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Only (One) Murder in this Episode about Latinx Politics in East Chicago

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Emiliano Aguilar:  I really think it's time that, at least on the academic side, we spend a lot more time looking at the local.

Alex Chambers:  It's not as sexy.

Emiliano Aguilar:  I don't know. I got a few cool things in my project that I think are pretty sexy; I got some murders.

Alex Chambers:  Really?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Oh, yes.

Alex Chambers:  You didn't tell me about any murders.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Oh gosh, I'm so sorry.

Alex Chambers:  It's true, murders are more sexy than most aspects of local politics, but there is also something exciting about really understanding how power works in your State, or community. So, let's lean into that this week. Historian, Emiliano Aguilar, will help us understand what it meant for the Latinx community in East Chicago to finally elect some of their own and whether it really helped the community at large. Answers to that question, and more, after this.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. With the mid-term election around the corner, it seemed like the right time to turn our attention to local politics. I mean, the idea of local politics, as much as a particular location. Many of us tend to overlook local politics because it's easier, and more exciting, to follow the horse race coverage in national media, but so many important decisions are happening at the local and State levels, and those are the places where we can have much more chance to make a difference. So, today we're headed to the far northwestern part of Indiana, East Chicago, where there will be only one murder toward the end of the conversation. As you'll hear, I recorded this conversation a couple of months ago.

Alex Chambers:  Emiliano Aguilar, is a historian of the Latinx mid-west. He just finished his PhD at Northwestern, with a dissertation called, Building a Latino Machine; Machine Politics, Corruption and Integration East Chicago, Indiana, 1945 to 2010. He is starting in the history department at Notre Dame as we speak in late August 2022, it's his first week in his office. It's exciting. It's worth mentioning, too, that Emiliano grew up in East Chicago, went to Wabash College and got a masters at Purdue. So, he's very much of Indiana. His work shines a light on the importance of Indiana and the mid-west more generally. It's a really significant place for Latinx history and culture, but he's not just trying to shine a light, he's also asking a more pointed question that I think touches on a lot of discussions we've been having more generally about identity in politics. If you're part of a marginalized group, what does it mean to finally get your people into political power?

Alex Chambers:  In the past decade and a half, we've had some major milestones in terms of representation in the upper echelons of American politics. Obama, of course, the first black president in 2008. Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, as the first Latina on the supreme court.A couple of years ago, Kamala Harris became the first black woman vice-resident. How has that played out on the ground for people of color, women of color? In a lot of ways, it's played out in a million different ways, there's no single answer. But what I find exciting about Emiliano's work is that he shows us some of the complexity of what it looks like for a marginalized group to struggle for political office and political power, not necessarily the same thing in the 20th Century, U.S. So, Emiliano Aguilar, welcome to, Inner States.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Hi, thank you for having me, Alex, I really appreciate it.

Alex Chambers:  Before we get into the more official public history of East Chicago, I'd love to hear a little bit about how you got into this personally and I wonder if you could start with the story of your grandfather checking the obituaries?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, that's one of my favorite stories to tell. My maternal grandfather, named Grandpa Vogt, had this mindset that he didn't need to vote because nothing would change, that the same people in power would constantly perpetuate the same politics that he had seen his entire life. He was a lifelong East Chicagoan, and he would check the obituaries every morning to make sure he wasn't in there, because he had this whole mindset that even in East Chicago even the dead vote. He wanted to make sure that he was still alive, he wasn't dead and that no-one was using him a nice little check mark on the ballot for the [PHONETIC: precee].

Alex Chambers:  He was determined not to vote. Sounds very cynical and, for reasons that we'll get into, about politics. You grew up two blocks from City Hall, right?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes. That was not his childhood home, but a home that he had very early on in his life as well. Before my mother and stepfather and family moved to Texas five years ago, we had at, one point, four generations in that house, which is, I think, quite the feat in and of itself. So, yes, two blocks from City Hall. I think he admitted to voting twice in his entire life, 80 odd years.

Alex Chambers:  Wow. Impressive. In spite of him not voting, did you all talk about local politics a fair amount?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, mainly from my mother. My mother, I think, is a little bit more optimistic to this day than my grandfather ever was when it comes to politics. Mainly those conversations would come from my mom or she would be involved. Some of my earliest jobs growing up were handing out and putting the political mail pamphlets on the doorknobs, or, if you had the nice window panes, sliding it in through the window panes on the door. I distributed political literature for friends of my mom, mainly, who were running for office. It was my first gig.

