Map of Indiana

Puerto Ricans and Cubans Join the Mexicans

The United States emerged as a superpower after World War II. A period of rapid economic growth and modernization started at the end of the 1940s that would last until the mid-1970s. Faced with a shortage of workers, Indiana farmers and manufacturers turned to Puerto Rico as a source of laborers. Tapping Puerto Rico for cheap workers had been a well-established practice since 1898, when the United States took over that island. In subsequent decades, U.S. corporations contracted Puerto Ricans to work in such faraway places as Hawaii and Arizona. Thus, labor recruiters, with the help of the Puerto Rican government, set up offices in various towns throughout the island. Starting in 1948, hundreds of Puerto Ricans began to sign contracts that brought them to farms and factories in Indiana. U.S. Steel again played a leading role in importing workers by securing the services of Samuel J. Friedman Farm Labor Agency of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This company had been effective in bringing Puerto Rican workers to plants and farms not only in Pennsylvania, but also in New Jersey, Ohio, and other midwestern states. Though many came as farm workers, no sooner had they finished their contracts than they had moved to cities like Gary in search of industrial jobs, which offered higher wages and steadier employment. During the 1950s and 1960s the inflow of Puerto Ricans continued. Eventually, the Puerto Rican nation would lose about one-third of its population during the period 1946-1964 in what became known as the Great Migration. Puerto Ricans returned to their island in a proportion of between 15 and 25 percent, and for various reasons, which included homesickness, the harsh climate, or inability to adapt to night shifts.13 However, the vast majority, especially those who were married, stayed and established the basis of a community that would expand later with the arrival of their relatives and fellow countrymen. Today, Latinos of Puerto Rican origin furnish a noticeable fraction of the middle class and of professional sectors, serving the community in various capacities and leadership positions; they are visible as business owners, teachers, social workers, deacons, and public officials.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 generated a new influx of Caribbean migrants. Starting in that year and during the 1960s, the U.S. government welcomed thousands of Cubans as refugees and relocated them to the various states of the nation. The Cubans who came to Indiana were for the most part from middle- and upper-class background. With their superior skills and education, Cubans furnished a significant portion of the Latinos in the managerial, professional, and entrepreneurial sectors. The census of 1970 found that Indiana had 1,158 Cuban residents.

They were in third place, after the Puerto Ricans, who numbered 9,269 and who, in turn, trailed the people of Mexican origin, who stood at 30,034 in 1970.14 In total, Latinos were less than 1 percent of Indiana’s population. Nevertheless, the convergence of most of these persons in a few cities and towns provided them the opportunity to learn about and from each other. Sharing common spaces and experiences allowed them to discover the common features in their respective cultural backgrounds as well as their different traditions.

The concentration of Latinos in manufacturing jobs allowed them to improve their living conditions during the period from the 1950s until the 1970s. Remarkably, data from those years reveal that the percentage of Latino households with incomes over $25,000 was the same as that of Anglos, namely 36 percent in 1980. Other indicators of social well-being, such as the percentage of Latinos residing in owner-occupied housing units, also showed progress in those decades. Post-World War II government policies expanded opportunities for home ownership, as did also the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.

All such initiatives resulted in Latinos owning their homes in a proportion of 37 percent by 1980. Upward social mobility reflected a high degree of assimilation by Latinos. Over time they were becoming more like the rest of the state’s population. The 1990 census found that five of every six Latinos (83.9 percent) residing in Indiana were U.S.-born, and about half (49.9 percent) were born in Indiana. It also found a high level of cultural integration. For instance, out of every five Latino married couples, three had one partner who was non-Latino. Latinos also reported that they preferred speaking English or that they spoke English well in a proportion of 80 percent.15


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