Chicago Católico with Dr. Deborah Kanter

by Angelina Persaud, Staff Writer

In honor of Hispanic heritage month, widely acclaimed author and professor emerita Deborah Kanter P.h.D led a virtual presentation on Mexican immigration and its profound impact on Chicago’s Roman Catholic parishes. The event was co-sponsored by multiple organizations including the religious studies department, the Manhattan College Diversity Council and Campus Ministry and Social Action. 

Kanter is an emerita professor of history at Albion College in Michigan. She lived and worked in Mexico for over four years and was inspired by the community and culture of the country. 

Particularly, Kanter was influenced by the religious traditions of the people and how it translated into everyday life. She is the author of “Hijos del Pueblo: Gender, Family, and Community in Rural Mexico, 1730–1850” and recently has additionally published “Chicago Católico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican.” 

Her presentation to MC students and faculty included her passion for explaining the origins of Mexican immigration in Catholic communities in Chicago. She emphasized the robust impact immigration has had on the culture of national dioceses and how it has inflicted change in local communities.

“During the years that I was doing research in Mexico, I’d come back to Chicago to see family and to see friends,” Kanter said. “And every time I would come back, it was like another neighborhood had transitioned. Another neighborhood had become Mexican.” 

She explained that the infusion of Mexican culture into Chicago’s neighborhoods began in the late 1910s but didn’t gain momentum until the late 1980s with a rapid growth of Mexican communities. 

Kanter’s most recent book, “Chicago Católico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican” was published in 2020. 

Kanter’s research included investigating the growth of the Mexican population in the Pilsen area, which included the construction of multiple Mexican parishes in a short manner of time. 

“I learned that a parish is not just a church. It’s not just attending mass on Sunday, I learned that it was truly a moving community,” Kanter said. “And back in the days when people lived very close to their parents, these parishes were really 24/7 kinds of places where laypeople and sisters and priests interacted.”

Her book introduces the concept of community building through faith when people unite over common traditions that represent their culture and spirit. 

“The churches in Chicago were places to speak Spanish, they were places to get job leads, they were places to reminisce about Mexico,” Kanter said. “At the same time, these parishes had an Americanizing influence on Mexican members. Men and women took part in regular devotions and parish activities in ways quite similar to how most Italians and Irish Catholics did elsewhere in the city.”

The community created through these parishes continued to flourish throughout the century due to the connection immigrant parents had with their children.

“For children, I found the parents acted as a glue that connected immigrant parents and their U.S. children in this social space,” Kanter said. 

At the core of Kanter’s research was studying the impact these communities had on the formation of the cultural identity of immigrants in Chicago. 

“This Mexican church anchored the community and its children grew up with a positive grounding in Mexican and U.S. Catholic traditions,” Kanter said. “This experience would manifest itself as [thousands] of Mexican origin people entered new neighborhoods.”

Liam Moore, a freshman exercise science major, explained why he felt religious integration is an important factor in fostering diversity and community after hearing about Kanter’s work. 

“I think it’s important, especially for young adults coming from dominant cultures [and] communities, to understand the struggles that small [and] new populations have to endure in order to achieve desired outcomes or make change within a larger community,” Moore said. 

He also echoed a shared sentiment with Kanter about the importance of individual identity rooted in a strong sense of culture. 

“I think it’s important to share everyone’s voice and opinion,” Moore said. “Giving individuals meaning within a greater community provides the individual with an identity and place of belonging.”

Aurora Shahu, a freshman undecided major, shared her thoughts on the importance of inclusivity and religious diversity in communities. 

“We have to allow ourselves to understand other faiths, cultures, and traditions,” Shahu said. “This understanding will lead to acceptance and normalization. People need to see the importance of cultural identity in order to create better relationships, prevent ignorance, and discrimination.” 

However, the once vibrant religious community in Pilsen has dwindled over the years with the closure of multiple parishes. It has led many Mexican Americans to feel displaced and striving to strengthen their connection with their cultural identity. 

“Pilsen once upon a time had 13 parishes 10 years ago, there were seven parishes in Pilsen at one point, now there are three full parishes that exist today,” Kanter said. 

Her work sheds light on the growing diversity of Chicago while simultaneously addressing the need for inclusivity and appreciation of cultural identities and traditions in communities.