Alex Chambers:  When did you find that you had an interest in understanding more deeply what was going on politically there?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I was actually mayor for a day in East Chicago and I want to emphasize this, I wasn't there just for a day because of some scandal or I grabbed the money and ran. When the current mayor, Anthony Copeland, came into office he held an essay competition; if you were mayor for a day, what would you do? And on a whim, my high school government teacher encouraged all of us to write something and submit it. I did, I thought, "Oh, what the heck?" I'm frustrated by a few things. It was mainly lack of transparency, really high salaries for elected officials, some of which held a couple of different jobs in the city that I thought was very unfair, in and of itself, and I essentially wrote an essay critiquing that. I didn't expect to win. I didn't expect to have read said essay in front of the common council. I've really thought about that experience a lot lately.

Emiliano Aguilar:  My paternal grandfather, grandpa Aguilar, actually came to that council meeting, watched me and immediately after everything was said and done set into motion thinking I was going to run for mayor and planned my mail campaign, right then and there. He was very gung-ho that this was going to happen, my grandson's going to be a politician.

Alex Chambers:  Did you reattempt it?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, every now and then a little bit.

Alex Chambers:  Good to know. Try to make sure you don't say anything too damaging [LAUGHS] to your future political career.

Emiliano Aguilar:  That's the goal.

Alex Chambers:  We'll come back to the present, but I'd like to now go back and have you situate us just in the history of East Chicago. In particular in relation to how ethnic Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans especially, ended up such a big part of the population there.

Emiliano Aguilar:  East Chicago was started by a bunch of city of Chicago, Illinois boosters; businessmen investors who were really trying to sell the idea of, "Hey, this frontier," and really evoke this economic opportunity it would stand for. Particularly as some businesses in Illinois were beginning to be labeled as nuisance industries. A lot of this early ones that pop up in north western are steel mills, the refinery, Hammond Refrigeration, which has ties to the meat-packing industry in Chicago. These industries, as most people have seen and most historians will tell you about Chicago, require large workforces and the ethnic Mexican community really comes up during one of the major strikes of the moment, the great steel strike of 1919. Steel industries utilize ethnic Mexican laborers, as well as black laborers, as strike breakers and this is when we first see, with ethnic Mexicans that is, the largest influx of them settling.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Nicole Martinez-LeGrande, at the Indiana Historical Society, did this wonderful interview with Frederick Maravilla. He recalled his father telling him how him and his uncles had to be smuggled into the steel mill complex via boat, across Lake Michigan because of how contentious the steel strike was and to avoid these striking steelworkers. Because of that, they begin living on the barracks on steel mill industries and, when they're no longer in the barracks, they're settling right outside in the shadow of the steel mill. In East Chicago it becomes one of the densest concentrations of ethnic Mexicans in the United States.

Alex Chambers:  How does the Latinx community begin to gain political power in the middle of the 20th Century?

Emiliano Aguilar:  A lot of the pursuit for gaining political power is done by the children of these pioneering generations. There is a long history of Latinos, Latinas of all national backgrounds in the mid-west, even before they arrive in north-west Indiana. The first families to arrive in East Chicago, as ethnic Mexicans, when they're repatriated their children are going through these experiences as well. They come back and, in some cases, those that come back or never left, are drafted, enlisted, in the second World War, and it really becomes a moment of identifying themselves as, not only Latin Americans, but also veterans. They form an organization called the Latin Americans Veteran Association, and a lot of the early political leaders, whether it be municipal or union politics, really relied on their status as veterans of the Second World War and, later, Korea, as their ties to not only citizenship, but belonging in the community.

Emiliano Aguilar:  They start off very small. Low tier positions in the union, primarily, and [PHONETIC: precee] committee positions. Within any political machine, [PHONETIC: precee] committees are one of the most important positions as it is today for the face of the party on your block, or in your immediate area and those become stepping stones for them. The more votes they're able to bring in, at the time, the more power they could accrue in the machine bosses eyes; "so and so are organizing their entire block, they're a good guy. I need to find a way to move them up, maybe I'll offer them a nice city job?" What ends up happening is maybe we'll start offering or putting our folks in as elected positions and hope they win election in their part of the voting governing body of the city.

