“The Latinx communities have been instrumental both as workers, as community members, as beacons of cultural institutions.”
Historian Emiliano Aguilar, doctoral student Northwestern University
Transcript for Not Newcomers
I think one of the most important things to know about the Latinx communities in Northwest Indiana is that these are not newcomers. This is not a new population to the area. Dating as far back as the turn of the century between the eighteenth—nineteenth and twentieth century there have been Latinos involved in the growth of turning what was once a very marshy swampland into this industrial once-powerhouse of the nation. And they have been instrumental both as workers, as community members, as beacons of cultural institutions.
So Mexican nationals can really migrate between Mexico and the United States in the turn of the century between the nineteenth and twentieth because the border at this time is not rigid. It’s not even well-demarcated. Some of the first early boundary markers that occur on the border are cairns, just piles of stones with a placard that lets you know, you know, “This side’s United States; this side’s Mexico.” The problem is, if we take into account the border between United States and Mexico as roughly, you know, nineteen hundred miles or so, you can’t then mark every stretch of the mile and so it’s very feasible to then if you are a Mexican residing in Sonora to cross into Arizona without even knowing it. Even the creation of railroads that connect cities like El Paso with Juarez in Mexico create these travel ways, these transportation avenues.
The ease of passage between the United States and Mexico is very desirable for industrialists in the Midwest as well as mine bosses, ranch bosses in the Southwest. Pretty much any capital owner can really utilize, then, this open border to bring in cheaper labor that they could pay less, they really don’t have to concern themselves with year round. They can hire them in seasonally and then just really—I don’t want to say abuse the system, but really utilize the system to create more wealth for themselves.
I guess you could say the most concrete movement of Mexicans into the region comes in 1919 during the steel strike. East Chicago and Gary, the Calumet region in general, including south Chicago, was one of the largest steel-producing regions in the United States. So a lot of eyes turned towards what would happen here. Militia was called in: state’s guard or Army. And it sort of disperses very quickly, ranging from October to November, tending to be, like, the height of the steel strike in the region. Maybe five, six hundred Mexicans and Mexican Americans are brought into the region during this two month period. Word of mouth becomes one way because there’s this broader, circular migration and these patterns of migration with Mexicans and Mexican Americans communicating with other migrant farm laborers that then there’s work in places like Detroit, in places like south Chicago, Indiana Harbor, and Gary. There’s also the use of labor agents that we sort of see as well when we talk—the Great Migration with the African American community where companies send labor agents to pool halls (places like Kansas City, Omaha, El Paso) and use them as recruiters to then bring in migrant laborers to serve whether as seasonal, as strikebreakers across the Midwest.
Frederick Maravilla remembers his father, Ignacio, telling him a story of how Ignacio and his brothers—at this point, the steel strike has gone so far, gone so long it’s starting to enter the final days of October, the beginning days of November—that his father and brothers are smuggled not by train tracks because the strikers are now blocking the train tracks, but by boat. They are sailed in from Chicago, cross Lake Michigan, straight into the Inland Steel where then the company houses them in company barracks, providing them company food to avoid them ever having to come face-to-face with the strikers.
What a Mexican worker—steelworker—allows them to do is then with this growth of unionization really take a Mexican national, try to offer them less, try to create this sort of disunion within the ranks because if they can force a union member to hold animosity towards whether it’s an ethnic European, a Mexican steelworker, an African American steelworker, it really sort of stifles any further unionization efforts. On that note as well, as a steel industrialist, the conditions that they then have to provide a lot of these nationals, foreign nationals, as steelworkers are not necessarily to par with a lot of standards. So there’s plenty of reports that note that Mexican steelworkers were living twenty-four people to an apartment and they would then just make sure they were all on different shifts.
Whether or not the Mexican nationals or Mexican Americans knew that they were breaking the strike is up to debate. Some are just told that there are these ample job opportunities. They’re not sure why they’re brought in by train, and I’m sure Ignacio Maravilla doesn’t remember why they had to boat him in. Early scholars who will talk then that the Mexican in general was one of the greatest threats to these early unionization efforts then need to also recognize that they become some of the staunchest supporters in the region. People like Miguel Arredondo who’s one of the first trustees—he’s elected, I believe, inner guard in the 30s to USW—Steel Worker Organization Committee: the SWOC. He’s one of the first local Spanish-speaking leaders who comes up during this time.
So, 1919 strike, especially in the region, really ends sort of lackluster-like in the sense that there’s not many gains for the workers and the companies really get to continue the practices well into the ’30s. In the ’30s there’s a lot of studies that have come since with the Follette report that have showed that companies like Inland and U.S. Steel were burying weapons in anticipation up until, like, the little steel strike in the 1930s. It’s sort of—I guess you can consider the 1937, ’36 little steel strike as the actual bookend to what starts in 1919 because then with 1937, we then see the growth of unionization, the Steel Workers Organization Committee becoming the USW and really strong, present, militant union becoming cemented into the region.
Hold a Conversation
Can you imagine leading a conversation about this story? Where? With whom? What kinds of questions would you pose? (See How to use the questions for reflection for one approach.) Please email your questions to us or post them in the comment box for our consideration. If you use them in an actual discussion, let us know how the conversation went.