Juan P. Cueva, MD

Blue Island: Past, Present, & Future

Restoring the Mural: A model for a New Blue Island Plan?

Juan. P. Cueva, M.D.

The recent article in the FORUM “Restore the Mural; Revitalize the Community” advocated the repainting of a destroyed mural by the noted artist Ray Patlan on Olde Western Avenue. This brings awareness on how public art and the historical restoration of the public space can be used to revitalize a waning town.

Pontiac Illinois, a once moribund town, has successfully used colorful murals on walls of old buildings, along with an Auto Museum, to rejuvenate its downtown by attracting new businesses to vacant stores and thus drawing paying tourist to town.

A similar town in Ireland used black & white posters of old town scenes to cover the windows of empty stores as visitors from a nearly city flocked to view this public art.

Architecturally endowed towns in New England have replaced modern streetlamps and empty sidewalks with Victorian style lamps, benches, & planted fast-growing trees and allowed restaurants to place tables & chairs on sidewalks. The result: increase pedestrian foot traffic and patronizing of local stores.

So this not-for-profit mural restoration project is not simply about a “Mexican mural” that was destroyed under suspicious circumstances but rather a trend across the United States that uses public art, old-style street fixtures, & historical signage to beautify the public space and honor local history. This urban rejuvenation also happens to be good for local business, property values, and town tax revenues.

How wonderful it would be if Blue Island had a mural to remember and honor the Potawatomi, Miami, and Illiniwek Indians who lived here in Blue Island for hundreds of years before this town was “founded” in 1834. It would be fascinating to have a mural map of early Blue Island with its three important Indian trials that crisscrossed the town along with the depiction of the original Stony Creek River and early streets & sites. What about a mural depicting the battle between the Illiniwek and Potawatomi Indians in 1769 near Division and Des Plaines streets over the killing of Chief Pontiac?

And why not a mural for the Italian-Americans? Recalling the first Italian public servant in town Alderman Michael Guglielmucci and evoking the roots of many Blue Islanders who came from Ripacandida, Italy and the story of their beloved St. Donatus parish.

How about a mural on German-American contributions that started in the 1840’s when they supplanted the original “Yankee” settlers when our town was named Portland. A mural with a view of the four large breweries as they appeared and that earned Blue Island the moniker “Brewery Town” would be striking. The impressive German Cultural center known as Liederkranz Hall that was destroyed by the great Blue Island fire of 1896 could also be brought back to life on such a mural.

Does anyone remember Swede Town near Collins & Greenwood streets? How many Blue Islanders know where Gypsy Town was located? What about Mudville and the roots of east Blue Island and Calumet Park? Don’t Polish-Americans & their history with St. Isidore deserve recognition?

Wouldn’t a mural depicting Blue Island’s colorful crime history draw crowds? We would be reminded of the so-called good old days with images of the speakeasies, the slot machines in city hall and abundant “alky distillers” along with the well-patronized, Blue Island houses of ill-repute…

African-American Blue Islanders in town would be proud to memorialize local Black history. How many people recognize that African Americans came to Illinois with the very first European settlers? — the French Americans from 1534 to 1787. Interestingly, these Black families came before the English, Germans, or Italian immigrants to Illinois! It does appear that the famed slave orator Fredrick Douglas came to Blue Island during the Civil War. It would be worthy that newer generations learn how an housing project at 119th & Maple for Blacks was called the “Negro invasion” by Blue Islanders in 1928 and halted but led to further housing development in Robbins, Illinois; the first African-American suburb.

A mural program could also document Blue Island’s intriguing railroad history such as when 250 Federal troops came to Blue Island in 1894 to quell some 2,000 Blue Islander supporters of the Pullman strike. The railroad had first come to town with the yellow painted “Rocket” locomotive in 1848 with the Chicago & Rock Island railroad and since Blue Island was the southern   gateway to Chicago when stagecoaches & wagon traffic brought travelers from southern Illinois & points east to Chicago. Blue Island thus became the agricultural, industrial and transportation hub of southern Cook county from the 1830’s to its decline after WWII. What a fabulous mural this could adorn our town!

Undoubtedly the Rock Island railroad camp for Mexican families that stood at 123rd & Vincennes Road should be honored as it epitomizes the Hispanic contribution to building America’s railroads and national economy. Perhaps someday this camp could be reconstructed with its old boxcar homes; near the old locomotive railroad round house with the old turntable that still survives, along with some older locomotives placed in the nearby WWII cargo docks that are still standing.

All such murals could have detailed signage explaining the rich history of Blue Island and serve to draw visitors to town. We have an incredible amount of historical, architectural, and geological material to work with that is in stark contrast to the last mayor’s cynical answer to a citizen’s request with “We are not Orland Park.”

No indeed, we are not just another Chicago suburb— we have the Calumet-Saganashkee Canal, soon to be part of an ambitious Calumet Valley nature sanctuary with extensive bike & walking trails. We could also begin to restore the once abundant wetlands around Blue Island that drew migrating birds by the millions. We already have all that abandoned “grey” land that will undoubtedly never be developed for manufacturing or railroad container parking lots, as promoted by the last mayor’s flawed “Blue Island Plan”.  Restoration of native plants & wildlife has been shown to detoxify contaminated industrial sites.

