Nearly a century of celebration for Indiana’s growing Mexican community

By Emiliano Aguilar 

After a hiatus during the pandemic, a cherished tradition returned to East Chicago, Indiana: the Fiestas Patrias events commemorating Mexican independence from Spain on September 16th. The celebration, first held in 1924, is one of the oldest in the Midwest and, in 2024, will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Over the course of that almost century-long tradition, the parade was canceled only four times. Before the pandemic, the Union Benéfica Mexicana (UBM) it was only the Second World War and the September 11th attacks which caused the organizers to cancel the event. Now, the festivities’ return highlights the community’s endurance and a continuance of their history of forging a home in the urban Midwest.

As an East Chicago native, I grew up with the Fiestas Patrias celebration as a mainstay in my life. My grandparents, Francisco and Rosalia Aguilar, were members of the mutualista, Union Benéfica Mexicana, which has organized the parade since its founding in 1956. My grandfather attempted to get me to ride a horse in the parade for years. To this day, I still have not done so. And although, for most years, I stood on the sidelines to catch candy, I did join my aunts and cousin one year to throw out candy from one of the floats. After the parade, I would spend hours with friends and family at the festival, held in Block Stadium.

These celebrations are not new to the city or the region. Bob Campbell in Belt Magazine writes about a neighborhood reunion in Flint, explaining that it represents much more than a weekend of celebration and revelry. As he put it, it is a fulfillment of “longing for meaningful attachment.” Similarly, Mike Amezcua noted in Washington Post that these celebrations offer the opportunity “to challenge exclusion.” Regardless of the festival, these celebrations in the Rust Belt and beyond are a form of making a home and setting down roots in a community. In East Chicago, the Fiestas Patrias celebration is no different. From El Grito to the parade and festival and the pageantry of the Royal Court, the weekend offers various opportunities to partake in our culture. Growing up multi-racial, visibly Latino but never having been to Mexico, the Fiestas Patrias celebration is a connection to a part of my story that I find myself continuously chasing.

This community in Indiana Harbor represented the state’s earliest and largest enclave in the early twentieth century. With the rise of the railroad industry in Chicagoland and the harsh demands for laborers in regional industries, thousands of immigrants arrived in the Calumet Region for work, most prominently in the steel mills. While ethnic Mexicans were a part of these early migrations, particularly along the railroads, they arrived in masse not until the Great Steel Strike of 1919. Before the Steel Strike, Inland Steel, which was East Chicago’s largest employer, employed less than one hundred Spanish-surnamed individuals of several thousand employees. However, Census data showed that in 1930, over 9,000 ethnic Mexicans resided in the county, primarily in East Chicago (5,343) and Gary (3,486). This was nearly ten percent of the overall city of East Chicago (54.784). In East Chicago, their neighborhood represented only about a quarter of one square mile of the city.

Nicole Martinez-LeGrand describes a statewide history of Latinos in the Hoosier state in their upcoming book, Hoosier Latinos: A Century of Struggle, Service, and Success (co-authored with Daniel Gonzales). Martinez-LeGrand noted that “Although this parade is based on patriotic pride of Mexican heritage – from its earliest celebrations they celebrated their new homeland – pairing the portraits of George Washington and General Hidalgo and colorful bunting in both green, white, red and red, white, and blue.” Together, these displays articulate a dual identity, both Mexican and American, a vital display of their having made a new home.

For nearly a century, the parade offered an opportunity to visibly display the culture of the region’s ethnic Mexican community. Reflecting on his time in Indiana Harbor, Salvador Calderón recalled that the community organized the first parade in 1923; however, newspaper accounts claim the first parade occurred on September 16, 1924. Organized by the Mutual Aid Society Benito Juarez, the parade became the first public display of the ethnic Mexican colonia in Indiana Harbor. The event galvanized members of Benito Juarez, who formalized and incorporated their organization in May 1925. For nearly one hundred years, families and neighbors gathered in celebration of their culture and history each September.

In the summer of 1956, the Benito Juarez Society merged with Sociedad Mutualista Cuauhtémoc to form Union Benéfica Mexicana. In the fall, a third organization, Sociedad Protectora Benéfica de Trabajadores Latino-americanos, joined as a part of UBM. Since this merger, the UBM and its members have organized the holiday weekend in East Chicago. Each of these mutualistas carried different backgrounds in terms of class; however, as Nicole Martinez-LeGrand noted, “The most unique aspect [of the event] is that those notions of class were slightly dampened, and everyone came together to preserve Mexican culture and the Mexican colony.” This year, despite the fear of rain, folks returned to gather in celebration of Fiestas Patrias. Each year, the parade route travels through elements of the old colonia. From Block Stadium to Michigan Avenue, which runs in the shadow of Inland Steel, parade floats traversed down a very different downtown than their predecessors.

Bust of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, leader of the Mexican War of Independence, in East Chicago, Indianna.

The parade also allowed the community to embrace the culture and its members. During the parade’s early years and well into the 20th century, it was not an uncommon site for officials from the Mexican consulate to attend the festivities. In 1926, Mayor Raleigh P. Hale became the first of many East Chicago mayors to participate in the parade. Politicians for East Chicago, county-wide positions, State, and even Congress, adorn vehicles with campaign signs and pass out candy to attendees. In 2019, I walked with NWI Resist, carrying a banner “Stop Deportations Now.” Businesses utilize the parade space as an opportunity to advertise themselves. This year, a coffee adorned with those lost to gun violence rode in the parade as a part of the Stop The Violence Movement in East Chicago.

