A Grounded Identidad

A 1956 photograph of the Rios Brothers from Professor Merida Rua's book A Grounded Identidad

Oscar Rios (left) and his brother William are dressed to the nines in this 1956 photograph. Puerto Ricans often confounded the rigid black-white-only racial order of Chicago. Members of the Rios family shared stories of how each negotiated conceptions of race and space, citizenship and belonging.

As a young girl in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Professor Merida Rua took “field trips” every Sunday after church to study her family’s history. Her father steered their Buick through the struggling neighborhoods of his 1950s childhood to the “places of his aspirations”—the skyline of Lake Shore Drive and the imposing walls of the University of Chicago. Rua and her mother, two sisters and grandmother listened, rapt, to his stories, which spoke to the larger Puerto Rican experience in Chicago.

Rua, associate professor of Latina/o studies and chair of American studies, returned to her home city as an academic researcher to explore the impact of Puerto Rican migration on Chicago and the communities in which they lived and worked. In her book A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborhoods (Oxford University Press, 2012) Rua blends history and ethnography to tell the story of how a post-war migration of a small number of recruited household workers and laborers grew into the third-largest Puerto Rican population in the continental U.S. Along the way they built strong communities that were challenged by economic struggle, job discrimination, and the upheaval of urban renewal and the tumultuous 1960s. “My work,” she says, “focuses on neighborhoods people have lost.”

Her search to reclaim their stories took Rua to Chicago’s first Puerto Rican-owned funeral home, which she lived above in an apartment while conducting her research. Listening to family and friends of the deceased tell stories at wakes and services, she discovered a novel lens through which to view the history of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and the neighborhoods they remembered. The first wave of Puerto Rican migrants to the city found themselves in a unique position as outsiders in the country of their citizenship and struggling for fair treatment in employment, housing, and education. But the stories Rua heard in the funeral home were a testament to the pride in what Puerto Ricans had achieved in Chicago and a deep attachment to the neighborhoods that sustained them over the decades.

“They were hopeful stories of resiliency and strong connection to community despite obstacles and struggles” Rua says.

Rua is sharing her research as part of the weekly Faculty Lecture Series, which continues through March 14. See the complete schedule here.