Alex Chambers:  I think this would be a good place to make sure that people really understand what the machine itself consists of, for those of us who aren't from the Chicago area. When I think of the machine, I think of Chicago and, obviously, just beyond Chicago. It's happening in other places but that's where we most clearly associate it. What is the machine and how does it work?

Emiliano Aguilar:  The political machine's an interesting part of American political history because it looks and works so differently depending on where you're at. The East Chicago one is, pretty much, no different than the daily machine except we have to consider scale. Obviously, East Chicago is a much smaller place than Chicago, but it is a top down machine with a male figure in charge. In East Chicago's case the longest running one being, Mayor Bob Pastrick; it is a Democratic machine, in the case of East Chicago as well. From the top down position, the mayor doles out patronage or offerings of support. I don't want to use kick back yet, because, in many cases, kick-backs connotated along the lines of illegality, patronage, being the spoils of the position; I won this election, I'm going to put my friends and supporters in positions. I have positions that are going to help me run my administration or maybe this person went out and got me two dozen votes and they want to just be a fireman. I'm going to let them be a fireman.

Emiliano Aguilar:  In some cases, as comes out in the seventies, these included you still have to pay your council men and some of that pay is going to go into the mayoral re-election fund, or in a not so friendly case, ghost pay rolling; I'm going to put my friends on the payroll they're never actually going to do any work and I'm going to take a little bit of those paychecks, which are real, even though the work itself is pretty imaginary, or maybe not even happening at all.

Alex Chambers:  I feel like there's this tension in working within the machine versus trying to do something outside the machine, right?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Absolutely.

Alex Chambers:  One of the places it seems like that was playing out in the 1960s is the Concerned Latins Organization which I think, if I'm understanding your work correctly, part of what prompted this group to come together had to do with this issue of ghost pay rolling and their concern, more generally, about transparency and people actually doing good government and democratic work, rather than just patronage.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, absolutely. The Concerned Latins Organization, when they come on the scene in the 1970s, their first two petitions they deliver to the Council are, one, we need a transparent government so practices like ghost pay rolling are not possible, or not able to be enacted. The second one being a demand for affirmative action hiring ordinates in the city. By 1970, East Chicago becomes evenly split, a third black, a third white ethnic European, a third, what they were labeling, Latin. However, despite this even split, the Concerned Latins Organization noticed that "we barely have a dozen firemen and police officers," I think it's still under 20 between those two departments. They would list regularly, "we have this many teachers, this many department heads but we're a third of the city and we're this growing demographic within the city. Why don't we have our fair share?"

Emiliano Aguilar:  Concerned Latins Organization really labeled this two ways. One, there needs to be some affirmative action hiring ordinance, it's only fair because they're so much of the city. The second one has this failure of the political machine almost. They would call some of these figures coconuts, brown on the outside, white on the inside. Despite those people and their behavior and their loyalty to the machine, it really hasn't led to significant gains across the entire community. While they target that initially as just employment, they also looked at things like housing, education and things as small as, "we live on this all Puerto Rican block and our streetlights don't work", or "we don't get garbage picked up regularly", or "our landlord doesn't care about our property, we have roofs caving in." Really starting to target these everyday, in plain sight, instances of what they were labeling discrimination and unfairness as being, what they saw, equal members of the city.

Alex Chambers:  Let's back up just a little bit. We were talking about the machine and, at what point, did ethnic Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in East Chicago start to gain political power? Maybe there wasn't someone in the mayoral office, but maybe having some representation within the machine.

Emiliano Aguilar:  The first elected official is Joseph Maravilla who wins school board in the late 1950s. Interestingly enough, he wins the school board as then political boss, Walter Jeorse, picks Maravilla and has him on his ticket. If I'm remembering correctly, it's the first time an ethnic Mexican is on a party boss' ticket for an election and Maravilla wins hands down, he gets the most votes in the school board election. However, once in position, he refuses to really play by what his political boss' rules. The mayor goes through all the way to downtown Indianapolis to get a law changed, so that instead of an elected school board, cities of a certain size could have their school boards appointed by the mayor. It's the Anderson Indiana School Board bill, or something like that, in 1958, 1959. So, he attaches himself and his representatives down State to this cause. Once it's passed, he removes Maravilla and any of these reformers who are demanding for good government and transparency because, allegedly, Maravilla didn't want to appoint and provide contracts to the mayor's buddies in the city.

