“You have a delightful mix of people starting over fresh and I think the notion was that, ‘We are Mexican. We will always be Mexican first and maybe American second.'”
Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, Multicultural Collections Coordinator, Library and Archives Division, Indiana Historical Society.
Transcript for Mexican Colonies
So, this is my mother’s side of the family. These are my great-great-grandparents and my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother immigrated to the United States in 1922. So, this might be 1923, 1924, 1925. So, this is Maria Picon Reyes, Jose Reyes and this is Maria de Jesus Reyes. And so, she met my great-grandfather, Antonio Medina, in Indiana Harbor and he was actually working in the United States in Missouri in 1917 to maybe 1923, 1924 and that’s when he came to Indiana Harbor.
There’s different colonies. And they call themselves the colonies. I don’t know if that was a prescribed notion to them, you know, “We’re kind of pioneers. We’re starting off. We’re close-knit.” So, they were living in the Hull House area in South Chicago, Irondale neighborhood, South Chicago. My dad’s mother was actually born in South Chicago and her parents came from Mexico City. And they eventually moved to Indiana Harbor as well. And then Indiana Harbor and Gary. So those were the Mexican colonies.
Starting in 1919, there was the national steel strike. Before that, you already had Mexican populations working in agriculture, in working on the railroad because that’s the transcontinental railroad, you know, that was starting in Mexico going into the United States. And that’s where my great-grandfather, Antonio Medina, started working and that’s why he was in Missouri. He was a section hand.
So, they were being recruited off of the rail lines and the fields in the United States, too, to work as strikebreakers. Northwest Indiana is dotted with – at the time, all of Lake Michigan was dotted with steel mills, primarily Inland Steel which is now ArcelorMittal. Single men came to work – they were called solos – came to work in the steel mills in East Chicago. So they were put on barges in Chicago and then literally shipped into Indiana Harbor so they just kind of went in through the back door.
So, there’s always push-and-pull factors to immigration. And so, 1910-1920 was the Mexican Revolution, which was huge. So, Mexico was independent from Spain for about one hundred years at that point, and so they were still operating in some of the ways when they were occupied by Spain and so they were shedding their colonized roots to become an independent country. And one way that they did that that started the Mexican Revolution was basically land reform – social and class warfare. You had a lot of families who owned haciendas, and haciendas for, you know, lack of interpretation, is that it’s a large plantation. They were either agricultural, mining, or livestock and some were, like, five hundred acres, some were five hundred thousand acres. And they were basically land grants from Spain that were given to Spaniards to help populate the New World, New Spain, Mexico. And so those are passed down family to family. And so, because of these, you know – in rural areas they were huge and so there was a lot of social inequality – no real chance for upward social mobility. So, your family could’ve lived for generations and died on the same hacienda. So, the Mexican Revolution was basically busting up those haciendas and changing land reform. And a lot of other things related to, you know, becoming, you know, what we know as modern-day Mexico because the constitution changes as a result of that.
So, you have a lot of solos who are coming in who are already into an already-existing immigrant population. So, there was a lot of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in Northwest Indiana. You have a lot of people coming from the counter-revolution of the Mexican Revolution—it was called the Cristero Movement—people who have worked on the natural rhythms of the hacienda, getting up in the morning, doing your work, and going to sleep at the same time, to coming to a heavily industrialized area, to making a lot more money than they probably would’ve ever imagined and also different kind of work, working in hot and, you know, modern conditions. So you see a lot of people coming into Indiana Harbor from the states of Jalisco and Guadalajara, and those were, like, middle-class families so that would be these folks.
So, in the 1920s you have this curious, fabulous mix of people from all different backgrounds: middle class, low class, all coming and mixing in the confines of Block and Pennsy. They were racially segregated into these areas. Nobody would rent to them outside of these areas. Being that this community was politically and economically weak, they began to start their own mutual aid societies, you know, helping to pay for, like, surgeries or ailments of the community really to – kind of like the community trust for the community. And then there were different social groups that came with that. You still had that, like, you know, the peasant – the haves and have-nots. So, the more educated people belonged to the Catholic Order of St. Joseph. That was, like, the more, like, literate – and they actually – some of those members there started a printing press, started a newspaper, had a library that they would share information. And then you had other societies, like the Benito Juarez – I think it’s the Benito Juarez Society where people said that they were, you know, like blissfully illiterate but, you know. But they all had shared their love for Mexico and wanting to preserve Mexican culture. So, you just have, like, a delightful mix of people starting over fresh and I think the notion was that, “We are Mexican. We will always be Mexican first and maybe American second.” But then also, you know, maybe there was some hope that they would go back once things settled down.
Source of Illustrations
Jose Reyes with Maria Picon Reyes and Maria de Jesus Reyes
Indiana Historical Society
Overall Indiana/Illinois – Mexican Colonies Map
Indiana Historical Society
Paul Schuster Taylor, Mexican Labor in the United States, 1932, Vol. 2
For additional information about the mutual aid and ethnic associations in East Chicago, including Comision Honorifica Mexicana, the Sociedad Mutualista Benito Juarez, El Circulo de Obreros Catolicos, and La Sociedad Cuauhtemoc, see: Francisco Arturo Rosales and Daniel T. Simon, “Mexican Immigrant Experience in the Urban Midwest: East Chicago, Indiana, 1919-1945.”
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