Pick Up That Slack

“The tradition of the mutual aid society dates all the way back to the earliest days of the Mexican colonies in Indiana Harbor and Gary, Indiana.”

Historian Emiliano Aguilar, doctoral student Northwestern University

Transcript for Pick Up That Slack

TITLE CARD: In 1956, two groups, the Benito Juarez Society and the Cuauhtemoc Society, merged to form the UBM, the Unión Benéfica Mexicana.

So the UBM is one of the longest running mutualistas, mutual aid societies, in the state. And really this tradition of the mutual aid society dates all the way back to the earliest days of the colony in Indiana Harbor and Gary. Before the Depression, at its height, there are a dozen mutualistas across the county. Membership fees range from a dollar to two dollars for the workers, funding injured steelworkers, workers injured at the railroad, helping pay and cover their families’ needs and expenses while they are laid-out from their injury. Although scholars have noted that industrialists do create some services, right, creating work, creating neighborhoods, building neighborhoods for their employees—the benevolence, you know, between workers’ care, general everyday life and the industry really they don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s not on the table or an issue for them. And the mutualistas really pick up that slack.

Outside of providing these benefits for their sick and injured, they’re also a way to remember home. The mutual aid societies work with movie theaters to present Spanish-language films. Some of them help create newspapers to keep the community informed. One group becomes instrumental with working with St. Anthony’s Church in East Chicago to create one of the first Mexican parishes in the region. They recognize that there’s really no Sunday service for them. There’s no service in Spanish. Some members start going to St. Anthony’s in East Chicago. It was an Italian parish whose reverend, Octavio Zavatta, spoke Spanish. He starts to get to know a lot of the higher, more elite members, and with them, recognize that there’s this gap and something needs to be done. And they bring in a priest from Kansas City who had just helped establish a church. How is it that Kansas City has a Mexican parish and we don’t?” And they go about organizing and starting to collect funds. They gather donations: Inland Steel, Youngstown Tube, and Atlas Cement all provide construction materials for the church that’s finally erected in 1927 after this—very brief when you consider it—two-year fundraising period.

Our Lady of Guadalupe really becomes a focal point, too, for a lot of movements within the Latinx community over the twentieth century after its construction. After World War II, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church becomes the meeting spot for the Latin American Veterans Association. Frederick Maravilla recalls a friend of the family, an Anglo friend of the family, telling them to drop Latino American from the title and just say that they’re American Veterans Association. They don’t do that. They stick with their identity. That want it to be known that, no, they are Latin American, both Mexican and Puerto Rican in this case, and they had served in World War II valiantly for democracy abroad and now they’ve organized for democracy at home. Their newsletter, The Scuttlebutt, carries ads that support not only Truman, but Eisenhower. And members of the organization are not only Democrats, but run on Republican tickets. Elmo Gonzalez, who ran for Sixth District in East Chicago on the Republican ticket, no less. From this World War II generation, Joseph Maravilla becomes the first ever elected Latino in the state’s history in 1958 for East Chicago school board. The one year it had an elected school board up until very recently.

The Concerned Latins Organization also met at Our Lady of Guadalupe. They met at Katherine House because although it was founded by these thirty-five different neighborhood organizations, they really wanted to stress that it’s not just for those thirty-five groups; this is a neighborhood and community endeavor. So by meeting at places like Our Lady of Guadalupe, like the Katherine House, or other churches across the city and schools, they were hoping to bring in more of the community and really make it known that although there might be fifty of them or so at a meeting, that those fifty were trying to be representative of a broader, wider community.

The Mexican and Puerto Rican communities still both celebrate Independence Day parades and have, you know, Puerto Rican Day parade and the national holidays, the Fiestas Patrias for the Mexican community, which has been going on in East Chicago for nearly a hundred years now. One of the first ones was in the 1920s. I think 1924, ’25 saw the first Mexican Independence Day parade and it’s a tradition that’s still going very strong within the community. The fact that it’s still a gathering of not just now the Mexican community in the Harbor but the Mexican community really for the county to come together every September for September 16th is, I think, one of the most enlightening and joyful legacies of the community today.

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