Emiliano Aguilar:  At least that's the take on it and, because of that, he's removed from office. Then there's not another elected official until 1963, when Jesse Gomez Senior becomes the first elected Council man in the city.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, so '63, they're starting to gain some power.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes. Part of that became that the challenger that year in the democrat primary, promised what he called, Latin, department head. He had Jesse Gomez on his ticket at that time. If I'm remembering correctly, Gomez was in charge of the Chicago License Bureau. He switches his support from Mayor Jeorse to Nicosia and gets a pink slip for his position in Chicago License bureau after the Primary because Nicosia won the Primary and Gomez had supported him. Gomez comes on and we start to see Latinos gain department head positions in the city after that election, albeit, I think only one or two until 1971.

Alex Chambers:  Would you say that with the formation of the Concerned Latins Organization that this tension between people who are in office and actual neighborhoods and community members, starts to really come up more significantly?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes. It starts more around 1968, with a different organization, The Youth Advisory Board, who were really frustrated that among the municipal improvements, the ethnic Mexican Puerto Rican neighborhood wasn't going to get a recreation center. So, because the community was not going to get a recreation center in 1968 The Youth Advisory Board led a group of schoolchildren down to City Hall demanding a recreation center; "we're children in this city too, why don't we have one?" That's one of the first big, I would label, parts of the civil rights movement in the city. The second one being alleged comments made by a Washington High School principal, calling Mexicans lazy and ignorant. From those comments a high school walkout was staged in the fall of 1970, and this becomes a kick off point for the Concerned Latins Organization being formed.

Emiliano Aguilar:  It's a coalition, really, led by members of The Youth Advisory Board, including groups such as the Brown Berets, steelworkers, local community activists, members from Our Lady at Guadeloupe, which was one of the ethnic Mexican parishes in the community, who all come together. It's about three dozen organizations. I think the final count was 34 or 35. They had come together along the lines of employment, education and housing to really argue that, "hey, we are getting the short end of the stick here and we deserve better."

Alex Chambers:  Tell me about some of the tactics that they used to try and get the politicians to listen to them, and the results of that with some barriers that were set up to that.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Oh, gosh, yes, absolutely. The Concerned Latins Organization was affiliated with the Industrial Area's Foundation, Solinsky Institute.

Alex Chambers:  This is a foundational community organizing center in Chicago that Solinsky founded.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Part of every action in their training was to get a reaction. They did some minor things, for the affirmative action hiring ordinates, they targeted businesses. In one case, they went to a bank and requested their paychecks in pennies, or have the tellers count out their pennies to hold up lines and get people angry and explain, "well, this is why we're doing it." Or going into businesses and demanding they put these posters on the wall. They will attend meetings, if they wouldn't be called on they would just stand up and start talking, and then when one would get escorted out, another would stand up and talk. In some cases, members would leave the podium and walk up to the Council desk and this leads the Council in the 1970s to put up a fence, a barrier, between them, the podium and the audience behind the podium, as a way to deter angry members or, as the newspapers always labeled them, angry Latins, coming up to the council members during meetings. These tactics were in your face, very public displays of dissatisfaction.

Emiliano Aguilar:  I don't know if you would like me to talk a little bit about why it doesn't happen.

Alex Chambers:  Absolutely, that was my next question.

Emiliano Aguilar:  There's three takes on it, first one, this cult of personality that the leaders of it had these complexes or they were very controlling of the organization and didn't really cultivate leadership or healthy dissent; disagreement among tactics in organizations and directions. The second one is conflict with Industrial Areas Foundation itself, some members didn't understand why they would attend these trainings and be trained by the organization, but were not able to lead or handle the organization themselves. They still had these outside observers from the Industrial Areas Foundation, trying to dictate direction for the organization, one such direction being, claiming that there's no power in an all Latin organization, it needed to become multi-racial. They hold a vote and the organization really splinters after that vote but overwhelmingly, "no, we don't want to be a multi-racial organization, we want to stay an all Latin organization." The third one being that the political machine really co-ops some of these members and some of these members do join the administration later on and become very important figures within the mayoral administration of East Chicago.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a short break, you're listening to an interview with historian, Emiliano Aguilar, about the Latinx community's struggle in East Chicago to get political representation and how, once they did, the results were more complicated than they might have hoped. When we come back, Emiliano tells us about how some locals felt like, once the city started bulldozing their neighborhood, the least it could do would be to give them the jobs running the bulldozers. This is Inner States, stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. We're talking this week with Emiliano Aguilar. He's a historian of the Latinx experience in the mid-west, with a focus on the political machine in his hometown of, East Chicago. He was telling me about controversy around urban renewal projects there and I asked him to remind us what urban renewal meant at the time.