No indeed, we are not just another bland, shoe-box architecture, mall laden, south suburb—we have historic buildings, a rich Native-American past, a wide riverfront that connects to Lake Michigan, and a town built by past & present Immigrant-Americans. Blue Island sits next door to metropolitan Chicago with two major expressways ready to bring visitors.

Restoring the Patlan mural in the Little Mexico neighborhood where it stood for 23 years on “Groskopf’s corner” at Western & Broadway, next to the “South Side Wine & Beer Hall” saloon & nearby Scherwitz’s horseshoeing shop, would be part of honoring all past Blue Islanders.

Pie in the Sky? —maybe, but maybe not. This is after all, part of American history—why let it fade from memory? Why not try to make our town a more desirable and prosperous place to live?

Restore the Mural;
Revitalize the Community!

History of the Mexican-American Worker by Ray Patlán, Vicente Mendoza and Jose Nario (1974 – 75)

Whitewashed Wall; Hidden History

By Laura De Los Santos

I was kindergarten age when I remember a mural being installed near my home. I passed that mural several times a day for decades. The images on that wall inspired countless conversations between grandpa and I about when he had picked cotton and beets, worked as a gandy-dancer for the railroads and how he ultimately became a welder, labor organizer and union president at Allied Steel and Conduit in Harvey, Illinois.

Curiosity and excitement filled me when we drove by and saw the men painting. The only image with which I was familiar was the Virgen de Guadalupe. The Virgen was an important part of our lives (grandma’s name was Lupe) and in the lives of our community. December 12 was a day equally as important as Christmas and Easter in my Roman-Catholic home. While I loved Easter and Christmas, December 12, was special because many people including myself wore traditional Mexican clothing made with brightly colored fabrics, ruffles, sequins and ribbons. I loved my traje de china Poblana and proudly wore it to church. After mass everyone gathered in the church basement, breaking bread alá Mexicana with chocolate, atoles, champurrado, and pan dulce.

All of the other images were new to me. “What is that picture about Grandpa?” I would ask. Grandpa never tired of telling me the same story over and over again. “Who’s that?” I would inquire. Sometimes he said he didn’t know but I think maybe he just didn’t want to taint my world with the reality that the United Farm Workers organized because workers were poisoned and abused. Maybe he didn’t know how to explain the image of a newborn infant being torn from its mother’s arms. What he did seem to know about was that men and women of Mexican origin had provided labor that helped the U.S. become a world power. We were therefore an important part of the U.S. history and economy, “and don’t you forget it, hi’ija.”

Then one day we passed the nearly completed mural and saw that buckets of paint had been thrown at the mural. Now known as a hate crime, this was probably my first awareness of acts of racism and violence. To my six year-old eyes it was like a miracle that the mural was quickly repaired. The mural was located on the corner of Olde Western Avenue and Broadway for twenty-three years.

Even though the images were fading they could still be seen into my adult years. I have since learned that the average life of a mural is about 10-12 years without retouch. It can be argued that the mural lasted so long because it was protected from the elements by being on the north side of the wall. Well, I see it as the ancestors not letting the past be forgotten.

Fast forward to 2006 when I was completing my bachelor’s degree and had managed to get into the Honors program. As part of the program requirements I had to conduct primary research to demonstrate my skills as a researcher and my competence as a writer. It was suggested to me that I select a topic that was meaningful to me. I chose to research the mural that lie beneath several coats of paint on the north side wall of 13337 South Olde Western Avenue, Blue Island, Illinois. The story that follows is the result of archival research, personal interviews, and to my surprise, a review of the literature that specifically discusses the mural of Blue Island.

In 1974, Blue Island community member and artist Jose Nario and fellow Blue Islander and President of the Latin American Advisory Council, August Sallas sought to create a mural on an exterior wall of a privately owned building that “would speak to the sizeable population of some 2000 Mexican Americans living, working and paying taxes in Blue Island.”[1]Mexican communities had emerged in Blue Island during the early Twentieth Century along several railroad lines. [2]While these settlers and generations of their descendants and compatriots helped Chicago develop into a major metropolis through their labor on railroads, in the meat packing industry and in the steel factories, their presence was largely ignored and relegated to city’s margins. The History of the Mexican-American Worker brought to light the Mexican presence and participation in Chicagoland’s and United States’ economies and histories through images of meat factory workers, railroad workers, steel workers and farm workers. The new mural would document and publicly proclaim the presence of the working class Mexican community of Blue Island.

