How a small town in Mexico came to call Indianapolis home
The immigrant population in Indianapolis has more than doubled in the past two decades, and not since a wave of German immigrants arrived at the turn of last century has the city faced the task of acknowledging and integrating more foreign residents than it does today.
Russians, Bosnians, Indians and Africans from a variety of countries account for a significant number of the new arrivals, but no single group has changed and challenged the cultural landscape of Indianapolis more than Mexican immigrants who now constitute nearly half of the city’s foreign-born population.
And while the influx of this large group of Mexican immigrants is most certainly transforming Indianapolis, their exodus is altering Mexico, too — particularly rural communities like Tala, a small town deep in Mexico’s heartland with very close ties to our own.
Like much of Indiana, Tala is a mixture of farming and the industry related to farming, a place where drivers share the road with a few tractors and a large number of pickup trucks, just as we do. What distinguishes Tala from other Mexican towns, however, is that these pickups frequently feature Indiana license plates.
That’s because Tala sends the majority of its emigrants to Indiana. By some estimates, nearly 10,000 former residents of this small Mexican community, or one-sixth of its population, call Indianapolis their second home.
Welcome to Tala
No region of Mexico is more quintessentially Mexican than the central-western state of Jalisco (hah-LEES-ko). Home to the tourist destinations of Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco is also the birthplace of mariachi music, rodeo and tequila, and the people take great pride in the fact that their regional culture is synonymous with national identity — going so far as to adorn the state’s license plate with the triumphantly succinct motto: Jalisco Is Mexico.
Among Mexicans, Jalisco is more renowned for another export: migrants to the United States. Only the neighboring state of Guanajuato sends more. Spend time in Guadalajara, as I did this year, and mention to your neighbors, a taxi driver or your waiter that you’re researching the history of emigration, and nearly all will tell you of family in the States, if not their own years working in Chicago or Los Angeles.
But Jalisco’s state capital actually attracts more migrants than it sends north. And if you really want to understand the roots of emigration, and its effects on Mexico, you must head to the countryside. Driving west out of Guadalajara, the gated communities, golf clubs and suburban malls give way to industrial parks and then a rural landscape of reddish clay soil planted with neat rows of blue agave, the spiky-leaved cactus from which tequila is derived. Like much of Jalisco, the climate is arid, and the terrain mountainous. This is ranching country.
But as one turns south off the four-lane highway to Tequila and its distilleries, the road descends quickly into a semitropical valley. In early summer, as the rainy season begins, the landscape is awash in the green hues of young sugar cane, this region’s staple. Swaying gently in the afternoon breeze, the cane extends for miles on both sides of the highway. Then, some 25 miles southwest of Guadalajara, the massive smokestacks of a sugar mill punctuate the horizon.
Welcome to Tala, a small town comprised of the schools, churches and businesses that serve the county, also called Tala, of 60,000 residents.
The culture of migration in Tala dates to the 1940s when locals signed up for the Bracero Program (see sidebar) to supplement seasonal farming and millwork. The program matched the region’s economy perfectly. Every year around May, young men went north to earn money and returned in time for the six-month sugar harvest.
Seasonal migration became a way of life for the men of Tala, many of whom saved enough to buy land, and grew corn, peanuts and cane. The millworkers used the earnings to build or renovate homes. Old-timers agree that their hard work in America’s fields brought a little prosperity and a new outlook to the people of Tala. That example was then passed down to future generations.
Pressures to migrate to America escalated in Tala during the 1990s. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico opened its market to corn, but the U.S. didn’t reciprocate with sugar until 2008. As the price for corn plummeted, many local farmers switched to growing sugar cane. For a time, the town’s two mills were able to sustain the market, but eventually there was a much greater supply then there was demand.
Today, there is only one mill in Tala, and it is the main source of employment for the region. The mill operates with 600 workers and openings are reserved for the sons of current union member employees. This leaves working-age youth with what they perceive as two options: They can move or commute to Guadalajara, where 40 percent of locals earn $10 a day at electronics plants, food processors or Wal-Mart, Mexico’s No. l employer, or they can do what their grandfathers and fathers did, and look for work in the U.S.
