The Allure of Jobs
Before Indiana in particular and the Midwest in general became known as the rust belt, or a symbol of manufacturers’ decline in the 1980s, great industrial complexes thrived in the northwest of the state, part of the Calumet region, near Chicago. This region had experienced dynamic growth since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Oil, chemical, metal, and steel industries dominated economic activity, and in the 1920s Indiana boasted over 300 automobile companies. Northwest Indiana became a magnet for migrants. Migrants from eastern and southeastern Europe predominated from the late nineteenth century until the first two decades of the twentieth century. After the earlier waves of Germans, Irish, and other northern Europeans, Slovaks, Italians, Greeks, and Poles provided the bulk of the workforce that made possible the industrial expansion. Blacks from the South migrated to the Calumet region also in hopes of employment and better living conditions.
The history of Latinos in Indiana is less than 100 years old. Until World War II, it is for the most part the history of both Mexican migrants and people of Mexican descent born in the United States. (The latter are also known as Mexican Americans or Chicanos). Mexicans came following the railroad tracks which, in addition to transportation, were one of their main sources of jobs. Employment in manufacturing became the lure for the stream of Mexicans that was to grow from a mere trickle in 1911 to a considerable volume by the late 1920s. They concentrated in the industrial towns located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. It was in cities such as Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago that they first lay down the foundations of the Latino communities.
The arrival of the first Mexicans coincided with the start of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Many of those who migrated at the beginning of the decade were escaping the economic disruption and the violence spawned by the Mexican civil war. In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, another armed conflict the Cristero Rebellion of the late 1920s raged through parts of Mexico, which also sent a wave of migrants to the United States. Others, born in the United
States, came to Indiana in search of better opportunities after having lived in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, or Illinois. In 1919, during the nationwide strike of steel workers for better wages and working conditions, industrial companies such as Inland Steel and the U.S. Steel Corporation started the practice of recruiting Mexican workers for their plants. In an effort to break the strike and defeat the European migrant workers, the companies sent recruiters in search of laborers to the U.S. Southwest and as far as Mexico. By the late 1920s, the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacan had supplied about three-quarters of all Mexican workers.
The immigration laws approved by the U.S. Congress in 1921 and 1924 severely limited the numbers of workers coming from eastern and southern Europe.9 Employers turned to Mexicans and blacks to make up the difference in the labor supply. Bringing in single men by the truckload created the phenomenon of the solos, or single male migrants. About 60 percent of Mexican workers were solos. They lived as lodgers in rooms shared by several men who took turns to sleep in the same bed. People referred to this practice as camas calientes, that is, warm beds. Over time, a significant number of these men either went back to Mexico to get married or sent for the families they had left behind. As the 1920s progressed, the percentage of Mexicans living in family units grew, and the population became more stable.