Just a few years prior, Chicago artists and community members began a movement within the city’s African-American and Latino neighborhoods “that spread across the country and around the world…” [3] The community mural movement was a means by which groups that had been largely ignored by mainstream society could make themselves and their issues visible. [4] Murals on publicly visible exterior walls gave people a voice, making these murals “the most democratic art the United States has ever produced.” [5]

Sallas acquired the support of Illinois Steel W.A., the Illinois Labor History Society and the Illinois Arts Council and Chicago muralists Raymond Patlán and Vicente Mendoza were recruited to work with Nario.[6] Shortly after the artists began to work, painting was brought to a halt by city officials and police threatening to fine and arrest the building owner and artists. According to the city building inspector, the black eagle emblem of the United Farm Workers was an advertisement that required a permit, contingent on city approval. Recently returned from a of tour duty in Viet Nam, artist Ray Patlán had been trained to defend American ideals with his life, so without hesitation he asked the officials what they thought the mural was advertising. The city building inspector declared, “your race.”[7]

After the project failed to acquire the necessary approval, each and every member of city hall was brought to federal civil court in their official capacity, and as individuals, by August Sallas, the Illinois Labor Historical Society and artist Ray Patlán and the Chicago Chapter of the American Civil Liberty Union became involved.   The court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs became a nationally recognized precedent setting decision reaffirming artists’ civil rights. The ACLU considered this case a “precedent setting decision upon which muralists freedom hinges, now sanctioned in the mural’s completion.”[8], [9]

I got an “A” on my paper and graduated in 2007, however, my “obsession” (my husband’s words) with the mural did not stop there. I had come to know many of the artists that were involved in the mural in some aspect, especially Ray Patlán. Most of these artists had become internationally known for their craft. Throughout the years Ray would let me know that he had been contacted by this person or that person in regards to the mural. Sometimes these people reached out to me, sometimes not. On several occasions he asked me to follow up with someone. I obliged him out of my respect.

While I still wanted badly to see a new mural installed, by the time I was in graduate school I realized I needed to move on when I was presenting this work at a national conference being held in Seattle, Washington.   I ran into the professor with whom I had begun this project during my undergraduate studies. She congratulated me for winning the scholarship that paid for me to attend the conference but then proceeded to tell me that I had become a bore and needed to find a new topic. So, I moved on. Thanks professor.

However, as Al Pacino eloquently stated in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” In May 2016 Ray Patlán called to tell me about a group of guys from Blue Island who were organizing to restore the mural. He had them call me and at Ray’s urging I met with Alderman Jairo Frausto. I have since been working with La CAUSA to have this mural restored.

Under the umbrella of the Blue Island Arts Alliance, La CAUSA is working with several organizations and individuals at making the restoration of The History of the Mexican-American Worker a reality. Our kick-off event will be July 23 at the Blue Island Beer Company and a silent art auction will be held on August 20 at the same location.

Some of the contributing artists whose works will be for sale or auction on August 20 include:

Ray Patlán, Diana Solis, Robert Valadez, Ricardo “Naco” Gonzalez (from Blue Island; his mural can be seen on the exterior wall of Tenochtitlan), Pablo Ramirez, John P. Weber, Robert Valadez, Diana Solis, Milton Rogovin, Mark Rogovin and Marcos Raya and the list is growing. We hope that you’ll help La Causa by donating or purchasing artworks, making monetary donations or by attending our events.

Blue Island Beer Company

13357 South Olde Western Avenue

Blue Island, Illinois 60406

(708) 954 – 8085

[1] Victor A. Sorell, “Barrio Murals in Chicago: Painting the Hispanic-American Experience on Our Community Walls,” Revista Chicano-Riqueña Vol. 4 Issue 4 (October 1976), 50-72: 55.

[2] Harry A. Jebsen, “Blue Island Illinois: The History of a Working Class Suburb.” (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 1971), Anita E. “Mexicans in Chicago” (master’s thesis, University of Chicago, 1928), Paul S. Taylor, “Mexican Labor in the United States; Chicago and the Calumet Region.” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1931).

[3] Illinois State Museum Society. Healing Walls; Murals & Community, A Chicago History. CD-ROM, 1996.

[4] Eva Cockcroft, James Cockcroft and John Pitman Weber, Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press) 1977 and 1998.

[5] David Conrad “Community Murals as Democratic Art and Education, “Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 29 No. 1 (Spring 1995) 98-102: 98.

[6] Sorell 1976:56.

[7] Personal interview by Laura De Los Santos with Ray Patlán conducted August 6, 2006.

[8] Memorandum Opinion and Judgment Order, Latin American Advisory Council, et. al., Plaintiffs vs. Richard W. Withers, et. al., Defendants, No. 74 C 2717. U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, November 22, 1974.

9 Alan W. Barnett, Community Murals; The People’s Art (Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press 1984), 432.

For additional sources on the mural see:

Davalos, Karen Mary. Exhibiting Mestizaje: Mexican (American) Museums in the Diaspora. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001: 70.

Kanellos, Nicolás ed. Reference Library of Hispanic America: The Hispanic American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1995: 542 – 543.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 13, 1974.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 15, 1974.

Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1974.

Blue Island Sun-Standard, September 20, 1974.

 

Are You An Early Blue Island Family?

Were your parents, grandparents or relatives pioneers who helped built Blue Island? Preserve your family history and record your family’s contribution to Blue Island.

