“And they really—under the umbrella of education, housing, and employment—try to confront a lot of the discrimination and issues that the community has faced in the region.”
Historian Emiliano Aguilar, doctoral student Northwestern University
Transcript for The Concerned Latins Organization
One: The Introduction of Latinx Communities to Northwest Indiana
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.
I guess you could say the most concrete movement of Mexicans into the region comes in 1919 during the steel strike. Maybe five, six hundred Mexicans and Mexican Americans are brought into the region during this two month period. Word of mouth becomes one way. 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. The Puerto Rican community really starts to establish itself in Northwest Indiana in those post-war eras, late ’40s, early ’50s. And it is more or less a recruitment effort on behalf of places like Inland Steel who then start to purchase former hotels such as the Lincoln Hotel and the Washington Hotel to house Puerto Rican steelworkers now.
Two: Early Challenges to Coalition Building
So in union politics, with Local 1010, you would think there’s, you know, this thing of the Latino vote, right? And a lot of the early Latino steelworkers who wanted to utilize that to get office positions within the union thought so, too. More often than not, Puerto Rican steelworkers and Mexican steelworkers did not vote along the same paths. Peter Calacci, who started a unity slate in the ’50s in USW’s Local 1010 tries to form this local—this coalition between ethnic Europeans, African Americans, and Latino steelworkers. One of the problems he comes across is that Mexican and Puerto Rican steelworkers really don’t see eye-to-eye. And one of the key reasons for this, I believe, is this politics of citizenship. Whereas Puerto Rican nationals are considered citizens the moment they step on U.S. soil, it’s not the case for a lot of these Mexican steelworkers who, especially in this post-war era maybe are only a few years into the United States and some of them maybe even still having the memories of the repatriation movement.
Three: Coalition Building in the Civil Rights Era
Well into, like, the ’60s and ’70s, when the Civil Rights Movement starts there is this coalition-building that happens, the Concerned Latins Organization, which is made up of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and even a few Cubans from across Lake County. The Concerned Latins Organization really is responding to the time period and this tumultuous time of the Civil Rights Movement. For a lot of them, what instigates or sort of inspires them to action happens in 1970.
Two mothers try to register a child at Washington High School in East Chicago. There’s this phrase thrown around by the vice principal, Mitchell Barron, that, you know, they’re lazy and ignorant. And this phrase, then, becomes the hot ticket. And the mothers take it as the vice principal was referring to all Latinos as lazy and ignorant. And Barron claimed that he was referring to, you know, that they are ignorant of the policies, they couldn’t accept the student, they couldn’t register him, and this sparks an outrage. And the community really starts asking Mayor Dr. John. B. Nicosia to investigate this, to make Barron resign. He’s placed on suspension. After a month-long investigation, he’s brought back, and the community comes together. As Nicosia and his wife are returning from a dinner, they see fifty or so Latino members of the community—they’re on their yard. Signs, chanting, yelling. Before even leaving the car, he calls the cops. The cops are then sent to disperse. As he’s trying to walk his wife in, Victor Manuel Martinez, who was an editor for the bilingual newspaper Latin Times, in the community approaches him to ask him questions on this entire incident. And when a young, high school student goes to take a photograph of Manuel Martinez confronting Mayor Nicosia, Nicosia, some newspapers claim, punched the youth. He smacked the camera from him. And this inspires so many editorials in the bilingual paper about the sleeping giant, and the community that’s now outraged, and wants answers, and wants justice. Parents call in their children sick. The newspaper used to carry this headline of “The Brown Flu” or “The Spanish Flu.” That now—they’re not going to go to school until Barron resigns and Nicosia answers for this slight against the community. So Nicosia then doesn’t pursue another term. Barron stays on the school board. Washington High School and the school board of East Chicago brings in Joe Flores into administration, moving up a, you know, Spanish-speaking member of their institution to administration to sort of alleviate that. However, whether or not that works, I mean, that’s up to debate.
And the Concerned Latins Organization is made up of a lot of these early protestors. One of the mothers who tried to register that child, Irene Gonzalez, becomes the president of the organization. It’s a coalition organization that brings together roughly thirty-five neighborhood groups. They’re associated with the church, with mutualistas, with steel politics. They have a chapter for minority firemen and policemen. The wide net they cast for this coalition-building, creating a united platform really becomes simplified down to three things for the Concerned Latins Organization: education, housing, and employment. And they really—under the umbrella of those three pillars, try to confront a lot of the discrimination and issues that the community has faced in the region.
Four: Organizing Tactics
So the Concerned Latins Organization is aligned with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundations, so they really adapt this neighborhood organizing platform. And probably more akin to, like, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in the south side of Chicago or COPS in El Paso than maybe the Brown Berets or the Black Panthers. Carmelo Melendez, who was also one of the officers for their organization, another Puerto Rican member of the organization, actually—describes their tactics really as a nuisance to get a response. One of my favorite ones—and this got many of the members banned from First National Bank—is that they would then go and take in their paychecks, their checks, and demand that their deposits are made in pennies. And they’ll turn around and go to another counter and ask the teller to count up each and every penny before depositing it in to sort of then initiate this response and force the Chamber of Commerce to act, recognizing under, like, the Saul Alinsky school that politics answers to money. A lot of the places they targeted were businesses and they recognized that if they got businesses to support them, politics would have no choice but to then to start kind of listen and hear them out.
City governments were notorious for trying to stifle their voices at city council meetings. East Chicago erected a barrier, a fence between the council—the common council—and the Concerned Latins Organization. Or, well, you could say the podium in general. So they put a fence up between the two because members like Irene Gonzalez were notorious for getting in the face of city councilmen. Another tactic: when they would protest in front of school boards, the Concerned Latins Organization would bring their children. My stepfather, David Castro, his father was one of the members of the Concerned Latins Organization. He remembers his father telling him, “Ok, kids. Have fun” during the meeting, knowing that if the kids are causing a ruckus, if the kids are being annoying, the school board or the city council would have no choice but then to call on the Concerned Latins Organization, whoever the representative was, to recognize their presence just to get them out of there.
Five: CLO Gains
So along the three pillars of education, employment, and housing the Concerned Latins Organization had several relatively great gains. They created, after a very long civil court dispute, one of the first Affirmative Action hiring programs through East Chicago as a city ordinance. With housing, they were instrumental in helping develop safe and secure conditions for the Guadalupe Housing projects in the Harbor. The Concerned Latins Organization made significant gains in education with creating one of the state’s first bilingual programs in the region. They recognized that schools like Lew Wallace and Washington High School that there was a growing presence of Spanish-speaking students. However, there were no services offered for them and in many cases, they were told not to speak Spanish in school.
Six: Dissolution of the CLO
So the Industrial Areas Foundation starts to ask and push for the Concerned Latins Organization to become a multiracial coalition for the entire county. Leadership of the organization really doesn’t see their concerns align with other working class communities within the region and pushes this for a vote. The vote becomes such a problem for the Concerned Latins Organization that roughly half of the group walks out of the meeting. And that’s a degree of compromise many of these people are not willing to go for, especially with the wounds of 1970 and in some cases all the way back to 1958 where the administration dismisses the first Latino elected official from office. They’ve figured now is their time and they need to act for themselves. And it creates, unfortunately, this idea that the struggles are maybe parallel but separate struggles. So really the call for creating a working class community not just comprised of Latinos but of African Americans, of the ethnic Europeans, of working class community in general led to the death of the Concerned Latins Organization in 1979.
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