However, the parade was not always a vibrant display of placemaking. Indiana University Northwest Professor Eva Mendieta noted that during the Depression, “The celebration of Mexican Independence Day, the cultural event of the year, went from being a mass community event to small gatherings of families in private homes.” The public spectacle became more private as residents and organizations, such as the American Legion, worked to repatriate thousands of ethnic Mexicans from the municipality.

Through collaborative efforts, ethnic Mexicans, regardless of citizenship, found themselves removed from relief through the township. The National Headquarters of the American Legion requested that each local chapter analyze the situation in their communities and work to develop a solution. Former Commander of American Legion Post 266 and a court clerk, Paul Kelly began a letter-writing campaign to politicians (from the city to the state and even the Secretary of Labor) and industrialists, such as the Block family of Inland Steel, pleading for support in returning the community to Mexico. Kelly and his contemporaries viewed ethnic Mexicans as undesirable and burdensome, as evident by the Walker Report. While this effort failed to remove the community as a whole, the repatriation campaign did remove thousands of ethnic Mexicans from Indiana Harbor and Gary.

In the 1920s, University of California economists Paul S. Taylor wrote a survey of Mexican labor throughout the United States. In the multivolume series, he claimed that the Indiana Harbor represented the densest concentration of Mexicans in the entire country. Within a couple of blocks, the community strived to establish various institutions, from restaurants to Figueroa Printing to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Today, sites such as Figueroa Printing are gone. A recreational center now sits in the old neighborhood, named after Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente. Places, such as the old UBM hall on Michigan Avenue, burned down years ago, leaving the organization without a building of its own.

Meanwhile, as the ethnic Mexican community has expanded in East Chicago and the county and state, so have the displays of cultural pride. Neighboring Whiting and Hammond, Indiana, have started festivities to commemorate the demographic. This September, Hammond hosts the sixth annual Hispanic Heritage Parade organized by the HUGS Cultural Committee. Previously titled the Mexican Independence Day Parade, this rebranding offers a unique opportunity to embrace the diverse communities that call the region home. Similarly, Whiting, for the longest home to predominantly ethnic eastern European communities, such as Polish, Serbians, and Slovaks, to host its first-ever Empanada Festival.

The event, an homage to the annual Pierogi Festival at the end of July, occurred the same weekend as El Grito in East Chicago. One of the relatively newer traditions in the community, El Grito celebrated its sixteenth gathering at the base of a bust of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Father Hidalgo famously called for independence from Spain in 1810 with Grito de Dolores. Admittedly, this was the first time I could remember attending El Grito, which is organized by Sociedad Cultural Civica La Reforma (SCCLR). SCCLR President, and East Chicago Councilwoman, Debra Bolaños joyfully began the festivities and noted the attendance of the Mexican Consulate of Chicago. Nancy Ibarra Machuca, Secretaria of SCCLR, described the Consulate’s attendance as “Something that is really heartfelt.” Both Bolaños and Machuca expressed much appreciation for learning about the protocol from the Consulate, such as displaying the Mexican and United States flags.

In 1966, members of a Pro. Hidalgo Committee organized with representatives from the UBM and neighborhood group, Woodmen of the World, to discuss raising funds for a statue of Hidalgo. The committee announced that they would work with the Mexican Consulate of Chicago in this endeavor. In the 1970s, a bust of Father Hidalgo was displayed in Washington Park, only to be vandalized shortly after. When it was restored, a fence surrounded Father Hidalgo’s bust. In 2014, SCCLR received a grant that gave the bust a much-needed facelift and included the dedication of a plaque letting visitors learn about the man behind the bust.

Bolaños noted that before retiring from a travel agency, they noticed that in addition to the already established Mexican community, that Central and South American presences in East Chicago and the region were growing. This led to SCCLR hosting The Night of Latin Culture, which they began shortly before the COVID19 Pandemic. Bolaños noted that the event was designed “to show other people that we are not just made up of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, we are made up of many different types of cultures.” Additionally, gatherings like Empanada Fest and the HUGS Hispanic Heritage events nod to the growing community. As Machuca described “the melting pot of Latin America” in the Region, she iterated that in being “steadfast,” one of the most critical tasks SCCLR could partake in is “getting the culture out” to the community. Elsewhere, festivals in communities like Goshen, Indianapolis, South Bend, and Lafayette showcase relatively newer gatherings as these residents formed their place in the Hoosier state.

Despite the cancellations brought about by the COVID19 pandemic, not to mention this year’s less-than-ideal weather, the parade returned in force. Similarly, the community has endured the Depression, repatriation, urban renewal projects, and much more to celebrate this occasion. While East Chicago represents one of the oldest parades that offered a form of forging home, it is joined by newer festivities each year. As Latinas and Latinos continue to reshape cityscapes across the state and country, these vibrant displays of the community will continue to offer refuge and convey resilience in uncertain times.


Emiliano is a Mexican-American native of East Chicago, Indiana, and a staff writer for Belt Magazine. He is a lifelong resident of “the crossroads of America,” holds a few degrees from Midwestern colleges, and is currently in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. His first book project explores the complexities of the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican community’s navigation of machine politics in the 20th and 21st centuries to further their inclusion in municipal and union politics in his hometown. At Belt, Emiliano hopes to continue to elevate the stories of the region’s political history and its Latina/o residents.