For many decades, since the early ’70s, there was a grandiose celebration for Mexican Independence Day in downtown Chicago; a majestic parade and a ceremony the night of Sept. 15 in Grant Park where people would gather with their flags and their pride to hear “El Grito,” from Mexican and city leaders.
The event commemorated the cry of the Mexican people to rise against the Spaniards. It was the heart of the celebration for the growing population in Chicago and nearby cities.
“It was a beautiful and heartfelt celebration even though there weren’t very many of us yet,” said Teresa Fraga, now the president of the Mexican Cultural Committee of Chicago.
But the celebration came to an end about 10 years ago and the reason is unclear. “But it left a huge void, especially as our community grew year after year,” Fraga said.
Now, more than one third of the city’s population is Mexican or of Mexican descent, one of the nation’s largest populations of Mexican immigrants. And over the last years that celebratory void has been filled by hundreds, if not thousands who gather downtown at night on the days leading up to Mexican Independence Day, caravanning through the streets with Mexican flags and yelling “Viva México.”
It’s a spectacle unique to Chicago for the ubiquitous celebration. But the proud waving of flags through the streets has been tainted by concerns about safety and traffic delays. Earlier this month, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration issued a warning announcing that the caravans “that create a threat to public safety will not be tolerated,” fueling many to criticize the response as lacking consideration of a decadeslong city tradition.
Caravans as a way to commemorate Mexican Independence Day have long existed in Chicago, though mostly in neighborhoods and away from downtown. Initially, people showed their pride of Mexican identity and culture by wrapping their cars with Mexican flags or driving through the streets waving flags, honking through the neighborhoods shaped by Mexican immigrants.
Families would gather on corners of major intersections or outside their homes with more flags, waiting for the celebrating cars to pass and cheer together the night before and the night of Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16.
Aside from the official parades and ceremonies, cruising with the Mexican flag “is a tradition very much rooted in our community,” said Salvador Pedroza, 65, a business and cultural leader, and member of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce.
He recalls the excitement he felt every September when Mexican flags were on rows of homes and cars in the community after he arrived in Chicago when he was 15 in 1974.
He joined the cruising by decorating his convertible at the time, taking his children with him so they could feel the same joy and pride that he felt. It was that pride, he said, which led him to become more involved in the community, and for years he helped to organize the parade in Little Village.
But in the last decade, he said, police began to close streets in Little Village and other predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhoods, prohibiting revelers from gathering and cars from cruising in the area.
It’s not clear when or why Chicago police began to close streets, Pedroza said, but he can only attribute it to safety concerns.
The street closures in the neighborhoods, combined with the presidency of Donald Trump who was criticized for anti-immigrant rhetoric and racist comments against Mexicans, drove the tradition to downtown Chicago — to the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Wacker Drive, close to Trump Tower.
People with large Mexican flags, cars blasting music, and sometimes even live bands would briefly gather, recalled Ricky Flores, a Chicagoan born to immigrant Mexican parents from Brighton Park.
“We wanted to show our pride and show that we weren’t afraid of him and other people who don’t want us and our parents here. This is our city too,” Flores said.
But the word spread fast and the number of people, which included families with children, showing up has grown each year, Flores said.
In 2019, hundreds took over downtown on the eve of Mexican Independence Day. Traffic on East Wacker Drive remained stagnant for hours as people honked car horns, danced and cheered while waving Mexican flags in a crowd that was mostly peaceful, police said at the time.
Since then, the gatherings have become massive, paralyzing traffic on Michigan Ave and DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Though they have remained mostly peaceful, authorities have raised concerns over traffic congestion blocking first responders, drag racing and drifting, and violence.
Still, many Mexican leaders in the city and those who live the tradition say that the caravans should be embraced and controlled rather than policed and criminalized. Out of hundreds of revelers, said Pedroza, only a handful may cause problems.
“But that is bound to happen in any massive celebration,” he added.
The caravans have become a symbol of Mexicans in Chicago and how they embrace and celebrate their roots and identity.
For many, the caravans evoke nostalgia. It’s a couple of days a year when people are surrounded by their “paisanos.”
It is important for those who live in the country without legal permission, said Pedroza. After all, he said, many left their native towns out of extreme necessity and established a new home in Chicago.
“But they miss it, maybe every day, and hope to one day return,” Pedroza said.
So for a little while, he said, being surrounded by the red, while and green flag, the music, and the people can make them feel less alone and hopeful. And for the children of immigrants like Flores, the caravans and other celebrations ensure that the customs and pride are not forgotten, he said.
Many other ethnic groups also partake in similar celebrations to commemorate their Independence Day. During the September festivities, people from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua join to honor their Independence Day on Sept. 15, as do Chileans on Sept. 18.
Despite its meaning and the significant presence of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in the city, attempts to organize a central celebration or find a way to control the celebrations downtown have failed, said Fraga.
Last year, Fraga, said she and several other members of the Mexican Cultural Committee of Chicago met with former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to request the city’s support to host a formal feast and a ceremony for “El Grito” at Pritzker Pavilion, but Lightfoot’s term ended and no plan was solidified.
Following the headlines of caravans taking over downtown over the past years, Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendivil, consul general of Mexico in Chicago, said she also had conversations with city officials during the Lightfoot administration seeking to work together to regulate the celebration safely.
The significance and magnitude of the Mexican community, Torres Mendivil said, must be acknowledged. This year, she collaborated with the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and the Police Department to promote a safe celebration in a PSA video.
There are no planned street closures at this time, however, residents can expect possible increased traffic within the central business district, according to Mary May, spokesperson for the OEMC.
CPD and OEMC will be working throughout the weekend to manage traffic and public safety. And “staged city assets will be in place if any activities begin to escalate.”
“We remind those participating in events to be respectful of their neighbors and communities, as well as workers at critical facilities such as hospitals. They should also be mindful of first responders and emergency vehicles that are required to pass through areas where celebrations are occurring citywide.”
Paul Callejas has been partaking in the caravans since he was a child, he said. First in Little Village and now downtown. While he understands the importance of mitigating traffic, he hopes that authorities remain aware of the tradition and let revelers celebrate freely.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
The Mexican community has grown vastly, no longer centered in Little Village, known as the Mexico of the Midwest, but throughout Chicago and nearby suburbs. Though he appreciates the parades that take place through September in different neighborhoods, “We deserve a dignified celebration downtown, in our city,” he said.
The last parade and ceremony hosted downtown by Sociedad Cívica Mexicana de Illinois, or Mexican civic society of Illinois, in collaboration with the Mexican Consulate and other organizations, took place in 2013, according to reports from HOY Chicago. The festivities ended for several reasons, but misunderstandings between entities and finances were the main ones.
Mendivil said that over the last few years, there have been efforts to get the organizations to work together to host an official and central celebration, but it hasn’t been easy. She also factored in the costs, which would require collaboration from the business sector and sponsorships.
Pedroza doesn’t lose hope that the a celebration downtown will one day happen again and that perhaps, the caravans will be somehow regulated so that the tradition can live on.
“We deserve that,” he said. “The Mexican communtiy has grown, we have the cultural and the financial power.”