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Latinos In Postwar Ohio

During World War II, the U.S. Department of Labor recruited laborers to replace U.S. draftees. Mexican and Puerto Rican workers came to Ohio under the Bracero program (a U.S.-Mexican agreement to supply temporary agricultural workers that lasted from 1942 to 1964) or as part of a state-sponsored work program initiated by Rexford G. Tugwell, governor of Puerto Rico from 1942 to

Seventy-five Mexicans leaving Union Terminal for home after six months of work on New York Central RR tracks in northeast Ohio. February 15, 1942. Courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

1946. The end of the war did not diminish the demand for farm or factory laborers. On the contrary, the robust postwar economy created a need for even more workers. During the early postwar period Ohio farmers and manufacturers turned to Mexico and Puerto Rico as sources for laborers. Tapping Puerto Rico for cheap workers was not new; it was rather a well-established practice that had began in 1898, when the island became a territory of the United States.

In Puerto Rico a new state-sponsored industrialization program led to the reduction of agricultural jobs on the island. To alleviate the unemployment rolls, the government began to collaborate with labor agencies in the United States to find jobs for workers. U.S. employers recruited Puerto Ricans as low-wage workers for certain sectors of the economy. Puerto Rican officials also used contract labor to push islanders into settling outside New York City. As a result Puerto Ricans began to settle along the East Coast and in the Midwest.

Contract labor also moved into the domestic sphere. In 1947 the first contracts were signed between young Puerto Rican women and an agency that would bring

them to the United States to be domestics. Between 1944 and 1947 the constant intersection between government agencies and migrants eventually led to the development of informal networks between Puerto Ricans already residing in eastern and midwestern communities.

At the end of World War II, the National Tube Company announced a multimillion dollar expansion. The company also discovered a major flaw in its operations: competition for jobs had led to an unacceptable turnover rate at the mill. To create a stable workforce, the company began to hire contract workers. The first group of Puerto Rican contract workers arrived in Lorain, Ohio, in 1947. The company hailed this experiment as a success. Negotiations between the government of Puerto Rico, the National Tube Company, and the workers were handled by S.G. Friedman Labor Agency of Philadelphia. Friedman was familiar with Puerto Rico because his father was a veteran of the war of 1898 who had helped in the organization of the insular police. More than 80 percent of those selected came from the agricultural communities outside of Lares, Utuado, Caguas, and Jayuya.8 This was a calculated decision on the part of Friedman’s agency and the Puerto Rican government. As Operation Bootstrap expanded, agricultural jobs in these Puerto Rican areas began to decrease. Eventually, migrants from the coastal sugar-producing regions began to sign contracts to work in the United States. With increased migration from the Puerto Rican coast, Cleveland experienced an influx of islanders from Juana Diaz and Yauco, as well as from the mountain town of San Lorenzo.

Friedman had a series of criteria for selecting contract workers to come to Ohio. During interviews the labor agency weeded out Afro-Puerto Ricans and those who could not read or write in Spanish. Those selected by Friedman’s agency were brought to San Juan, where they boarded DC-3 airplanes at Isla Grande Airport. From October 1947 to June 1948 close to 500 Puerto Rican men arrived in Lorain to work at the National Tube Company. According to oral histories the first group of Puerto Rican workers arrived without winter clothing, even though Friedman claimed that he had provided all the men with cold weather clothes.9 To help the workers, the company gave them work uniforms on credit and assigned them a room in the company barracks.

The arrival of Puerto Ricans in Lorain went unnoticed by the residents of the city, until an article appeared in the Lorain Journal.10 City officials and the management at the mill reassured apprehensive residents that the workers had been carefully screened. During this period, most of the Puerto Rican workers were depicted as hard working, law abiding, decent, shy, and yet eager to learn the America ways. Furthermore, Puerto Rican workers kept themselves in south Lorain, rarely venturing into Lorain. At the time most residents of Lorain had never seen a Puerto Rican. The invisibility of the Puerto Rican workers help to ease the concerns some residents had toward the new migrants.

