Hundreds celebrate Mexican Independence Day Downtown Chicago despite the city’s efforts to close traffic to Downtown on Sept. 16, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Some city officials want an organized event for Mexican Independence Day to avoid traffic and confusing street closings, as Downtown car caravans and large gatherings have become a de-facto tradition for the city’s Mexican community.

In the past few years years, car caravans have gathered Downtown and on DuSable Lake Shore Drive to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16. The holiday commemorates Mexico’s independence from Spain following an 11-year war that ended in 1821.

Revelers were out in full force to celebrate the holiday again this year. Fireworks, horns, cheers and music echoed through Downtown for hours Friday and Saturday.

After initially saying the city would not close down streets to prevent Downtown logjams, city officials implemented last-minute closures anyway, shutting out people who didn’t live or work in the area.

Some people are now calling for a city-sanctioned event to mark Mexican Independence Day to avoid the chaos of last-minute logistical changes and prevent moves that exclude neighbors from accessing the heart of the city, they said.

RELATED: City’s Last-Minute Street Closures Didn’t Stop Mexican Independence Day Celebrations Downtown

Hundreds celebrate Mexican Independence Day near the Chicago Theatre Downtown despite the city’s efforts to close traffic to Downtown on Sept. 16, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), one of the city’s Mexican-American alderpeople, said he thought it made “absolute sense” to plan an official event Downtown.

Ahead of the celebrations, the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications said no street closures were planned for the weekend, but “traffic may be diverted to control traffic flow if needed.”

Street closures went into effect with little warning by Friday evening. Downtown streets were closed as car caravan traffic snarled the Loop to a halt.

And just before 7 p.m. Saturday, the department announced in a tweet it was closing the central business district again to incoming cars, blocking drivers from entering in an area bound by DuSable Lake Shore Drive, Halsted, Division and 18th Street unless they lived or worked in the area.

Of the city’s decision to close Downtown, Vasquez said: “I don’t think it was the best strategy.”

The out-of-control traffic, “happens when you don’t have a plan on the front end,” the alderman said. “As NASCAR has shown us, we can clearly make space Downtown when we want to support it.”

Vasquez condemned violent incidents that occurred over the weekend as “unacceptable,” but said “overwhelmingly” the crowds were full of people celebrating.

In fact, the weekend of Sept. 15-17, was the second this year to record no homicides.

Mayoral press secretary Ronnie Reese said in a statement the closures were enacted “only when it was deemed necessary” by the existing gridlocked traffic.

“This was done to restore traffic flow and ensure first responders and emergency vehicles could pass through the area,” he said.

Mary May, a spokesperson for the city’s emergency office, said neighbors were notified of the closures through social media, NotifyChicago and CHIBIZ alerts.

May didn’t answer questions about why a traffic or street closure plan wasn’t announced ahead of time.

Revelers celebrate Mexican Independence Day with a car caravan around Chicago’s Downtown on Sept. 15, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

ACLU: Closing Downtown Streets Sends Wrong Signal

The choice to close Downtown to non-residents and workers drew criticism on social media, with some drawing parallels to former-Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s moves to raise city’s bridges prevent people from coming Downtown during the George Floyd protests in 2020 and installing or changing curfews for young people.

RELATED: Even Police Thought Raising Chicago’s Bridges Was A Bad Idea During Unrest, Watchdog Finds

The ACLU of Illinois has been a vocal critic of the moves to raise bridges and institute curfews.

Ed Yohnka, ACLU of Illinois director of communications and public policy, told Block Club Wednesday the group is similarly concerned with the city’s choice to close off part of the city during Mexican Independence Day.

“I think one of the things that really strikes us is there’s an objective difference in the way in which the city treats different types of gathering in the central business district,” Yohnka said. “We had NASCAR, which created both crowds and traffic. We see that every year for Lollapalooza, the Chicago Marathon — crowds, large gatherings, large traffic problems because streets are closed. Why isn’t it the same for things like this?”

The city should be embracing the significance and contributions of Chicago’s Mexican population, rather than stifling how neighbors show their pride, Yohnka said.

“I think it’s somehow sending the signal that celebrating that heritage is dangerous, something to fear … it doesn’t feel like the right signal to send,” he said.

Hundreds celebrate Mexican Independence Day Downtown Chicago despite the city’s efforts to close traffic to Downtown on Sept. 16, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

When asked, Reese didn’t directly address whether Mayor Brandon Johnson — who criticized Lightfoot’s raising of the bridges and curfew — thought closing off Downtown streets was different.

Instead, Reese said the mayor “remains strongly committed to building bridges and not raising them.”

“The goal is to honor the tradition, the beauty and the joy of Mexican heritage, and everything that culture brings to our city, while also creating a space for residents and visitors to celebrate comfortably,” Reese said.

The city is gathering feedback around how future Mexican Independence Day celebrations could be planned, Reese said.

At an unrelated press conference Monday, Johnson said, “As far as how we can make it better, there are some ideas that are already rushing in.” 

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), whose Little Village ward is a historic port of entry for Mexican Chicagoans, also said he thinks an organized Downtown event could be “better than what’s going on now.”

Every year, the Little Village Chamber of Commerce hosts a Mexican Independence Day parade down the neighborhood’s iconic 26th Street, attracting thousands of people commemorating the holiday.

“Why not try to facilitate joy instead of policing people of a space?” the alderman said of the city’s move to close Downtown.

Block Club Chicago’s Colin Boyle contributed reporting.

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