Whether you have Italian, Mexican, Polish or other ethnic or racial heritage, your folks can be remembered as part of the recorded history of Blue Island.

A Blue Island lay historian member of the Blue Island Historical Society and a senior native Blue Islander, as well as a published author is collecting stories, family histories and copies of photos and documents to preserve for future generations. We also are looking for interviewers, collaborators, and teachers to expand this project.

Our Blue Island Family Questionnaire will help you organize and record your family history in Blue Island. It will be available on the FORUM website (info@blueislandforum.org) and we hope you will share a copy with us. For more information email us at blueislandhistory@att.net or call Minnie for Spanish speakers 219-922-1474 or John for English at 708-293-1206.

Blue Island Family History Project


Blue Island, Past, Present & Future:  Indian Origins of Blue Island

Juan P. Cueva, MD, ©2013

The settlement of Blue Island began hundreds of years ago as a Native American Indian community rather than in 1834 when the first known white man built a log cabin near today’s First Lutheran Church. The North American continent, from uppermost Canada to lower Mexico, was a borderless, continuous, conglomeration of Native American nations with complex cultures that developed over 30,000 years. America did not begin in 1492 with the Spanish-Italian explorer Columbus.

The Illinois country, as it was once called, had a rich historical past before 1776when French, Spanish and English conquistadores came, conquered, and claimed all of the Americas for European colonization. Blue Island had well-established Indian settlements and three important Indian trails crisscrossed our town; the Illini Trail, the Portage Trail, and the or Vincennes Trail. Portions of the Vincennes Road became the Wabash Road, later the Blue Island Road, and in the 1840’s the State Road, afterward named Western Avenue and later also part of Illinois Highway 1 with subsequent incorporations into the Dixie Highway of the1920’s.

Blue Island is located within the Calumet, an area of northeastern Illinois and northwest Indiana, from Heghwisch in Chicago to La Porte in Indiana and was home to important Indian villages up to the American Civil War when Native Americans were expelled by the federal and Illinois government. The first known Blue Islanders appear to be consisted of Illiniwek who inhabited the Calumet before the final Blue Island Indians tribes of the Miami and then the Potawatomie. Illinois Indians traveled by foot to the plentiful fishing and hunting grounds of the Blue Island, Calumet and Kankakee marshlands. Horses did not come to the Illinois Indians until the 1770’s, from Mexico where the Spanish had introduced them in the 1490’s. Of course, Illinois Indians did not live in tepees, but in round, domed wigwams.

Blue Island and the Calumet sit on the extreme southwest corner of the Great Lakes region, or St. Lawrence Valley—our geologic home, with its Niagara bedrock of white dolomite deposits created 200 million years ago from ancient marine life when all of North America was under the sea. The Blue Island was an important high ground above the surrounding swamps and wetlands that formed a natural path for animals and humans within the Calumet; which is a 60 mile long bowl shaped strip of land immediately south of Lake Michigan in northeastern Illinois and northwest Indiana.

The “Blue Island” was formed 13,000 years ago by glacier leftovers during the last wave of the Ice Age known as the Wisconsin ice sheet. The many slopes, ridges or bluffs that are still apparent today are remains of ancient beaches or shorelines that formed when the Blue Island was completely encircled by Lake Michigan waters. Many local towns’ names reflect this geology such as Country Club Hills, Chicago Heights, Hazel Crest and Chicago Ridge.

The “Blue Island” and Heghwisch, where the Calumet begins, are southeast of the so-called eastern continental divide (northeast of Midway Airport) which separate lands drained by the Mississippi River to the west and lands drained by the Calumets Rivers to Lake Michigan to the east.

Blue Island and the Calumet are also the geographic nexus between the woodland forest of the east, that ended around La Porte, Indiana where the east side of the Calumet begins, and the prairies of the west, where the wetlands of the Calumet end, on its west side around the Blue Island and Heghwisch. Interestingly, the Calumet today is a major link connecting the eastern to the western United States, via Interstate 80 /94.

“The Blue Island”, as opposed to the town of Blue Island that sits on the southern end of a two by six mile long hill or moraine of old glacier debris, was surrounded by wetlands of swamps and ponds when the French, the first White settlers, came to the Calumet in 1673. The top of the hill was crowned by a tangle of immense old trees, with its highest point on the south end, just south of Vermont Street, behind the Hallinan Funeral Home—standing there, on the north side of Ann Street, looking south one sees the wide, downward slope of the Blue Island Valley, that was once called the Black Slough, for its thicket of dark marsh plants. The hill then runs north, just past Beverly “Hills”, formally known as North Blue Island, to about 87th street to the Dan Ryan Forest Preserves on the northeast and to the Beverly Country Club on the northwest side of the island.

The town of Blue Island sits on only 15% of the island, Evergreen Park has about5%, Marionette Park has a sliver on the southwest side, but the majority or about 80%, of “the Blue Island” is in the city of Chicago! Thus nearly all of our town sits on “the Blue Island”, not just the neighborhood south of 127th street called “the Hill”. At both ends of this long hill were the strategically placed Indian settlements, ideal for defense, water, and food gathering.

