Field Museum, U. of Illinois researchers reveal social assets of Chicago's Mexican immigrants

Research results to be released Nov. 14 at the Field Museum



Dancer at Mexican-American community festival.
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CHICAGO--A new study, several years in the making, reveals that Mexican immigrants in the Chicagoland area possess a wealth of artistic and networking assets that contribute to the social and cultural vitality of neighborhoods, organizations and institutions. In addition, their participation in cultural and artistic activities stimulates economic activity, especially in the music industry and service sector.

"Mexican immigrants help to build up the rich, vibrant life and character of our city. They make significant contributions that lead to growth, both economically and culturally," said Alaka Wali, Director of The Field Museum's Center for Cultural Understanding and Change (CCUC) and one of the primary investigators of the study, which was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation. An innovative Website showcasing the results of the research through photographs, ethnographic quotes, and interactive network diagrams will be launched during an event hosted by the CCUC Council at The Field Museum on Nov. 14, 2006.

"Arts and cultural associations play important 'brokering' roles -- second only to social service organizations -- in resource exchange networks, including exchange of clients, information, expertise, volunteers, and materials," said Noshir Contractor, Director of the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) research group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and another primary investigator of the study. "In particular, arts and cultural associations often act as liaisons, linking different types of organizations together, creating pathways among social services, community centers, arts institutions, businesses, mass media and other organizations important to facilitating access to the social, political, cultural and economic life of the city for the Mexican immigrant community."



Street scene in the Mexican-American community of Pilsen, on Chicago's West Side
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"This reinforces ethnographic evidence that arts and cultural associations are vital connection points into the social, civic, political and cultural life of Chicago," added Hank Green, a senior investigator on the SONIC team at the University of Illinois and co-author of the report with Dr. Heather McClure, research associate with the Latino Research Team at the Oregon Social Learning Center.

The study, Creative Networks: Mexican Immigrants in Chicago, has many illustrative, ethnographic examples. In 2005, Latinos Progresando, an agency in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods devoted to helping immigrants through legal services, education, advocacy and organizing, staged a production of La Victima (The Victim), a play about Mexican immigrant experiences, through Teatro Americano, a community organizing theater group. Field Museum researchers attended the play, which was performed by local residents and sold out most shows. In addition to serving as a vehicle for raising political awareness, La Victima broke through the social isolation experienced by some recent immigrants, and tried to create a bridge between immigrant parents and their children.

Another example is the Mexican cultural arts activities that sometimes take place through Centro Communitario Juan Diego, a social service organization founded by Latinas in the South Chicago community area. One such activity is the group preparation of tamales, a popular Mexican food wrapped inside a corn husk. People occasionally get together through the Center to make tamales for parties or fundraisers. Field Museum researchers noted that cultural arts such as this build community cohesion.

The three communities investigated were the West Chicago suburbs, including Aurora; South Chicago; and Pilsen/Little Village and West Corridor, Albany Park, and the North Side.

At a time when elected officials from small towns to the White House are wrestling with immigration issues, the findings of this study have important policy implications. The study makes the following policy recommendations:

    1.) Support local artists in Chicago's Mexican community, and increase access to the arts;
    2.) Support institutions--such as churches, social service organizations, and small businesses--that serve as critical networking sites for Mexican artistic and cultural practices;
    3.) Expand networking opportunities for immigrants to obtain employment training, English as a Second Language, and information on their rights and responsibilities;
    4.) Support school-based efforts to use arts and cultural education, and increase arts education and networking opportunities for teachers;
    5.) Create information-sharing mechanisms, facilitate information sharing, and strengthen support networks;
    6.) Support legislative efforts at the federal and state levels to allow undocumented students in America's junior and senior high schools to apply for legal status if they have good moral character and have lived in the United States for at least five years.

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A full account of this research will be available on the Web in English and Spanish after the results are released on November 14 at www.fieldmuseum.org/networks.

Digital photographs available:
All photographs are copyright The Field Museum
Photographer credits:
PilsenSidewalk.jpg – H. Anderson
dancer.jpg – J. Mumm
audience.jpg – S. Vega


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