Latinos have lived and worked in Chicago for more than 100 years and make up around 30% of the city’s population.
But a recent trip to the Chicago History Museum left a group of Latino high school students feeling omitted and overlooked.
Those students are now demanding that the museum apologize for its shortcomings and install a permanent exhibit about Latinos and their contributions to the city.
Students are also calling on the museum to help educators at Chicago Public Schools craft lesson plans that highlight Latino communities and their ties to the area.
“All the history I was taught growing up made me think we didn’t exist in Chicago back then and didn’t have a history here. Now looking back that makes me feel really upset,” said Samira Rivera, a junior at Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, an alternative high school in Pilsen.
“A child shouldn’t feel as though their culture doesn’t have a place in their city’s history.”
Rivera is one of 15 students enrolled in Anton Miglietta’s history class, “Chicago: A Struggle for Justice.”
The class at Instituto is centered around the voices and lived experiences of ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups in Chicago. The goal of the class is to empower students to think critically about their place in history and find their voice through civic engagement.
Miglietta took his class on a field trip to the Chicago History Museum in mid-September to analyze who was represented in its exhibits and who was left out.
Near the entrance of the museum, the group saw a lowrider draped with a Mexican flag. That aside, they couldn’t find anything else about the history of Latinos here.
“As we were walking through the museum, a student pulled me aside and asked if I had seen anything else about Latinx communities other than the lowrider. I said no,” Miglietta said.
Back at Instituto, Miglietta’s students decided to start a social media campaign to pressure the museum into doing a better job at addressing the history of Latinos.
Students also wrote letters to museum officials to drive their point home. “Knowing that our Latinx history is represented by a lowrider makes me question how we’re perceived by other communities and how lightly we’re considered in history,” wrote Sergio Castellanos.
The move paid off: Museum officials met with the class last week and admitted having the lowrider as a stand-alone exhibit was a mistake. Both sides agreed to a second meeting in December to discuss how the museum should move forward.
John Russick, a senior vice president at the museum, admitted that in the 20 years he’s been at the institution he can only recall one exhibit focusing on Latinos.
“We’re grateful for what the students have brought to the table,” Russick said. “When any community in Chicago feels like their story isn’t told at the museum, we appreciate them coming forward. We rely on that kind of feedback. That’s what a museum based on a community history is all about.”
Karina Valadez, one of Miglietta’s students, said she’s committed to making sure the museum keeps its promise.
“It’s more than just an exhibit,” Valadez said. “We’re tired of not seeing our history represented in textbooks. We deserve to be remembered. Right now we don’t feel part of Chicago’s history. If we don’t know who we are, how are we supposed to know how to move forward?”
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.