The first Native-Americans— the truly “First Americans”, were roving, hunting, and food gathering bands of families, known as paleo-Indians (ancient Indians) that lived from 10,000 – 30,000 years ago when the million yearlong Ice Age was just ending. In Illinois, stone weapons of the Paleo-Indian dating more than 10,000 years have been found in digs of woolly mammoth remains in Fulton and Jersey Counties. Over 400 similar archeological sites are known in Illinois.

When the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago Illinois’ climate became warmer as pine and hardwood forest proliferated and the wetlands of the Calumet, including Blue Island, were formed but most of Illinois was forest. When the first Europeans, the French, came to the Illinois country in the 1630’s, about 40% was forested and it is now thought the prairies were created by yearly burning of land by the Indians. Nowadays less than 1% of Illinois has forest.

Next, paleo-Indians became archaic Indians (old Indians) or “Second Americans” that prospered from 3,000-10,000 years ago with archeological sites found in Greene County, Randolf, and Sangamon Counties. Big game such as mammoths, saber-tooth tigers and giant beavers disappeared so these Second Americans (archaic Indians) hunted smaller game and learned to trade among themselves with goods coming as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. Archaic Indians learned to grow native Illinois plants for food as they moved from a wandering people to semi-permanent village life. The earliest unearthed campsites of these archaic Indians in our state is in the Saline Valley of Illinois with excavations dating 5,000 years unearthing new types of stone tools like grooved axes as well pottery utensils.

The “Third Americans” or pre-historic Indians are regionally classified as Mississippian Indians in southern Illinois and Woodland Indians in the northern part of our state when they lived 1-3,000 years ago. Pre-historic Indians had villages with gardens of native and domesticated plants such as corn that had been imported from Mexico about 1,3000 years ago. Decorative pottery objects and figurines were made and the bow and arrow came into use. They carefully buried their dead in cemeteries of earthen mounds, some still present in our area. Over 7,000 archeological sites of these pre-historic Indians have been identified in Illinois, including Blue Island, and they tend to be concentrated along river valleys.

Pre-historic American Indians in southern Illinois created the Grand Cahokia culture that flourished between 900 A.D. and 1500 A.D. These Third Americans reached the peak of all Native American civilizations north of Mexico, with the spectacular city of Cahokia with 20,000 inhabitants and immense earth pyramids that still stand today, near Collinsville, Illinois.

The next group of Native Americans is historical Indians, or “Fourth Americans”, that in the17th and18th centuries were found living in the Illinois country by French and English conquistadors. These fourth Americans thrived from about 1,000 years ago up to the American civil war and inhabited Blue Island in successive waves by the Illiniwek, Miami and Potawatomie Tribes.

The northeastern Illinois Indians were part of the wider St. Lawrence Valley (great lakes region) group of the Algonquian speaking peoples that populated the Calumet and Chicago land area. The last Indian tribe in Blue Island and the Calumet were the Nesnabake (Potawatomie) that were present when English speakers arrived but had only been residents for about a hundred years as their traditional homeland was in Michigan.

The related Algonquian tribe of the Miami (Meemeea) was the previous residents, before the Potawatomie came in the 1690’s. The Miami were originally from Wisconsin but extensively populated the Calumet and Chicago land when they too supplanted an earlier tribe—the Illiniwek who were a loose confederation of various Indian peoples that included the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Michigamea, and other tribes. The Miami and Potawatamie had been driven out of Wisconsin, Michigan, northern Illinois and Indiana by the eastern great lakes confederacy of the Five Iroquois Nation, (Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaje). As these “Iroquois Indians” became gun-toting mercenaries of the Dutch and later English in the French-Indian war over the control of the lucrative fur trade that developed in the early colonial period of European expansion.

The more northwestern group of Illinois Indians also included the Alqonquian tribes of the Sauk (Sac) and Fox (Mesquakie), but the Ho-chunk (Winnebago) Nation were in contrast coming from Plain Indians stock— from today’s western United States and Canada and spoke their own distinct Siouan language. Many other smaller central and southern Illinois Indians, such as the Mascouten andKickapoo, were also known. One band of Kickapoo Indians that was expelled from Illinois in 1836 finally settled in Coahuila, Mexico where they still live today. Of course all these historic Indians, or Fourth Americans, are the Native Americans portrayed in today’s popular culture but we must remember the Native-American heritage of the Americas consisted of different Indian people such as Plains, Pueblo, Appalachian, Northwest Coast, as well as many from Mexico and Canada.

These Fourth Americans were the Indians that the Spanish, French, and English conquistadores found in large numbers when they “discovered America” and claimed it by “right of conquest.” Starting in 1492 when the Spanish first landed, explored and colonized the “New World”, or in the1630’s when the French came, or in the 1670’s when the English arrived.