Emiliano Aguilar:  In this context it meant the removal of properties for transportation improvements, like Cline Avenue Bridge. In some cases, it meant removing housing for the establishment of a new elementary school, which CLOalso protested for it's exorbitant cost. They believe that the elementary school was ridiculously overpriced and that there were contracts being given out to friends of the political administration, and the city residents should not have to foot said bill. Some activists even protested the fact that, "well, if this is going to happen, the least they could do is hire Latin construction workers to work these jobs, too." I think is probably the first time I've seen that kind of argument was seen for things like urban renewal; "if you're going to kick us out of our home, at least give us a job to work so that we can buy a new place."

Alex Chambers:  The machine is running, we're going to try to get what we can out of it.

Emiliano Aguilar:  This is one of the interventions I want to make. A lot of these struggles, particularly in the civil rights movement, overlap and they overlap along issues of good government and transparency in lines of, is this government responsive to my needs and my wants as a resident? And then, is it actually responsible good government? Is it transparent?

Alex Chambers:  Which are not necessarily the same thing.

Emiliano Aguilar:  No. Not at all. Ideally, a good government doesn't have to be transparent but I get that, myself included, a little transparency would go a long way in showing you're a good government.

Alex Chambers:  Ideally it wouldn't have to be transparent, but I guess I was more thinking about the fact, "is this government giving me what I need?", versus, "is it a good government overall?"

Emiliano Aguilar:  If I'm on the inside, yes, it will look a lot better than being on the outside, yes.

Alex Chambers:  Exactly. How does the machine continue to unfold? The CLO dissolves in 1970, is that right?

Emiliano Aguilar:  A little later on, about 1976, 1977.

Alex Chambers:  Oh, I see. I had my years off. Okay, it dissolves in 1976/77. Was that the main community organization that was maybe trying to hold government feet to the fire?

Emiliano Aguilar:  There are successors to it, including members from CLO that go on to start other organizations. Like Hispanics for Justice in the eighties and then, decades later, new activists, a younger generation, with Citizens in Action, which is a multi-racial coalition, or, was a multi-racial coalition in the late nineties, early 2000s. At least how I like to present it at my work, they're one along this much longer line of citizens that are really trying to demand good government and transparency push back against the political machine throughout the city's history.

Alex Chambers:  It seems like you went into this research because you wanted to understand something about democracy. I've heard you talk occasionally about small day democracy in particular. This idea of participation and being able to have a say about what's happening in your community. What do you feel like you've figured out?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I've figured out what many of us know and that's that politics is just so complex and people get involved, or don't get involved, for so many reasons. I do think that, and I would love to explore this further down the line of my own research, that a history of corruption and history of something where citizens through election after election, don't see change. People like my maternal grandfather, this doesn't persuade them, "oh, well democrats are all corrupt, I'm going to vote republican", it loses that voter to both parties to a couch and they choose to not participate. That's becoming a growing trend of the non-voters, people who could vote, but choose not to in this country and I think that's just such a fascinating phenomenon to explore; why are people not involved?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I think that these small local actions and these small local every day experiences become so important for them because, regardless of whose in the White House, it's who's your council man? Who's your council representative? Who's your mayor? Who is involved in your local municipal government? Those are the people you have more interactions with than someone in D.C., until I guess you're in D.C. At least you're in Indiana.

Alex Chambers:  That's local for you.

Emiliano Aguilar:  The local matters, yes, very much so and I really think it's time that, at least on the academic side, we spend a lot more time looking at the local. I don't mean these bustling large urban metros, like Chicago and New York, but really getting back to the every day.

Alex Chambers:  It's not as sexy.

Emiliano Aguilar:  I don't know. I mean, I got a few cool things in my project that I like to think are pretty sexy. I got some murders.

