September 2, 2020
As people search for precedents in this unprecedented time, much attention has been focused on the late 1960s and the racial unrest that rocked those years. But among the uprisings that are remembered—1965’s Watts riots in Los Angeles, 1967’s unrest in Detroit and Newark, the violence in numerous cities after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968—one is little known. Chicago saw its fair share of confrontation during that period, which might explain why a 1966 riot along Division Street is forgotten, overshadowed by the West Side’s destruction in 1968, a “police riot” at the Democratic National Convention the same year, and the counterculture “days of rage” in 1969.
But there may be another reason that the Division Street riot is mostly forgotten. It didn’t involve Black Americans or protesting youth of the New Left, but rather Chicago’s growing Puerto Rican community—a segment of American society that doesn’t fit into neat, binary narratives of the ‘60s: counterculture versus establishment, Black versus white, the silent majority versus anti-war demonstrators.
The 1917 Jones Act gave Puerto Ricans citizenship in the United States; thus, they did not face any legal barriers to immigration to the mainland. But Puerto Ricans didn’t start settling in the States in large numbers until after World War II. Many women who came to Chicago were domestic workers, while men tended to find jobs in the steel industry, a legacy referenced in the steel Puerto Rican flags that today mark Division Street in Humboldt Park, a stretch known as Paseo Boricua in honor of the Puerto Rican community there.
By 1960, there were 32,000 Puerto Ricans in Chicago. Most lived in the Northwest Side’s Humboldt Park and its neighboring areas. Lincoln Park was also a Puerto Rican enclave, but by the mid-‘60s rising prices resulting from gentrification and urban renewal had driven Puerto Ricans from the neighborhood.
A milestone for Chicago’s Puerto Rican community was reached in June, 1966, with the inaugural Puerto Rican Parade taking place in the Loop. But the parade was followed by a less happy pivotal event: a three-day riot along Division Street in Humboldt Park.
The same weekend as the parade, a young Puerto Rican man named Cruz Arcelis was shot by Chicago Police patrolman Thomas Munyon on Damen Avenue just north of Division. Reports in the Chicago Tribune differed as to whether Munyon and his partner stopped to break up a fight between Arcelis and another man or if Arcelis and the other man had yelled insults at the police, but it does appear that Arcelis had a gun and was shot while the other man fled.
Munyon’s partner was transferred and then resigned in the wake of the shooting; he had been involved “in a controversial case involving two Latin-Americans” the previous year in which a judge ruled excessive force had been used, according to the Tribune.
Rioting broke out in response to the shooting and flared up again the following two nights. “In retrospect, I believe that the main cause of the riot was the invisibility of the Puerto Rican community within the city of Chicago,” a witness said in an oral history published in 1997. Another witness quoted in the same history pointed to instances of police brutality in prior years—one on the South Side in 1956 or 1957, another near Chicago and Noble around 1958 or 1959—and claimed that merchants around Humboldt Park routinely overcharged Puerto Ricans. Another participant in the history even claimed to recognize policemen encouraging the crowd to burn cars.
Clearly the shooting of Arcelis was a flashpoint. Most stores along Division between California and Damen were damaged, and many were looted. Police dogs were used against the crowd, a tactic later condemned. A Tribune reporter noted an indelible image one day: a girl standing in the street, wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag. Community leaders, including clergy, convinced police to stay out of the area and inflaming tensions, while they tried to restore the peace. They also met with Mayor Richard J. Daley and police leadership, and organized Spanish-speaking volunteers from the area to communicate between the police and residents.
“The police didn’t know anything about the Puerto Rican community,” said a witness in the oral history, seconded by another. “At that time there were only about, [sic] eight or ten Puerto Rican officers in the entire force.” As with much of the unrest in 2020, outsiders were blamed for the destruction: the Tribune reported that Daley “said that he had been told by [police and community leaders] that outsiders had caused much of the trouble, but have left the community after being rebuffed by people who live there.”
The riot highlighted issues facing Puerto Ricans in Chicago and led to the formation of numerous Puerto Rican community organizations. Public hearings were held by the city the following month, allowing residents to air problems: housing discrimination, a lack of educational opportunities, inequitable hiring in the police and fire departments. The city established an office on Division Street to connect with the community. Between policy recommendations emerging from the hearings and the work of the new community organizations, issues began to be addressed, and Puerto Ricans also began to gain political power, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
“At that point we became a community not just a collection of individuals,” opined a participant in the oral history. Another said, “Did we get everything that we deserved? No, but we made some strides. It was a gradual progression of benefits for the community.”
Obviously, not everything was immediately fixed after the riot. The breakout of a shorter but more violent riot in the area following gang shootings eleven years later proved that. But compared to the unrest that leveled Chicago’s West Side later that summer—1,200 National Guardsmen were called in and fires destroyed buildings in July 1966—the Division Street riot was both less destructive and benefited from more efforts to address the community’s concerns.
“I think we let the general population of the city of Chicago know that we were here and were going to stay,” said a participant in the oral history.