By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán | Latino Press
When Carmen Muñoz was faced with the Detroit Wall for the first time, she was not intimidated. Muñoz’s mother used to tell her that “if someone tells you you can’t, you will find a way.”
And so she crossed the wall.
The Detroit Wall — a wall that starts in the Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground off 8 Mile and stretches for about half a mile — was built in 1941 and it is a standing symbol of segregation in Detroit. This wall served, essentially, as a border separating blacks from whites — reminiscent, in part, to the wall proposed by President-elect Donald Trump in the Mexican border.
Michigan State University environment, geography and spatial sciences professor Joe Darden said the wall came to be as part of a plan, proposed by a white developer and approved by the Federal Housing Administration, to segregate a white community from a black neighborhood.
“Segregation was supported by everybody at that time who was white essentially — the federal government, the city of Detroit, and the real estate brokers and the apartment managers,” Darden said. “That wall came about because the federal government would only give these whites assistance if they could build housing in a place that they could guarantee will remain all white.”
These practices, prior to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, gave power to white homeowners and, in Detroit, on the other side of 8 Mile, a community just for them.
“Before 1969, blacks could not get across that wall and after 1969, blacks were allowed to cross it and they did so,” Darden said.
But this wall was only one of the many obstacles that minorities in Detroit faced before the 1968 Fair Housing Act and before segregation was opposed.
For Latinos in the city, renting or owning a house was a big problem and sometimes an impossible goal to achieve. There was discrimination against Latinos and, in some communities, they were not welcome.
Mexican immigrants started arriving in Mexicantown around the same time when the Detroit Wall was built — 1941.
Darden said Mexicans came to Michigan as agricultural workers but later transitioned to the better paid manufacturing industry.
“For a very long time, there was already a small cluster of Mexicans in the southwest section of Detroit, and, for protective reasons, they would cluster in that same particular part of Detroit,” Darden said. “They were isolated.”
Muñoz said she experienced that type of isolation and discrimination in her community.
“Across the street from our house there was a little girl my age but her mother wouldn’t let her play with me because ‘all Mexican girls carried knives in their stockings,’” Muñoz said.
She said the girl who told her this was white and the storyline that all Mexican girls carried a weapon with them was an excuse to not integrate with other neighbors, in this case, the Mexican family.
Muñoz, now 80 years old, attended St. Vincent School—now an apartment complex— with her 15 siblings. Her dad was a “rebel” and made an arrangement with the school principal to have all of his 16 children in the school. Muñoz’s father’s form of pay: all of his 16 children would clean the school every day.
“We were for a while the only Latinos and then we had two other families, a Sánchez and another Muñoz,” Muñoz said.
Her father also helped, in part, Mexicans integrate into different communities. He would buy houses and have Mexican immigrants fix them — after the fixing, he would allow them to stay in the house as long as they paid rent.
In a place where Latinos were discriminated against and no one wanted to give housing to them, Muñoz’s father helped his own community.
“My dad felt good about it because there weren’t a lot of houses for them… because they were Mexicans,” Muñoz said.
Latinos in the city and the suburbs
U.S. Census data shows that there are more Latinos in the suburbs and the city of Detroit than in the past. However, to say that the suburbs and the city are integrated might be considered a stretch — the Latino population hasn’t dramatically increased or decreased since at least 2000.
“In general the Latino community has been stable in that, despite the econ omic crisis and the mortgage crisis, we didn’t experience major loss of the Latino community per se,” said Detroit councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López.
And the suburbs follow the same stable trend.
In 2000, 1.4 percent of the population of Beverly Hills was Latino/Hispanic and, in 2010, 1.7 percent of the population identified as Latino/Hispanic; Plymouth’s 2000 census had 1.3 percent of its population as Latino/Hispanic, in comparison to 2010 1.8 percent. That same trend can be found in many other Detroit suburbs.
And for the first time, Detroiters have a council member that identifies as Latina, representing Detroit’s 6th District.
In 2013, Castañeda-López, the first Latina elected for city council took office. One of the first things she did was to establish the Detroit Immigration Task Force the city become one of the nation’s 62 Welcoming Cities.
She also worked with Mayor Mike Duggan to create the Department of Immigrant Affairs.
These programs help with the integration of immigrants and refugees into the participating cities — one of Castañeda-Lopez’s many missions as a councilwoman.
“Detroit welcomes you,” Castañeda-López said to those who may fear for their safety or rights after the presidential election. “We invite people to move to the city of Detroit where there is a little more diversity and people will find it a little bit easier to blend in despite the challenges of housing, crime and education.”