Chasing the American Dream
As with any small town, some leave Tala to escape trouble or to seek adventure. But most are guided by the desire to find a better life for themselves or their family, the American Dream. Growing up, they learn that a dishwasher in America can save enough in five years to build a home in Mexico. They also hear relatives celebrate those features of Indianapolis that attract small-town Hoosiers or transplanted Americans, from its cleanliness to its affordable housing to its tolerance.
Migration from Tala to Indianapolis began as a trickle by pioneers who arrived in the l970s and spent months living in cultural isolation. The earliest pioneers still joke about having to drive to Chicago to find Mexican grocery staples.
Soon, however, immigrants like Javier Amezcua fixed their entrepreneurial sights on the city and began forging an economy based on Mexican goods and services in Indianapolis. If the name Tala rings familiar with Indianapolis residents, perhaps it is because Amezcua is the owner of the city’s first authentic Mexican restaurant, El Sol de Tala on East Washington, named for his hometown in Jalisco.
Immigrant Fabian Alonso came to Indy 16 years ago, after a sister opened Don Victor’s Taco House on East English Avenue. Not long after, another Tala family, the Aguayos, opened their first store nearby. Soon a community was established on the near Eastside, comprised mostly of families from the same Tala neighborhood, La Calandria.
“Everyone knew that in the 1990s Indianapolis started to grow at a much faster pace, which attracted a lot of emigrants,” Alonso recalls. “I remember around ’92, when I first visited, that wherever you went you saw ‘Now Hiring’ signs and you could afford to change jobs whenever you wanted. These guys saw that in Indy there were a lot of steady jobs for their relatives. And that’s when the massive exodus began, attracted by Indy’s charms and the wages they paid back then.”
The allure of the American Dream and the benefits of its wages continue to sustain many Tala families as they endure the hardships associated with dividing a family between two countries — particularly as the wages earned by family members in Indianapolis are routinely sent home.
In 2006, such remittances throughout the U.S. sent to Mexico reached a record $23 billion, a figure that matched U.S. foreign aid to the entire world. Mexico City’s La Jornada summarizes the effects: “This influx of capital has helped reduce poverty and maintain basic spending levels in various regions ... [as such] it has become the basis of stability in the country and can determine whether a family lives above or below the poverty line.”
Tala is no exception.
Mayor Cipriano Aguayo, one of the immigrant pioneers to Indianapolis in the l970s, returned to Mexico when he was able to save enough money to support his family. Aguayo still has two brothers in Indianapolis. According to residents of Tala, including the mayor, nearly every home in the small town has a family member in the United States and the great majority of those are in Indianapolis. The money they send back is extremely important for Tala’s economic sustainability.
“More money circulates in this region due to remittances than anything else,” Aguayo says, “so we depend a good deal on the cash that comes from Indianapolis.”
Some of it supports civic projects, an increasingly common trend in Mexico. Lucila Madrigal, a Tala municipal official whose sons live in Indianapolis, reports that emigrant savings helped finance a bridge, renovate the cemetery and pave streets in the county. Local families depend even more on money sent home by their “absent sons.”
Welcome to Talapolis
While Tala’s immigrants to Indianapolis maintain strong familial, cultural and financial ties to Mexico, they have also helped build the sort of cultural foundations here in Indianapolis that both facilitate assimilation and maintain the ties that bind this transnational community together.
“We Mexicans aren’t used to being without some family nearby,” says Fabian Alonso, who divides his time between Tala and Indianapolis. “So we all try to get someone from here to move up there and that’s how we created our neighborhoods that replicate those in Tala.”
Religious tradition has been central to Mexican immigrants in Indianapolis, as evidenced by the dramatic transformation of many local Catholic parishes. In 1994, St. Patrick Parish organized its first Spanish mass and 13 people attended. Within three years, the number of faithful had increased to the point where a second mass was added and the archdiocese renovated the 143-year-old church that it once considered closing. Today, 1,800 immigrants attend Spanish masses at the former Irish parish.
Much like ethnic parishes forged by earlier immigrants, St. Patrick adopted the holidays that Mexicans celebrate back home. The first was the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, on Dec. 12. Early on, church members hired a mariachi band and Javier Amezcua, the restaurateur, flew in his uncle, a priest from Guadalajara, to preside at the ceremony.
