Holiday in Indiana

Crawling Their Way into Politics

Before the 1940s, prejudice and discrimination prompted Mexicans to engage in self-defense and protest. The initial actions were usually formal complaints to local authorities and boycotts of businesses. As Mexican migrants became naturalized citizens and as their U.S.-born children came of age, they started voting in local and national elections. The experiences of participating in World War II helped many Mexican Americans realize that they had to get organized to address issues of equal access to better jobs, adequate housing, and quality education. They linked with Mexican Americans in other regions, especially in the Southwest, and became participants in networks such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which had been founded in 1929, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), founded in 1968 as a result of the participation of Chicanos in the civil rights movement. A significant result of the mobilization started in the 1960s was the establishment of Chicano-and-Latino-based curricula in institutions of higher education such as Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame.

Latinos in Indiana have historically voted Democrat. They supported enthusiastically John F. Kennedy in 1960. During his campaign Viva Kennedy Clubs were organized in many states. The allegiance to the Democratic Party has been unwavering, especially among Mexican Americans who in the 2004 elections favored Kerry three to one over Bush. In fact, the few districts in Indiana carried by Kerry were those of heavy Latino concentration. Nevertheless, Latinos have been slow in reaching political office in Indiana, although some of them are being appointed to high posts. Examples of such appointments are Federico Thon, assistant to the Mayor of South Bend, and Juana Watson, Governor Daniels’s senior advisor for Latino and Immigrant Affairs. Furthermore, Latina women are playing leading roles in the state: the executive director of the Ethics Commission in Indiana and the executive director of the Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs are Latina.

Among the reasons for the slow progress in electoral politics is that neither Black nor Latino voters make up the majority in any of Indiana’s nine districts. As of 1990 only 10 Latinos were occupying elected seats at any level in the state. The city of East Chicago is the exception to the rule in that over half its population is Latino. Here there has been a history of Latinos being elected to local school boards and the City Council dating since at least 1957. More recently, George Pabey made history again in 2005 when he was elected the first Latino mayor of East Chicago. Indiana had one Latino state legislator as the Northwest Gary representative, John Aguilera, but he did not seek reelection in 2006. Instead, his seat was won by Mara Candelaria Reardon, who became the first Latina woman representative among the 150-member Indiana General Assembly. Few other success stories are known outside northwestern Indiana, but there are signs of change on the horizon, such as the 2006 election of the first Latino judge in central Indiana, Jose Salinas. Other Latinos have run for mayors and congressmen, but so far they have not been elected; Mark Leyva, for instance, has sought unsuccessfully to unseat incumbent Peter Visclosky in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District.

There are two major Latino population layers in Indiana. One layer is formed by those whose roots stretch approximately from 1990 back to the beginning of the twentieth century; and the other is made up of the people whose presence stretches from 1990 to the present. This demographic split is significant because two-thirds of Latinos are recent settlers in the state; therefore, most have no age or legal qualifications to elect or be elected to political office. Furthermore, studies have shown that Mexican migrants have one of the lowest U.S. naturalization rates, a basic requirement for participation in electoral politics. People who want to become U.S. citizens have to go through stages. Becoming a legal resident (that is, getting a green card) is a condition which many will not meet. In addition, migrants who are legal residents wait on average 8 years before becoming naturalized citizens, but Mexicans wait 11 years; and when they do it, voting is not first on their list of motivations; the majority seek citizenship to ensure equal treatment, to fight discrimination, or to establish eligibility for government programs. Among Mexicans, their strong nationalism and expectations of return to Mexico constitute serious obstacles to naturalization and political participation.

Another obstacle to political involvement is the young age of U.S.-born Latinos. About 40 percent are less than 18 years old, the minimum age to vote. It is an established fact that citizens over 55 vote in higher proportion to younger groups. Because Latinos are concentrated in the age groups under 55, it is only natural that their participation in elections be low for now. The prospects for increased participation in a few years look brighter given the number of Latino children who are born and being schooled in Indiana. Organizations like the Indiana State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Leadership Coalition are targeting high school seniors and college students in their voter registration campaigns.

There are other indicators that political participation might be broadened in the coming years. In a way, grassroots organizations are laying the groundwork. Latino activists are meeting more frequently with public officials and organizing community dialogues to discuss issues that affect the Latino community and all residents. In addition to the traditional areas of Latino presence in northwest Indiana, committed community leaders are emerging in cities such as Indianapolis, Lafayette, Evansville, Angola, Ligonier, and Warsaw. Charles Garcia, for instance, is a recognized Latino business leader who was recently elected chair of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce; he is also the first Latino to sit on the Federal Reserve Board representing Indiana. The business community has indicated that, as part of their agenda for the current decade, there is a plan to develop and elect Latino government officials.

Some of the most recent issues stirring Latinos to action include the need to address anti-immigrant legislation put forward by several legislators. Anglos and Latinos have rallied together, and a coalition was formed to distribute information and organize events. Also, a statewide Indiana Latino/Hispanic Association was created to monitor legislative measures that may adversely affect Latinos. Other groups form around specific interests, an example of this being the committee of Latino mental health professionals who want to ensure that culturally competent care be provided to people of color in the state. In the area of education, community leaders and universities are doing research and proposing policy initiatives to adequately integrate newcomers into the school system by sensitizing teachers and other school personnel to the language and sociocultural characteristics as well as the specific needs of Latino children.

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