Therefore the European- Americans ancestors of today’s Fifth Americans found well established Indian villages in the Illinois country. Native Americans in Illinois were not roaming bands of isolated Indians in the woods but part of centuries old communities in the St. Lawrence Valley, Calumet and the Blue Island. These tribes of the Algonquin Nation flourished with their worthy traditions of art, agriculture, and religion. Illinois and Blue Island are thus rich in archeological settlement sites, battlefields, and Indian trails. These historic sites need to be fully demarcated and perhaps new local ordinances passed to protect them as they will no doubt be part of Blue Island’s future development as we fully recognize the native Indian origins of Blue Islands, and America’s past.

To be continued

Blue Island, Past, Present & Future:  Indian Origins of Blue Island, Part II

By Juan P. Cueva, MD.

Once again we are honored to present a Dr. Cueva article. It will be presented in segments. Dr. Cueva has become an authority figure in our community.

The earliest documented contact of Illinois Indians by Europeans was the French Jesuit Pere Marquette & Canadian fur trapper Louis Jolliet in 1673, when they found the  Indians living southwest of Lake Michigan along the Illinois River. In Blue Island, the last Indian inhabitants were the, which means“people of the fire” but they called themselves the Nesnabek, meaning “the people” and were part of the Algonquin language kinfolk that included the Great Lakes tribes of the Ojibwas (Chippewa) and Odawas (Ottawa).

The Pottawatomie were not original to Illinois but their native Illinois Algonquin cousins, who called themselves the Illini or Illiniwek, meaning “true men”, were a loose tribal confederacy of the Peoria, Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Tamari, Moingwena, and Mitchagamie tribes. It is not known whether the Illiniwek were descendent of the ancient, Cahokian peoples or came from other areas of the U.S. However, in the 18th century they were ravished by European diseases and subject to extinction by other tribes, including the Potawatomie, Fox, and Iroquois. In 1673, the French Jesuit Marquette described the Illiniwek living in significant villages along the Illinois River and southwest of Lake Michigan so the Illiniwek probably lived in the Blue Island and the Calumet. In 1655, the Illiniwek were said to have 60 villages and the dominant tribe but around 1665 the Iroquois confederacy from the east began invading Illinois.

The Potawatomie had been forced to migrate from their Michigan homelandover a hundred year period beginning in 1650’s to Wisconsin and Northern Illinois & Indiana. The war-like Iroquois confederacy or ‘Five Nations’ from New York– the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga tribes– had acquired firearms from British and Dutch conquistadores to promote European expansion into native America.

The historical record clearly shows the Potawatomie, like the Miami Indianbefore them, lived in large numbers, in and around Blue Island and the Calumet. The Potawatomie Indians in Blue Island lived in several areas around town such as around Grove & Ann Street, Faye’s Point, Heghwisch, north Blue Island (Beverly) in the Dan Ryan Woods, as well as in larger numbers north in Chicago and south in Kankakee. Even after the “treaties” that banished the native-Americans from Illinois in the 1830’s, small groups would continue to return to Blue Island to hunt fish and visit their revered ancestral graves up to the 1860’s. Indeed, the Illinois Country was also known as “Indian Country” to the first European-Americans settlers from the early 1800’s to when they were expelled from Illinois under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1835.

In the next article we will examine these three important Indian trails in Blue Island that became colonial roads, and how they were the foundations of some of our modern roadways such as Vincennes Road, Dixie Highway, Illinois U.S. 1, the Sauk Trail and Lincoln Highway.

Many, many Indian villages have also been documented to the immediate east, between the very close St. Joseph River, Michigan area just west of Gary; to the south with numerous Indian village in the Kankakee River Valley; north in today’s Chicago where many Miami and later Potawatomie, and later many Miami Indians, lived; as well in the d west in the Des Plaines Moraine Valley.Miami related to the Illini, spoke the same Algonquin dialect, constructed their round wigwams, wore two locks of hair over their ears like the. Indeed Chicago was center Miami country and Chicago was called Fort Miami. Continual Iroquois attacks prompted migration to Maumee River and the Wabash River basin in southern Indiana, river name Miami in northwest Ohio.

In Blue Island the historical record tells of an important battle in town 1769 between the Potawatomie and Illiniwek over the death of the Ottawa Chief Pontiac, around the vicinity of Chicago & Chatham streets, near where our town was first platted and had first been named Portland, Illinois in 1835. Before the name was officially changed to Blue Island in 1872. Early chroniclers’ described Blue Island as “crisscrossed by Indian trails” and an “important Indian village” with arrowheads, axes, and human remains found in great abundance and often collected by Blue Island children in the 19th century.

Thus Blue Island was inhabited by Pottawatomie Indians in the 18th century, and very likely Miami Indians in the 17th century and probable Illiniwek Indians in the 16th century. Amazingly Illinois, the Calumet and Blue Island are rich in archeological and historic battle sites, villages, campsites, and Indian trails.

Perhaps Blue Islands archeological and historic sites need to be fully fixed and new local ordinances of protection established. As they, along with the Cal–Saga Canal zone, the Little Calumet River and remnants of the Stoney Creek River are all a unique resources that someday will be part of Blue Islands future development.

