A market in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood on the West Side. The West Side has a majority Hispanic population, including a large number of Mexican immigrants. Flickr/gabrielxmichael

A closer look at the history of Mexican migration patterns reveals that it's actually a natural choice.

If you're out in Chicago's West Side at around four in the morning, you might stumble upon the most delicious, homemade tamales. Before the sun rises, workers line the street corner where the tamale cart is parked, groggily waiting their turn for their pre-morning shift fix.  

It's not a surprising sight given that Chicago houses the second largest population of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. Their report spotlights Mexican-born immigrants around the country, tracing the population's history, migration patterns and demographic trends.

Chicago and neighboring metro areas are second on the list of cities with largest number of Mexico-born immigrants. (Migration Policy Institute)

Chicago is second only to L.A. and sits above Houston, Dallas, and all other Texas metros on the list of U.S. cities with the largest Mexican-born populations.

The Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston metro areas account for about 26 percent of Mexican-born immigrants in the United States. (Migration Policy Institute)

The city might seem like an unlikely hub given how much farther away it is from the Mexican border compared to Houston or L.A. But a closer look at the history of Mexican migration to Chicago reveals that it's actually a natural choice.

The first major wave of migration was driven by political unrest in Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. Once the immigrants entered the U.S. at the Southwest border, they were connected to Chicago by rail. So it may have been far, but wasn't that hard to get there, says Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the institute.

Why did they board that train to the Midwest when they could have stayed in Austin or Dallas or L.A.?

Probably the same factors that pulled African-Americans up to Chicago from the South, Rosenblum says. At the time, Chicago was a growing industrial hub, with low-wage jobs available in industries—such as meatpacking—that struggled to attract native-born workers.

By the time subsequent waves of immigration came along, Chicago, with its "critical mass" of Mexican immigrants, was already poised to become a hub.

"You get... pathways where once you have a core of immigrants in a location, family and social network connections make that a destination for future rounds of immigration," Rosenblum says.

In fact, within Mexico, certain regions like Michoacán push migration to Chicago more than others.

Overall immigration from Mexico accelerated in the 1960s, and Chicago's share also increased during that time. By 1967, it had inched past all cities in Texas to grab the number two spot, Rosenblum says.

Mexico-born immigrants increased sharply in the 1960s. (Migration Policy Institute)

Chicago continues to have relatively immigrant-friendly policies and resources for various immigrant communities. The other possible reason that might attract Mexican immigrants to the city? A relatively lower cost of living compared to Los Angeles or New York.

Those tamales, for example, are $1 a piece.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  2. Perspective

    Untangling the Housing Shortage and Gentrification

    Untangling these related but different problems is important, because the tactics for solving one won’t work for the other.

  3. Maps

    A Comprehensive Map of American Lynchings

    The practice wasn’t limited to the South, as this new visualization of racial violence in the Jim Crow era proves.

  4. a photo of the Maryland Renaissance Festival
    Life

    The Utopian Vision That Explains Renaissance Fairs

    What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history festivals?

  5. a photo of a darkened CVS Pharmacy in downtown Sonoma, California.
    Equity

    Why the Bay Area Is Having a Massive Power Outage

    Wildfire risks have led the embattled California utility PG&E to order a preemptive electric grid shutdown, leaving more than 2 million at risk of losing power.

×