As Puerto Rican workers at the National Tube were recognized to be hard working and dependable, other companies in the Midwest began to follow the Lorain experiment. In 1948 Carnegie-Illinois Steel of Gary hired Friedman’s agency to recruit Puerto Ricans for their company. In 1950 Ferro Machine and Foundry of Cleveland hired six Puerto Ricans as an experiment. Like the Lorain officials, the management in Cleveland was so impressed by the workers’ performance that the number of Puerto Ricans was increased to 100. Although most of the Puerto Rican workers had not originally intended to stay in Ohio permanently, many changed their minds and sent for their families and friends to join them. By 1955 the Cleveland Nationalities Directory reported a total of 1,500 Puerto Rican residents in the city.11

The majority of Puerto Ricans who came to Cleveland during this period settled on the east side of the city around Hough, Lexington, and Superior avenues. The new migrants were attracted to these areas because of their proximity to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Shrine. Trinitarian priests who spoke Spanish led these two Catholic churches. In 1954 the Cleveland Diocese established a Spanish Catholic mission at which masses were given in Spanish. However, local parishioners were opposed to Spanish masses, and they did not welcome the new members of the parish community. The Cleveland Diocese also established a Spanish Catholic mission for Mexicans in Lorain with the opening of the Sacred Heart Chapel on Vine Avenue in 1952. The growth of the Latino population in Cleveland and Lorain also led to the emergence of several Pentecostal churches, the first of which was the Spanish Assembly of God, on West 11th Street in Cleveland, also founded in 1952.

Living conditions of the Latino communities of northeast Ohio were shaped by accessibility to financing and housing. The majority of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the region were on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. During the late 1940s and early 1950s housing conditions for Puerto Rican workers in Lorain were quite abysmal. Most of the workers and their families lived in squalid conditions, placing the community at risk of disease and death. The lack of accessible housing was due to the refusal of Anglo residents to have Puerto Ricans as neighbors. However, Latinos working for the steel mills in Lorain had better salaries than their counterparts on the East Coast.

To resolve the housing crisis, members of the Puerto Rican colony in Lorain sent their families back to the island; many were not reunited until the early 1960s. Census tracks show that the Puerto Rican colony was mostly male between the ages of 25 and 49.12 During the 1950s Puerto Rican men began to buy and renovate old houses along Vine Avenue. Pooling their resources and skills, these men would fix the houses and sell them to friends, who would then bring their families from the island to Lorain.

As a growing community, Puerto Ricans began not only to buy residences and permanently settle in Lorain but also to create organizations that advocated

on behalf of the community. One of the first such organizations was the Puerto Rican Welfare League, established in late 1947. As an organization, the League’s main role was to address the social needs of the community. However, the anticommunist climate engendered by Senator Joseph McCarthy made this organization a target of the authorities. Several other self-help organizations were established during the 1950s to address the community’s social and cultural needs. In 1956 all Puerto Rican organizations in Lorain came together to create El Hogar Puertorriqueno (the Puerto Rican Home). El Hogar, at that moment, was a sign of the community’s political, economic, and cultural strength. This organization hosted community celebrations such as weddings, baptism, quinceaneras (coming-of-age celebrations for girls when they turn 15), wakes, and political events, including a visit by Puerto Rico’s governor Luis Munoz Marin in 1959. The Hogar also became the cultural epicenter of the community, hosting concerts by artists such as Daniel Santos and Lorain’s own Trio Puerto Rico.

Latinos in Ohio have historically voted Democratic. However, during the mid-1950s, the Latino population of Lorain broke with this tradition and supported a Republican candidate. In 1956 the Hogar became involved in the election of the Lorain County sheriff. After years of repression and harassment by the local police, the community staged a political movement to elect a new sheriff. The strategy was to vote as a bloc for the Republican candidate, upsetting Lorain’s powerful Democratic machine. The Republican candidate won with the support of the Puerto Rican community and, in a show of gratitude, he named a Puerto Rican deputy sheriff after taking office. By shaping the election the community became aware of its electoral strength. The Democratic Party, now out of power, began to seek the blessings of the community. Eventually, Evelio Rosario, a Puerto Rican Democrat, was elected to the city council in 1963. Though the experience of the 1956 election left a long-lasting imprint in the community, Latinos have been slow in reaching political office in Ohio. In Lorain this experience is constantly referred to as a historical moment when the community demonstrated its political maturity.

