The Communities Of Lorain And Cleveland
Lured by jobs, Latinos migrated to the Midwest to work in the agricultural fields and industrial centers of the region. Ohio, especially the northeast of the state, was a magnet for migrants. Migrants from eastern and southwestern Europe predominated during the late nineteenth century, and during the first decades of the twentieth century African Americans from the South migrated to Ohio, looking for employment and a better life. Since the late 1910s Mexicans have regularly migrated to northeast Ohio (Lorain and, eventually, Cleveland) in search of jobs. Forced to move from Mexico because of economic necessity or the great political revolution, Mexican migrants found work in Ohio as farm and railroad workers, and as laborers in the steel mills and factories (in Lorain and Cleveland) as well as in Detroit, Saginaw (Michigan), Gary (Indiana), Chicago, and dozens of small towns in between. The Latino migration to Ohio was part of a massive movement of people across the U.S.-Mexican border. Mexicans who migrated to Ohio generally came from families who had been engaged in years of back-and-forth movement that eventually culminated in their settling in the Midwest.
Latino migration has been seen to fall into three distinctive patterns. First came young single men who hoped to relieve their family’s economic situation back in Latin America. Second came married men who wanted to help their own families by sending money home to their wives; these men wanted to eventually bring their families to live with them. And finally, there were Latinos who arrived in the United States in family groups.4 The Latino migration to Ohio has consisted mainly of men migrating to send money to their families and of those Latinos moving into the state as family units. The first Mexicans to move into Lorain were members of only two or three families. They settled in Lorain in 1921 to work in the gangs of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad companies. Two years later a local steel mill the National Tube Company, an affiliate of U.S. Steel recruited 1,300 Mexicans from Texas to come to Lorain.
Among the new settlers were the Mendez and Silvia-Tovar families. Between Mexico and Ohio, the Mendez and Silvia-Tovar families had several children,
including Frank S. Mendez. Frank was born in Iowa in October 1925, and he was baptized in Lorain, Ohio, two months later.5 The timing of the arrival of Frank’s father, Natividad, in Lorain could not have been the worse. Lorain was recovering from a major tornado that had leveled part of the city a year earlier. Natividad Mendez started working as a laborer in the blast furnace section of the National Tube Company in December 1925.
The National Tube Company heavy mill operations were located in south Lorain, separated by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks from the rest of the city. South Lorain had the least desirable real estate in Lorain because of its proximity to the mill. During this period this neighborhood attracted first- and second-generation European migrant families who depended on the National Tube Company for a living. In many homes, English was a second language, with the first more likely to be Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian, or Greek.
Mexican families arriving in Lorain during the 1920s faced problems similar to those confronted by other nationals settling in the region. Though there was a certain level of cultural shock for Mexican families, as well as a certain level of discrimination, the proximity to a large number of eastern Europeans, Italians, and Greeks gave the factory workforce a distinct international flavor, turning south Lorain into a preferred destination for foreign workers. The vast number of outsiders created a demand within the ethnic communities for agencies that could assist newly arrived fellow countrymen. Demand for places of religious worship and for products from the migrants’ countries of origin also increased.
During the 1920s most Mexicans worked at the steel mill’s blast furnace and pipe mills. The prevailing wage for a 10-hour day in the mill was between $4.50 and $5.00; these daily wages were considerably higher than the wages in Mexico. Those who did not seek work in Lorain’s steel mill established their own businesses in town. According to one study, in the mid-1920s the colony supported two grocery stores, two restaurants, three pool halls, two bars, and a shoe repair shop.6 These Mexican-owned businesses coexisted with the commercial ventures owned or run by other migrant groups associated with work at the mill.
In order to meet some of the social needs the community faced, the Mexican consulate based in Cleveland began to work with Mexican nationals in Lorain to create a welfare organization. In 1928 the Sociedad Mutualista Mexicana (Mexican Mutual Aid Society) was formed to provide various services to the colony. A building on Vine Street, the heart of the Mexican colony, was chosen to serve as the headquarters for the group, and it accommodated an in-house lawyer, a pharmacist, and a doctor. The Sociedad was quite active, and by 1929 membership had grown to 170 members. However, mass layoffs and unemployment brought by the Great Depression hurt the membership. For the next 40 years the Sociedad existed with only a handful of active members.
The growth of the community led not only to the creation of the Sociedad and the establishment of Mexican social and religious organizations but also to an increase in the enrollment of Spanish-speaking students at local schools. Because most Mexican migrants were Catholic, many of the school-age children were enrolled in the parish schools. During the first years after their arrival Mexican parents enrolled their children either in St. Ladislaus, St. Cyril, or Methodious parish schools. A former student said, In the school we were forbidden to speak Spanish, however, they made us learn our prayers in Slovenian and to this day I can still say half of Our Father in Slovenian.7 Many young Mexicans were held back because they were unable to speak English during their first year of school. Not all students attended Catholic schools; in fact, a large percentage of the Mexican children attended the Lorain public schools.
The Mexican colony in Lorain, which started with a base of 1,300 individuals in 1923, had grown to over 2,500 by the end of the decade. However, as with today’s Latin American population, the exact number of the community at that time is unknown. Most documents give conflicting reports, which is due to the high mobility of the group. Many Mexican workers and their families came to Lorain for a period of time and then moved on to another work site, only to return several months later. Yet, the core of the colony was beginning to form a community. This community was large enough to provide rich and varied recreational and social opportunities.
The Mexican colony in Cleveland, unlike the one in Lorain, was small in size. During the 1920s the first group of Mexicans migrants, around 600, began to settle on the west side of Cleveland: from Randall Street to West 52nd Street, between Lorain and Detroit avenues. Residing in this area of Cleveland gave the Mexican community easy access to the Flats, where most of the steel mills were located. This was a period of growth for the city of Cleveland, providing opportunities for new migrant groups. However, with the onset of the Depression a backlash against Spanish-speaking migrants led to the deportation of some Mexicans. The deportations and the loss of jobs made the number of Mexicans residing in Cleveland decline.
U.S. demand for workers during World War II allowed Mexicans to return to Cleveland and obtain jobs at the steel mills. These new arrivals found that their compatriots residing in Cleveland had created an infrastructure to help them adjust to living in the city.
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