Blue Island Past, Present, and Future:  Mexicans in Blue Island: Early Roots

Mexican railroad workers during the 1930s, with the Blue Island skyline and St. Benedicts & Breweries in background.

Juan P. Cueva, M.D and Erminia Lopez Rincon, M.S 

The First Mexican families came to Blue Island in the early 1900s and mirrored similar journeys to many towns across the U.S, as Spanish speaking people migrated from the southwestern border states and Mexico. Like the last known Native-Americans of Blue Island and Calumet—the Illiniwek, Miami, and Pottawattamie Indians who had also migrated to Blue Island due to dire events.

So too, were Mexican early Americans who came from distant, but indisputable,native homelands on the North American continent. In 1541 the first Spanish speakers arrived to what would become the Central United States, when Hernando DeSoto, the first white man to “discover” the Mississippi River and the rich fertile lands of the upper Mississippi Valley, claimed this American heartland for Spain under the European notion of “right of conquest”. Spanish Speakers from Spain were undeniably the first Europeans to discover, explore, and colonize North America beginning in 1492.

Two thousand Spanish speaking troops from Mexico came to the upper Mississippi Valley in 1769 when the Spanish governor, Alejandro O’ Reilly, of New Orleans, asserted control of St. Louis and the adjoining Illinois Country of what was also called Upper Louisiana. After King Louis VI traded away French America so Spain held Louisiana, including parts of the Illinois Country, for decades in the late 18th century. In the end it was unsuccessful in its claim to the upper Mississippi Valley for lack of Spanish speaking settlements as Spain too lost interest in the American heartland.

Of course large numbers of Mexicans had already been 300 year residents of the southwest when in 1846 President James Polk invaded, occupied, and annexed a large portion of sovereign Mexico under false pretenses—today’s Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, parts of Colorado, Kansas, and Texas was conquered by military force. Over 50,000 Mexicans and 100,000 Indians became U.S citizens overnight but many lost their land to white entrepreneurs, rich farmers, and railroads from the east as they swindled Hispanics and Indians out of the best lands, ranches and mines.

Mexican “immigrants” of today are uniquely unlike European immigrants because Hispanics are people of Indian or Indian-Spanish descent whose ancestors have lived and roamed freely on the North American continent for tens of thousands of years—there were no borders before 1776. Hispanic – Americans can proudly claim the earliest colonial settlement when the Spanish town of San Miguel de Guadalupe was founded in Georgia in 1526. The oldest European-American town still in existence today is St. Augustine, Florida, established by Spain in 1565. In contrast the earliest English speaking colonist came later—Roanoke was 1585, Jamestown in1607, and Plymouth Rock in 1620.

However, Mexican colonization in Illinois only began in earnest during World War I when farmers, factory workers, and railroad workers were drafted to fight in Europe. European immigration was severely reduced by the 1917 immigration Act, however, influential farmers successfully exempted migrant workers arguing Mexicans were crucial to the plant, till, and harvest crops for the war effort. As a result, during WWI 72,000 entered legally and many more simply bypassed ports of entry.

Additionally business petitioned Secretary of Labor William Wilson who granted “unrestricted entrance” until 1921 for railroad, mining, and construction workers without having to pay $6.00 entrance tax or pass a literacy test. This open-door immigration policy also occurred during WWII and in 1942-1944 alone 118,000 Mexicans entered the US. This government sponsored immigration continued until 1965 and helps explain Hispanic immigration to Blue Island.

The immigration act of 1924 further reduced European Immigration, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe. 200,000 Mexicans legally entered Texas alone during the 1920s but subsistence wages and Jim Crow mentality drove many Texas Mexicans to migrant to labor work, especially to the better paying sugar beet work in the North. When the railroads had penetrated south Texas in the early 1900s this resulted in increased property taxes to farm consolidation, so many Mexican were forced to sell and also become migrant workers or move to the more prosperous north.

Thus Mexicans came to the U.S and Blue Island under a number of influences—not just in search of a better life. The development of the railroads in both the United States and Mexico in the 1870s was a decisive development that allowed for easy travel over great distances at a time when abundant, cheap labor was needed for the emerging railroads, agriculture, and steel making industries. Also contributing to migration north was the momentous Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 and the deadly catholic uprisings of 1926-1929 in west central Mexico, in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Jalisco, and Zacatecas—the origin of many Hispanic immigrants in the U.S.

Initially, younger, solo Mexican men came to plentiful jobs north, as they served as scouts. Upon finding a town flourishing, they brought families and friends from Mexico to towns like Blue Island. This pattern of migration was similar to German, Italian, and other Europeans that came to Blue Island in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike other immigrant groups in U.S history, Mexicans were recruited to come to this country on a truly massive scale! Agents of the railroads, agriculture, and the federal government vigorously sought Mexican workers during WWI, WWII and the post war boom years. From 1900 to 1930, one million Mexicans traveled north because of jobs, although poorly paying awaited them and in the end they help win WWI and WWII, as well as help make the United States the economic superpower of today – facts of American history is still not taught in U.S classrooms.