Alex Chambers:  Really? You didn't tell me about any murders.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry. One of the former Segovia supported candidates, Henry Lopez, he's also the second ever Mexican president of the United Steelworkers Local 1010. He ends up dead in the river with a basketball size rock on the gas pedal and a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He goes missing, December 1979, they find him January 1980. He had just got in trouble for trying to fix a steelworkers election in 1976. Supposedly under his watch as the department head for Parks Department in East Chicago, tens of thousands of dollars had gone missing and there was a rumor that he was going to talk to the Feds, in the folktale of the region. He was going to turn witness to the Feds against the machine, so the machine had him killed. There's a lot of mystery around him. There's actually a cold case episode about Babe Lopez and another one, Jay Given, who was shot in front of a couple of hundred people at a political fundraiser and no-one saw anything.

Emiliano Aguilar:  There's these eerily, folky, mysterious cases when it comes to corruption at that time. When it comes to politics, even, at that time and Lopez and Given are just two main ones.

Alex Chambers:  Would you say that it's true in East Chicago, which has been true across much of the country, that people have shifted their attention more towards national politics in the past few decades?

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, I would think that, yes, there's been a lot more attention even in small local papers towards presidential offices, congressional reps, senate races and not necessarily what's going on in their own backyard.

Alex Chambers:  I feel like you've maybe answered this, but I'm going to ask again. What do you think it takes to get people to care more about local politics?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I think an understanding of local politics and how it works is super important. Even knowing who do you call when your garbage doesn't get picked up? You call City Hall, but public works maybe? Understanding who department heads are, understanding who your precinct person is, where to even vote. Then even small everyday bureaucratic things, like "what's the city ordinates?" and really understanding the structures of government. I think it takes people understanding what they don't like at the local level and how to really confront that to get involved at the local level and to stay consistently involved. I'm sure we've all seen or heard of those city meetings, whether they're at the city council or school board, that there's a great big surge and then no-one's there in a couple of weeks. It's like a roller coaster of involvement and moving away from that I think is also really important.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Not to say those moments shouldn't happen, it's still very important if something frustrates a community to show up in mass but also, if you have time, reading these minutes and seeing what's getting passed, because it might affect you.

Alex Chambers:  Right. The way it might affect you and recognizing that, yes. I still have to say, it's not as fun to read the minutes as it is to go and read a salacious article about Liz Cheney, the republicans or whatever.

Emiliano Aguilar:  No, sadly not all city council meetings are like Parks and Rec episodes where there's outrageous folks. There are outrageous folks at some of these meetings but not every meeting's going to be like that, sadly. Parks and Rec definitely glorified the local city meetings.

Alex Chambers:  [LAUGHS] What do you hope people take away from this particular project that you've been working on, your dissertation that you've been turning into a book?

Emiliano Aguilar:  All said and done, I really hope the book let's people critically explore what this means, the stakes of election, the stakes of representation and how it shouldn't end there. Political pursuit should not end once the person you supported is in office. It remains, I think, a small day democratic duty to be critical of these people, to not blindly follow someone that you support; to remain ever vigilant. That's how democracy, I think, works, is to remain vigilant on these elected officials, regardless of who they are, regardless if you like them or not.

Alex Chambers:  You did a public conversation with Nicole Martinez-LeGrande, and toward the end of that you said that you had ended on a fairly pessimistic note. [LAUGHS] I wonder if you could describe that note that you felt like you were ending on there and I wonder, too, if it's changed since then?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I haven't got back to revising and working through the conclusion yet, so, at the moment it's still there. I don't know if, when I get there, what mindset I'll be in. But, yes, really understanding, part of it was my frustration with how East Chicago's current mayor has handled the East Chicago fire department after they chose not to support him in a democratic primary a few years back and the retaliation efforts he makes against that post democratic primary. To me, it wreaks of hard ball politics that he advocated against when he was a community activist. I don't know, it's almost like the Batman rule, the Dark Knight rule: "You either died a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain", or something like that. That sounds right. I know I say there's this cyclical nature of it, but I'm hoping there isn't, right? I'm hoping that these charismatic, community leaders can come along that we can still criticize, but that we could support and trust because we stay vigilant, because we stay on them and stay involved that they don't become the villain in our eyes.

Alex Chambers:  I think there's something optimistic about that too, which is that it's possible, potentially, to keep them from becoming the villain, but it requires all of us to be involved and be vigilant and be active in our communities and paying attention to all this stuff.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, absolutely. I mean, power in and of itself is just corruptible, especially when it comes at the hands of people not involved in meetings. That is how you get absolute power, with no-one paying attention, so it requires paying attention, yes.