Like the church, Hispanic media also bridges that gap between Indiana and Mexico. No medium serves the community better than radio, and Ulises Santiago, better known to his Radio Latina listeners as “El Richie,” is one of the city’s best-known Mexican media personalities.
Santiago migrated from Tala to Indianapolis with his wife, Adriana. “The city is tranquilo, it’s safe, and one can live well here,” he explains. “I want my children to grow up here and have a better future.”
Santiago’s mother, a retired nurse, and his millworker father saved enough to put him through college, but with no economic future in Tala, Santiago and his wife decided to join family members in Indianapolis. Santiago arrived here with a communications degree, but labored at a warehouse before getting his break at the station.
By 2006, El Richie’s morning show ranked third in the key 18- to 34-year-old demographic. Meanwhile, as production director, he helped oversee big changes at FM 107.1. Last year, WEDJ embraced a new format — “More Mexican Than Ever” — and dedicated its play list exclusively to Mexico’s diverse regional music. But there was also a change in attitude.
“Now it’s more focused on helping the community, not just making money,” Santiago explains. So Radio Latino issues public service warnings on drunk driving and deportations, and opens its airwaves to the Mexican consulate and community activists.
Equally important for its listeners, Radio Latina remains a forum where immigrants call in, request a song and give a shout out to their compatriots from states like Jalisco, Veracruz or Durango, an audible testimony to the growing diversity of Indy’s Mexican community.
Out of a small storefront on East English, Roberto Aguayo also serves the immigrant community of Talapolis. Decorated with posters of his beloved Chivas soccer club, Aguayo’s money-exchange store sends wires totaling about $25,000 weekly back to places like Tala. He arrived in Indy 11 years ago. But his family goes way back and so his money exchange is a trusted business where immigrants go to send their savings home.
Like many middle-class Mexicans, Aguayo saw his Guadalajara business ruined by economic depression in 1996. So he joined his brother in Indianapolis, started his new business and then brought his family. Today, his sons own a used car lot, while a daughter teaches Spanish at the International School. He has nine grandchildren, and more on the way.
When asked if he’s here to stay, Aguayo says, “It looks like we’re headed down that road.”
While he helps fellow immigrants maintain their ties to Tala with his business ventures, Aguayo and his wife also devote themselves to community activism in Indianapolis. She participates in the city’s pro-life movement, while Don Berto hosts a Catholic radio program on AM 810.
Aguayo also helped organize the city’s first immigrant rights march in spring 2006, which, in many ways, marked a coming of age for the city’s Mexican community. Prior to the event, Aguayo predicted a turnout of 4,000. To everyone’s surprise, including his, 25,000 Mexican immigrants participated in the Indianapolis rally, many risking their jobs, to perhaps declare that their roots in Indy were growing as strong as their ties to Mexico.
The dream’s realities
Migrants from Tala aren’t only forging communities in Indianapolis, but in smaller manufacturing towns like nearby Shelbyville, which has a reputation in Tala for plentiful and well-paid work. Among those residing there are Rogelio and Fernando Ortega.
Rogelio labors in a cold-storage warehouse, where 85 percent of the 500 employees are immigrants. He considers it “one of the roughest places to work,” for its sub-freezing conditions, dangerously fast pace, 12-hour days and mandatory overtime. Some work 20 days straight. Most suffer through injuries, since accident claims prompt demands for proof of legal residency.
But those who endure on the job accept the risks and overtime, because they can earn $1,000 per week. His own hard labor and sacrifices have allowed Rogelio to pay off his truck and afford a tract home in a new subdivision, in anticipation of having his wife join him here.
Life can be hard away from the job. In comparison to Indy, young men from Tala sense greater hostility down in Shelby County. The lack of “temptations” means they save more money. But they resent the discrimination, ranging from police harassment to racial slurs.
“Just because you have a Latino name they think you don’t speak English,” Fernando says.
Moreover, says his roommate Ernesto, “they think we only came here to take their jobs or sell drugs. We know,” he continues, “that it really bothers them to see us in their streets, or living in their houses.
“I can tell you from experience that racist comments are made every day in the factories, even though it’s punishable, and especially towards those who don’t speak much English and will just keep quiet ... It’s really notorious how much people willingly submit themselves to it for fear of being deported.”