In 1882, the unjust, and undoubtedly unconstitutional, federal law known as the Chinese Exclusion Act barred the Chinese- Americans from the railroad and agricultural work that they had so diligently labored in California’s early growth. The need for cheap labor for the maintenance of railroad beds and tracks resulted in the use of local Mexican- American citizens from the border states and started in the early 1870s by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.

The first identified Mexican Workers in Chicago were in 1910. The first surge of Mexican migration to the city started in 1916 when Illinois railroads and steel mills began to recruit Hispanic workers from Texas. By 1918 Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana had recruited significant numbers from Texas along with their families and the mid 1920’s was the largest employer of Mexicans in the entire U.S. In 1919 Steel imported Mexican workers from Texas as scabs for the ill-fated 1919 strike.

Mexican and Mexican-Americans were ideal workers not just because they developed a reputation as hard workers who accepted unwanted jobs, that paid low wages; but, because they could be barred from joining unions, tolerated dangerous working conditions outdoors, and employers believed they could always be “sent back to Mexico” during hard times. Mexicans were considered nonwhite, non-American, and foreigners as employers argued Mexicans were “birds of passage” or “homing pigeons” that returned to Mexico yearly and so there were no risk to English speaking Americans.

Mexican immigrants had a unique ability among immigrant-Americans for circular migration, traveling back and forth from their home country. This lasted over one hundred years until recently with the militarization of the U.S- Mexico Border.

Railroads brought Mexicans to Blue Island and Chicagoland, first, from the border states, especially Texas, then from Mexico. Thanks to the railroads, the vast sugar beet farming industry came to rely on Mexican workers in the upper Midwest from the end of WWII to 1960s. Sugar consumption in the US surged from 1900 to 1960 and the main source was not sugar cranes but sugar beets which required extensive labor to plant , hoe and harvest—back breaking work that paid low wages and was shunned by most white Americans.

At the end of the harvest in November, farmers encouraged Mexicans to winter in urban areas of the U.S to the point of having railroad flyers printed in Spanish with timetables to urban areas such as Chicago. Many Mexican migrant farm workers moved to an urban job in the steel and meatpacking industries.

The railroads in the 1880s began recruiting experienced railroad workers directly from Mexico, but many soon abandoned track work for better paying jobs in agriculture, mining, and the steel industry so the railroads countered by offering free lodging in old boxcars for these, “Traqueros”. Blue Island had at least two such railroad “camps” and nearby railroad communities present in Gary, Joliet, an in Chicago with the Santa Fe railroad’s boxcar community on their 38th street yard and the Chicago and Wisconsin, Indiana R.R camp between 82nd and 83rd streets as well as in Gresham at the 91st and Halsted street yard. According to one author, East Chicago was “dotted with boxcar camps”.

Glimpse into One Family

Luis Lopez came to Blue Island in1918 and worked at the Rock Island railroad until retiring at age 75 in 1959 as a common railroad track worker and died in Blue Island in 1961. He lived with his family in the railroad community called, “El Campo” (the camp), near the old Rock Island roundhouse repair shop whose walls are now demolished, but surviving remnants of the original revolving tracks are still used by Metra locomotives. This is on Western side of the tracks, just south of the now gone Blue Island City Dump, near 123rd and Vincennes Road where passenger trains ran in great numbers until the 1950s.

Crossing to the eastern side of the tracks, where freight trains from the B&O railroad mainly ran, and still run in great numbers, was a second railroad community called, “El Rancho”. Families such as Paredez Juarez were allowed to keep chickens, pigs, and vegetable gardens on railroad property and thus the moniker, “The Ranch” which lasted until 1956.

The first Blue Island Mexican city neighborhoods grew just outside these railroad yards as Mexican families ventured into town life; still, there was resistance Blue Islanders to rent or sell them homes. When the Rock Island employee Mr. Lopez, a naturalized citizen, attempted to construct a house with his savings on Irving Avenue, white Blue Islanders unsuccessfully circulated a petition to exclude Mexicans.

The first Mexican enclaves were on Irving Avenue west of the tracks, as well as on Hoyne Street and Ashland Avenue areas in “Mudville”, now, Calumet Park on the eastside. Later Mexicans frequented so-called, Gypsy town where the gasoline farm now sits near Kedzie and 131st Street and “Little Mexico” on the Olde Western Avenue and Broadway axis.

As late 1959, the newly married daughter of Mr. Lopez, who was born in the Blue Island boxcar community in 1928, could not find an apartment to rent in town, and so bought a brand – new house in nearby, Hammond, Indiana.

Alas, things change slowly as evidence by a recent incident when a Blue Island Mexican-American Vietnam war veteran was asked, by a Blue Islander lady, if he had “papers”. In the 1970s Angie Juarez and LULAC had a bronze plaque made of honor Blue Islanders killed in Vietnam to be placed in Memorial Park but the city of Blue Island rejected the plan.

In the next chapter we will visit some early pioneer Mexican families that came after WWI and whose many descendants still live in town.