Alex Chambers:  Well, this is great, I feel like I personally have, just in the past few years, thought a lot harder about the importance of local politics and paying attention to it and being involved in it; local and State level. More power to you and to also helping your vision helping other people see the importance of being involved.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Thank you, I appreciate that.

Alex Chambers:  Do you feel like there are any major things that we missed that you want to make sure to cover?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I probably would plug in as an ever growing demographic that Latina, Latinos in Indiana are going to become consistently important for all people involved, not only the State but political parties. It's on both political parties to actually reach out to this demographic or to reach out to citizens and residents in general. Since I've been legally able to vote, since I've been voting age, I've only ever been contacted twice in campaigns, that's outside local positions. They leave me [PHONETIC: orders] all the time, but I'm talking for State and national level politicians, I've had two. I'm probably the only person in the State that's complaining, "please, send me more political mail. I want to be contacted. Whether you're democratic or republican, third party, I want to hear from you." Maybe it's the political nerd in me, I want to see these things. I have all of two that I was sent directly. Others are ones I scavenged, left on the sidewalks and stuff, oh, this is so cool, check this out.

Alex Chambers:  Do you get texts from political parties?

Emiliano Aguilar:  I've gotten more of those this campaign season. Those, yes. I think texts are lazy. I think texts and robo-call is just lazy politicking. Knock on doors, canvass, distribute fliers; the face to face is what I'm all about and maybe that's a little too old school but, I don't know. I will always answer the door.

Alex Chambers:  I'm also "come knock on my door, I want to hear about what you're doing."

Emiliano Aguilar:  Yes, so now everyone knows they can send their political materials and knock on our doors at least.

Alex Chambers:  Alright, Emiliano, well I should let you go on to get to your next things, but thank you so much for taking this time. It was really fun.

Emiliano Aguilar:  Thank you so much for having me, Alex.

Alex Chambers:  That was Emiliano Aguilar, he recently joined the history department at the University of Notre Dame and he'll be a fellow at the center of the American West next summer. That's it for today's show, you've been listening to Inner States, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits; Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Micheal Paskash, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Emiliano Aguilar. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright, time to head to a field and listen.

Alex Chambers:  That was a field recording at Griffy Lake, fall of 2022. Wind in the leaves, a bird, let me know what kind, a plane overhead and more. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.

Historian Emiliano Aguilar

Historian Emiliano Aguilar (Elizabeth Wuerffel)

Let’s face it. It’s more fun to follow national elections than local policy discussions. The characters are bigger – they’re portrayed that way, at least – the stakes are higher, and the coverage is easier to find. Local politics isn’t as sexy. Unless you mix in a few murders. This episode only has one, and it’s toward the end, but it does remind us that the stakes are high at the local level, too.

With the midterm election around the corner, it seemed like the right time to turn our attention to local politics. So many important decisions are happening at the local and state levels, and those are the places where we have much more chance to make a difference. So today we’re headed to the far northwestern part of Indiana. East Chicago. I recorded this conversation a couple months ago.

Emiliano Aguilar is a historian of Midwestern Latino/Latinx politics. He just finished his PhD at Northwestern, with a dissertation called Building a Latino Machine: Machine Politics, Corruption, and Integration in East Chicago, Indiana, 1945-2010, and he started in the history department at Notre Dame in August, 2022. It’s worth mentioning too that Emiliano grew up in East Chicago, went to Wabash College and got a Master’s at Purdue, so he’s very much of Indiana. His work shines a light on the importance of Indiana and the Midwest more generally as an really significant place for Latinx history and culture.

But he’s not just trying to shine a light. He’s also asking a more pointed question that touches on a lot of discussions about identity politics. If you’re part of a marginalized group, what does it mean to finally get your people into political power?

In the past decade and a half, we’ve had some major milestones in terms of racial representation in the upper echelons of American politics. Obama, of course, was first Black president in 2008, Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 as the first Latina on the Supreme Court, a couple years ago Kamala Harris became the first Black woman Vice President. How has that played out, on the ground, for people of color, women of color? It means a lot of things. There’s no single answer, but what’s exciting about Emiliano’s work is that he shows us some of the complexity of what it looks like for a marginalized group to struggle for political office, and political power – not necessarily the same thing – in the 20th century U.S.

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