During the late 1950s the Puerto Rican community in Cleveland began migrating en masse from the east side of the city to the neighborhoods of the near west side. The deterioration of the inner cities and a desire to be closer to the industrial Flats area prompted the migration. By 1995, two-thirds of Greater Cleveland’s Puerto Ricans lived on the near west side: from West 5th to West 65th streets, between Detroit and Clark avenues.

In the 1950s, as the community grew and the general workforce stabilized, recruitment of Puerto Ricans laborers dropped off. However, Puerto Ricans continued to move into Cleveland, which led to increased tension and intolerance. Puerto Ricans, who were once hailed by employers and city officials as good, dependable, quiet, and hard working, were now described by newspapers as uneducated, too Roman Catholic, threatening, and communist.13 The Latino

community in Cleveland, much like the one in Lorain, was forced to develop institutions and organizations to protect and advocate for their rights. In 1956 the Puerto Rican Department of Labor opened an office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in the downtown Arcade. The purpose of the office was to regulate migrant contracts and working conditions, to interview and refer Puerto Ricans for jobs, and to assist Puerto Ricans in need of assistance. The office was empowered in 1966 by the creation of the Spanish-American Committee (SAC). Louis Delgado, of the Commonwealth office, and Chico Cara, of the Cleveland Federation, organized the SAC for Community Planning.

SAC’s aim was to serve the whole Spanish-speaking community. Its mission during the 1960s and 1970s was to assist high school students with college applications and job training, and also to bring Puerto Rican teachers to the Cleveland public schools. Likewise, the provision of day care and drug prevention services, and the creation of a credit union to help the community and of a veteran outreach program were also essential parts of SAC’s mission to serve the community. By the 1990s SAC was concerned with stabilizing and strengthening Latino families. Furthermore, because its clientele often spoke little or no English and had significant educational limitations, this organization established ESL classes for adults in hopes of improving employment rates. Currently, the services provided by SAC include social services, a day care center, employment and housing services, educational programs, and paralegal services. In addition, SAC serves as a center for Latino social interaction and communication.

Though northeast Ohio remained a locus of Latino migration, a growing number of Mexicans began to reside in areas such as Toledo and Cincinnati. In the 1980s a new generation of agencies sprung up in northeast Ohio. In 1983, community leaders Luis Martinez and Al Lopez established Esperanza Inc. to promote education, provide tutoring services for students, and help the local school districts understand the needs of Latino youth. Today, this organization serves over 800 students and has over 70 volunteers. The focus of Esperanza Inc. continues to be education it has a scholarship program, a reading program, a youth leadership program, and a stay-in-school program.14

Most of Ohio’s Cubans came to the state following Castro’s seizure of power in 1959. From 1960 onward the U.S. government welcomed thousands of Cuban refugees and relocated them to various states. The Cleveland Cuban Refugee Resettlement Committee composed of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish organiza-tions helped to relocate Cuban refugees. Most of the new arrivals were families who intended to return to Cuba as soon as Castro was ousted. In 1961, with the failure of the counterrevolution promoted by exiles and the U.S. government, many decided to stay permanently in areas of the state such as Cleveland. In 1980 there were about 650 Cubans in Cleveland. The Cuban population within the city declined to 140 in 1990.15 The majority were well-educated, experienced business-

people. Some American industries that had operated plants in Cuba offered jobs to refugees. Cubans quickly became self-supporting, acquired well-paying jobs, and moved into suburban neighborhoods. Cubans in Cleveland organized the Cuban Association of Cleveland, a cultural club that aims at preserving Cuban traditions, strengthening Cuban brotherhood, and keeping alive the dream of a free Cuba.

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