But the Ortegas and their roommate Ernesto don’t have that fear. They are in the U.S. legally, and are not afraid to speak candidly. They hold little sympathy for those who claim they steal jobs.
“There are opportunities for everyone here,” Ernesto insists. If Mexicans take lower-paying jobs it’s because of their greater hunger for earnings. Moreover, Fernando adds, “In Mexico we can’t afford NOT to work.”
“We migrants aren’t here on vacation,” Ernesto insists, “but out of economic necessity. I can’t spend time with my younger brothers and sisters, and I couldn’t be back there in Tala for the funeral of my grandmother, who raised me … The price of the American Dream is very expensive.”
But it is a price that young men from Tala seem willing to pay. For all the sacrifices, they recognize the rewards, one of which is a firm grasp on the meaning of that American Dream and a greater appreciation for the homeland they left behind.
The Ortegas are determined to work hard and go back to Jalisco. Rogelio insists that he will stay on until he’s 40 and then return to a Mexico that will be “much better 20 years from now.” In the meantime, the subject turns from Mexican soccer to American football. It turns out that Fernando, for inexplicable reasons, supports the Bengals. The more sensible Rogelio follows the Bears. But Fernando has decided it’s time to take working life in Indiana more to heart.
So he tells his brother, “We’ve got to start wearing the blue and white.”
“We’re here for the long run,” he suggests. “So, the Colts better be our team too.”
Michael Snodgrass is an associate professor of Latin American history at IUPUI.
Mexican migration to the Midwest dates to the l920s and owes to the U.S.’ first comprehensive immigration reform law, the National Origins Act. Coming during a period of intense xenophobia, the law barred all Asians and established a quota system that closed the door to the Jews, Slavs and Italians who dominated early 20th century immigration.
The lobbying power of Southwestern employers earned Mexico an exemption. So labor contractors scurried to the border to recruit workers. Soon Mexicans were not only harvesting crops in California and mining copper in Arizona. They increasingly labored in the slaughterhouses, railroad yards and steel mills of the Midwest. Indiana’s oldest Mexican community, that of East Chicago, dates to this period.
Down in Mexico, emigration became a distinctly regional phenomenon. By the end of the l920s, three-quarters of the migrants in the Calumet region hailed from Jalisco or neighboring states. Pressures to migrate began in 1910, when revolution engulfed the region in two decades of violence. Emigration accelerated during World War II, when the U.S. and Mexico negotiated a guest worker program that recruited seasonal migrants to harvest crops in the Southwest. This Bracero Program lasted 22 years, issued 4.5 million contracts and consolidated a culture of migration that persists to this day in places like Tala.
When Congress abolished the program in l964, Mexico had evolved into a more urban and industrialized nation, one that offered its youth greater opportunities than ever before. Many considered it a model of Third World development. Mexican industries boomed and the wage differential with the U.S. narrowed considerably. Its universities were the best in Latin America. Mexico City even hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics.
But Mexico’s economy collapsed in 1982, got worse in 1996 and is only beginning to recover. Meanwhile, the population doubled, to more than 100 million, in just 30 years. So the Mexican baby-boom generation, born in the 1970s, came of working age just as economic opportunities disappeared. Despite the promises made by the champions of NAFTA, who sold it as a solution to immigration, free trade displaced millions of farmers and created too few jobs to satisfy demand. The rise of China hampers Mexican job growth further. Thus does a generation of ambitious and better-educated young Mexicans look to El Norte as a place of hope and opportunity.
Wednesday, Dec. 5
ACLU First Wednesday Discussion Series
Immigration in Indiana: They’re Here, Now What?
Indiana Historical Society (Canal level)
450 W. Ohio St. http://www.aclu-in.org
Panelists: Lorena Alvarado, consul of protection at the Mexican Consulate of Indiana; Maria Pabon Lopez, IU-Indianapolis School of Law, specialist in immigration law; Michael Snodgrass, IUPUI, associate professor of Latin American history
Guests are invited to bring questions for the panelists, and to participate actively in the conversation about how Central Indiana can and should manage the multiple challenges of welcoming immigrants into the community, including its workforce, school systems and houses of worship.
For more information contact 317-635-4059 or check www.aclu-in.org.
First Wednesdays are presented by the ACLU of Indiana, with support from IUPUI, the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs and NUVO Newsweekly.