Uncategorized, arts and entertainment, food

Detroit’s Mexicantown – A Century of Latin Culture

At the dawn of the last century, Detroit began to experience a prolific boom in industry. Working-class people from across the country and beyond were drawn to the opportunity for stable, well-paying jobs on the assembly lines at the Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler facilities. Throughout the fifties, however, the auto industry began to leave Detroit – plants shut down and many workers were forced out of their jobs. Urban decay began to take ahold of the city, leaving abandoned facilities and vandalized monuments in its wake. As the city shifted into decline, small communities of immigrants which had settled there throughout the 1900s began to take over the now diminished neighborhoods throughout Detroit. One such district is the vibrant Latin-American neighborhood Mexicantown.

One of the many amazing portraits which can be seen throughout Detroit’s Mexicantown.

First known as “La Bagley”, Mexicantown began to emerge as an enclave for Latinos in the early 1920s. After a period of civil unrest and socioeconomic chaos brought forth by the Revolution of 1910, Mexicans felt compelled to escape the lingering turmoil in their home country. Detroit, with its well-paying assembly-line jobs for people with only a basic skillset, seemed like a promising alternative to the disorder in Mexico. Additionally, by immigrating as far north as Michigan, Mexicans avoided the overt and often violent discrimination of the American Southwest. With the establishment of an effective and US-connected railroad system, Mexicans began to use trains to flock to El Norte (the North).

A railroad station located in Queretaro, a city in the heart of Mexico.

In Detroit, they joined the swath of Polish, Italian, Jewish, German, and Arab immigrants who all gathered there for the same reason – the promise of stable, well-paying jobs in Detroit’s expansive industrial landscape. In the new world, these immigrants faced the challenges of an extremely different climate, a new language, and an overall faster pace of life. At first, not speaking English was a great equalizer among the diverse community which had come to settle in Detroit. This changed gradually as the young children of these immigrants began attending school and assimilating into their new culture. Some changes took longer, though, and the demand for bits of their home culture remained. A commercial district began to form around the growing needs of the Latin-American community and soon, La Bagley emerged.

By the early 1930s, a few Mexican restaurants had opened on Bagley Street in the neighborhood known as Corktown, just to the west of downtown Detroit. Throughout the decade, Mexican businesses began to emerge throughout the western neighborhoods of the city so that by the mid-1930s there were around 35 Mexican owned businesses on Bagley Street and Michigan Avenue. By the 1940s, tortilla factories, such as La Michoacana and La Jalisciense (still in operation to this day), opened in Detroit. Today, Mexicantown is home to over 1000 Latino-owned businesses.

La Jalisciense tortilla factory was one of the first in Detroit and is still in operation to this day.

The Honeybee Market was one of the first Mexican-owned grocery stores in Detroit and helped provide the Latin community with ingredients for traditional foods.

Though the first few decades of Mexicantown were a prosperous time for Detroit’s Latin community, all this began to change in the latter part of the century. In the 1960s, plans to develop a new interstate eventually led to the bisecting of the Mexican district. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to accommodate the path of I-75 and many Mexican locals sold their businesses and properties to the Michigan Department of Transportation in the ensuing construction. More ruin was to come in the 1970s when General Motors closed three of their major auto plants in southwest Detroit, substantially reducing the amount of well-paying blue-collar jobs. Though these events took their toll on many of the immigrant communities, Mexicantown and many others continued to survive throughout the Motor City.

In the years since the economic and social turmoil of the 70s and 80s, the once small Mexicantown is now one of the most thriving communities in all of Detroit. A sprawling oasis of Latin culture, the neighborhood is home to hundreds of Mexican-owned shops, bakeries, taquerias, and grocery stores – each with their own vibrantly-colored architecture and hand painted signs reminiscent of town squares throughout Mexico. Despite the toxic political climate for Latinos in the US, this neck of Detroit spells a renewed faith in cultural acceptance and a reinvigoration of the once prolific American dream for immigrants. There is hope in the story of Mexicantown and communities like it for a more prosperous, progressive future.

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politics

The Immigration Separation Dilemma

Immigration reform has been a long-standing issue for the United States. Recently, measures to counteract the climactic wave of immigrants from Central America have come under bipartisan fire for their flagrant mistreatment of those immigrating. A zero-tolerance policy which was issued by the current administration last April has led to the separation of over 2000 children from their parents, most of which are being kept in makeshift shelters under poor conditions.

Though the separation of illegally-crossing families has been a historical practice in the United States, the injustice lies in the substandard treatment of these individuals since the enactment of the latest policy.

In the past, if a family was caught illegally crossing the border and refused to voluntarily return, they would be in obstruction of the law and sent to separate detention centers – one for the minors and one for the adults. Typically, this was done for the safety of the children as most detention centers are general-purpose jails. Another reason, and one that prompts the current policy, is that separating families encourages people to voluntarily deport, which ends up saving the US government a lot of resources and expedites the immigration process for those they believe are actually in need of asylum.

This practice has not changed but due to referendums in immigration policy made by the Obama Administration, immigrants are approaching their entry differently. Whereas before, most Central American immigrants turned back after being denied entry, the Obama administration began to allow most anyone who made an asylum claim entry into the US as long as they had a friend or family to stay with. This resulted in a rise in asylum claims from immigrants caught at the border, though the validity of these claims remains to be verified.

To counteract the influx of asylum claims, the new policy by the Trump Administration has granted border patrol officers the discretion to verify or deny these claims right at the border. If the claims are verified, the immigrants can proceed under the same policies as enacted by the Obama Administration, if not, and if they crossed illegally, they are placed in a detention center while they await the verification of their asylum claim through the legal system.

Those denied a claim can abandon their journey to entry and not be put in detention centers. They are either housed in a cell until transportation back to their home country can be arranged or are allowed to turn and walk or drive back of their own accord.
Herein lies the problem. While border patrol agents are following protocol, they are doing so haphazardly. They are obstructing investigation into the living conditions of those housed in these makeshift facilities, keeping detainees indefinitely, and threatening and following through with violence, thereby dehumanizing and stripping these immigrants of their civil liberties.

Initially separating children from the adults they came with is valid – border patrol officers should determine if these children are being abused by their company, or worse yet, smuggled into the sex trade – but indefinite separation is cruel and unjust. Using this as a scare tactic to reduce illegal immigration is counterproductive and doesn’t tackle the real issue at hand – as one US senator aptly stated “this bad new policy is a reaction against a bad, old policy.” What needs to change is not how we reduce and try to control immigration (as most of the latest band of immigrants have shown they are willing to take appropriate measures to legally cross into the US), but how we tackle immigration policy.

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