It Was a Rebellion: Chicago’s Puerto Rican Community in 1966

The uprising on Division Street and the demand for change

Chicago History Museum

Participants in Division Street Rebellion (June 13, 1966) by John Tweedle for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

The Division Street Rebellion, which began on June 12, 1966, deeply affected how Puerto Ricans came to understand themselves and their place in the city of Chicago. It also forced the city to begin to grapple with how and where it had positioned Puerto Ricans, both physically and politically, as they migrated to Chicago in larger numbers.

Inland Steel workers (c. 1950) by Stephen Deutch, photographerChicago History Museum

In the 1940s and ’50s, the US transformed the territory of Puerto Rico’s economy for the benefit of US corporations. This led to mass unemployment, forcing Puerto Ricans to leave the island. Many headed for cities like New York and Chicago in search of better opportunities. Puerto Ricans had been granted US citizenship in 1917, after the US forcefully took control of the island during the 1898 Spanish-American war.

However, although Puerto Ricans could move freely between the island and the mainland, they were—and still are—disenfranchised on the national level. In Chicago, they settled predominantly in neighborhoods on the Near North Side and Near West Side. At the time, those community areas were affordable, close to industrial jobs, and were multiracial in makeup. However, Puerto Ricans were often met with racist attitudes from neighborhood residents, some of them migrants or immigrants themselves.

The Carl Sandburg Village apartments under construction (November 28, 1962) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

In 1959, the Chicago Plan Commission (CPC) mapped out a plan to revitalize and improve the socioeconomic profile of the Near North Side. The CPC plan designated the Near North areas with large numbers of Puerto Ricans, Black people, and poor white  people from Appalachia as blighted zones in need of "renewal." Rather than providing support for these communities, such investments were for the benefit of wealthier, white residents.

Due to such development plans, by the 1960s, Puerto Ricans were forced to relocate to Humbolt Park on the Northwest Side in larger numbers, where the housing stock was poor, racist hiring practices kept unemployment rates high, white youth gangs violently  opposed these neighbors, and Chicago police constantly harassed them.

Graciano López and José Carlos Gómez meet with Chicago police commander (June 13, 1966) by Bob Kotalik for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

After World War I, many African Americans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans had begun to migrate to Chicago. Over time, Chicago police established a reputation for acting with impunity against these new Chicagoans. According to the historian, Lilia Fernández, in Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago, by the 1940s community workers documented that Puerto Ricans expressed being discriminated against, citing the police as a major aggressor.

The first Puerto Rican Day parade in Chicago (June 11, 1966) by Gene Pesek for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

In 1966, Mayor Richard J. Daley declared that the first week of June be known as “Puerto Rican Week.” Community leaders saw this as a gesture of inclusion and recognition of the growing Puerto Rican community of Chicago.

Overhead view of first Puerto Rican Day parade in Chicago (June 11, 1966) by Gene Pesek for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

On June 11, 1966, the first Puerto Rican Day Parade took place downtown along State Street. The event was a joyous moment with hundreds of Puerto Rican flags waving in the air in downtown Chicago. It was also historically significant, considering that from  December 10, 1898 (when US occupation of Puerto Rico began) up until 1957, just nine years earlier, the United States had made it a felony to display—or even own—the Puerto Rican flag.

Police arresting a young person during the Division Street Rebellion (June 13, 1966) by John Tweedle for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

The festivities came to a close in Humboldt Park on June 12, 1966. That evening, allegedly in response to a call about a group of men fighting, police began a foot chase of two of the suspected men. Officer Thomas Munyon shot one of the men, 20-year-old Aracelis Cruz, in the leg. Munyon claimed that Cruz drew a gun, but witnesses disputed these claims.

The effect of Munyon’s attack on Cruz ignited a Puerto Rican rebellion, not only against the police brutality in that moment but to long simmering frustrations with structural inequalities with housing, employment, and being unheard. To add insult to injury, Cruz was later arrested in the ensuing rebellion.

Onlookers and police presence during the Division Street Rebellion (June 13, 1966) by John Tweedle for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

News of the incident quickly spread, as many people were still out celebrating and local radio stations were broadcasting updates on the situation, which soon attracted people from all over the city. 

Line of police during Division Street Rebellion (June 13, 1966) by John Tweedle for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Police responded with force as they attempted to pacify the crowds. This force escalated the tension around an already fraught relationship between police and the Puerto Rican community.

Police patrol during Division Street Rebellion (June 14, 1966) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

The crowds dispersed that night, but only after heavy rainfall. They returned the following night, demanding the release of those who had been arrested, including Cruz. Police and community members continued to clash until June 15. 

Police patrol near Hoyne Avenue during Division Street Rebellion (June 13, 1966) by John Tweedle for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Hundreds of police officers patrolled the streets of Humboldt Park, often inciting the violence they were meant to prevent.

Boarded up window after Division Street Rebellion (June 1966) by John Tweedle for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Throughout the multiple days of the rebellion, Puerto Rican leaders, clergy, and community members met with city and police officials to try and end the disturbances and shed light on the root causes of the uprising. Officials were quick to dismiss conditions of unemployment, police-community relations, and inaccessible government assistance as connected to the cause of the uprising.

Puerto Rican community marches on City Hall (June 28, 1966) by Bob Kotalik for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

In the aftermath of the rebellion, the Puerto Rican community sought access to resources, including basic rights and freedoms as well as civic inclusion and respect, that white Chicago had long denied them. 

Mainstream media referred this tense situation as “the Puerto Rican problem,” which further marginalized and criminalized the Puerto Rican community. Community leaders harnessed the people’s anger to push the city for solutions to structural harms  against the Puerto Rican community.

Puerto Ricans march around City Hall in Chicago (July 6, 1966) by Howard Lyon for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

In the following weeks, groups held community meetings and marched to city hall to demand more resources for the Puerto Rican community. Juan Diaz, director of the Latin American Boys Club, presented a list of demands to the mayor’s office to address inequities in rent control, poverty, and police brutality.

Businesses along West Division Street (June 13, 1966) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

In July, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations (CCHR) held public hearings on the matter to try to understand what had caused the uprising. Their official report in November stated that the reasons for the uprising were simply a case of cultural miscommunication. According to the CCHR, Puerto Rican immigrants just needed additional support in assimilating into American society.

The city’s continued disregard for the wellbeing of its marginalized communities is evident in the unfolding of the Division Street Rebellion. This uprising—the first by a Puerto Rican population on US soil— was an attempt, one of many, to bring real issues to the city’s attention. Instead, city officials continued with their plans to whitewash, gentrify, and displace communities of color.

Puerto Ricans march on Milwaukee Avenue (June 11, 1977) by Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum

Faced with a lack of action from city hall, community members took it upon themselves to continue to organize around and address the issues that led to the Division Street Rebellion. Organizations like the Spanish Action Committee (SACC), the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO), the Pedro Albizu Campos Center for the People’s Health, and the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center were founded in response to the rebellion.

These efforts continue to this day, and Chicago’s Puerto Rican community is known around the US for its organizing and advocacy.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture story possible:

Peter T. Alter
Elena Gonzales
Ivan Guzman
Liliana Macias
Heidi Samuelson
Esther D. Wang

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