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November 16th, 2017

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The Division Street Riots: 50 Years of Raising Latino Voices

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On June 12th, 1966, after the first ever Puerto Rican Pride Parade, Chicago Police Department Patrolman Thomas Munyon shot 20 year-old Aracelis Cruz, sparking a wave of protests that would give a voice to the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and create a lasting impact on the place of Latino voices in Chicago.

Since 1917, Puerto Ricans had been able to immigrate to the United States without restrictions, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that Puerto Rican communities began to really take root in Chicago. As is common for immigrants who settle in new cities, Puerto Rican immigrants established their own neighborhoods and communities where people could preserve their feelings of cultural connection and understanding, and support their friends and families. By the 1960s, the biggest of these communities had come together on the near west side and in Humboldt Park, especially along Division street, which is now known as Paseo Boricua or La Division.

It was on this very same street that Munyon fired at Cruz, and which gave its name to what came to be known as the Division Street Riots, 3 days of unrest during which thousands of Chicago’s Puerto Rican residents protested, 16 people were injured, and nearly 50 arrested. The Division Street Riots came at a time of great civil unrest across the United States, when people of color in cities as different as New York and Los Angeles were protesting the extremely long legacy of economic and social racial discrimination that permeated every corner of public life, including education, employment, policing, and housing.

The Division Street Riot was the “first major urban Puerto Rican riot in the history of the United States.” Chicago’s Latino communities were accustomed to discrimination, hardship, and neglect, and many say that the events of June 1966 marked a defining moment for the Latino community’s identity and efforts to organize and push back. People began protesting when police shot Cruz, and the violence escalated in response to the police bringing the entire force into the area with dogs. For many years, Chicago’s Puerto Rican residents had tried in vain to raise awareness about unfair and humiliating treatment at the hands of the police. One person was quoted in the Chicago Daily News on June 14, 1966, toward the end of the riots, saying that “[the police] treat us bad because we don’t know English –we cannot speak to them.” The Division Street Riots marked the tipping point of years of economic, political, and social disadvantage, inflamed by the racial tensions that emerged in interactions with the police.

In response to the violent demonstrations and their aftereffects, Puerto Rican community organizers began to host the first community meetings to organize around residents’ needs, for housing, for political representation, and for a voice. The community rallied in support of those who had been arrested during the riots, and new leaders arose from the community to take direct action against injustice by directly addressing poverty, employment, community involvement, political representation, and housing for the Puerto Rican community.

At Spanish Coalition for Housing, we’re proud to represent the continuing legacy of those initial steps toward combatting discrimination toward Latinos in Chicago. In the wake of the Division Street Riots, Spanish Coalition began as a coalition of groups from across Chicago, which came together to address redlining, housing discrimination, and a lack of interest from financial institutions in working with Latinos. Six years later, in 1972, Spanish Coalition for Housing was officially incorporated as a nonprofit. Though SCH has evolved over the years to meet Chicago’s changing needs, the spirit of the original coalition carries on in the agency’s name and unflagging dedication to fair housing. Today, SCH supports Latinos and other low- to moderate-income families to achieve their dreams of stable, affordable housing, with the goal of combatting the cycles of poverty, and giving Chicago’s hardworking residents heart, hope, and home.

 

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