez, a Little Village native who works for the school district, says, “We tease [Pilsen residents] a little bit. They’re not so much into the street vendors and the loud record stores anymore. It’s getting to be a lot more like Bucktown or Wicker Park.”
Politically, Little Village is not as established or as close to City Hall. The area has both HDO members, including state Sen. Tony Muñoz and state Rep. Susana Mendoza, and independents like 22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo (Rick) Muñoz.
First elected in 1993, Muñoz was a local school council member at the now-defunct Washburne Trade School. During the late 1980’s and early 1990s, he worked for then-Ald. Jesús (Chuy) Garcia, who now is executive director of the Little Village Community Development Corp. Andrade calls Muñoz “arguably the most productive Latino alderman.”
Garcia, who moved from Pilsen to Little Village in 1969, sees the two communities pretty much as one. “What’s the difference between Pilsen and Little Village?” he asks. His answer: “Western Avenue.”