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The Machiavelli of the Mexican American People: Steelworkers, the Catholic Church, and Building Political Power

A photo of Robert Segovia, instructing a class. Two students stand at the chalkboard with Segovia.

A photo of Robert Segovia, instructing a class. Two students stand at the chalkboard with Segovia.Robert Segovia (left) instructing class. Emerito Torres and Agapito Cruz (at chalkboard). Photo courtesy of The Hammond Times, March 20, 1955.

This piece is a response to our recent Call for Submissions: Histories of Labor in the U.S. For our submission guidelines, click here.

In 1951, St. Jude’s Catholic Church, in partnership with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, opened its doors to a new program: Dehon College.[1] Located in East Chicago, an industrial, lakefront town of Northwest Indiana, these three institutions comprised important pillars of the Spanish-speaking community blocks from the primary city employer, Inland Steel. Dehon College was an English-language program, established with the financial support of Inland Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, that sought to provide immigrants with skills in English and encourage permanent residency.[2] The College was started by Frederick Maravilla, a veteran of World War II and a University of Chicago graduate, and Father John P. Flanagan, who hoped the church could provide Americanization programs for the East Chicago immigrant community.[3] Dehon College was one such program. However, Dehon was to have an even broader political impact in East Chicago, with the hiring of Robert F. Segovia as both Assistant Director and full-time instructor. Segovia educated previously-excluded ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican students about politics and emphasized the importance of community engagement. The College became a vital component of how he asserted his political influence.

Segovia recognized this experiment’s political potential. As children, individuals like Segovia and Maravilla witnessed efforts by the local American Legion to repatriate ethnic Mexicans.[4] For Segovia, this experience highlighted the need for political power in his community—their removal was possible only because the community lacked political power. For decades, the city, run by a Democratic political machine, did not even work to court the primarily ethnic Mexican vote, deeming it minimal. And initial efforts within the community failed to mobilize voters. In this context, Dehon College became a vehicle for the Spanish-speaking community to pursue influence and push for political power, as outsiders seeking to become insiders.

The College proved a popular initiative among the growing ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican community, who arrived to work for the city’s primary employer, Inland Steel. In 1955, the College enrolled two hundred people for one semester, with nearly another two hundred on the waiting list. Dehon College attracted a variety of students. Primarily Spanish-speaking, they ranged in age from sixteen to sixty, including both men and women. Single migrant men, working in steel during the off-season for the beet fields of Michigan and Northern Indiana, enrolled in the classes as well. While many students were steelworkers, others were domestic workers, service employees, and small-business owners.[5]

In the classroom, Segovia devised numerous types of courses to accommodate these students. These included “English Through Pictures,” which incorporated film, radio recordings, and charts; in another course, signs from the steel mill were used as visual lessons and doubled as teaching workplace safety. Additionally, Segovia taught a class to the steelworkers entitled “Citizenship.”[6] This course aimed to introduce the laborers to voting, government structures, and basic civics. The course offered Segovia an opportunity to impress onto his students his own political understanding, often rooted in Latinas and Latinos supporting their neighbors as their elected representatives. In this way, the curriculum at Dehon gave Segovia the tools to begin building a patronage network.

Black and white photo of students at Dehon College. They sit at a table holding signs from a steel mill.From left: Valentin Ortiz, Santos Morales, Joe A. Gutierrez, and Rafael Z. Ochoa. “Dehon College’s Goal: Help Americanize Immigrants,” The Hammond Times, March 20, 1955. Photo courtesy of The Hammond Times.

Most politics in East Chicago were run by an association of Democratic voters organized on a neighborhood level (via precincts) to make sure its candidates were elected (often in exchange for political jobs or services), but Segovia sought to circumvent these endorsements and hierarchies. In 1954, without the endorsement of the political machine, Segovia financed his campaign for precinct committeeman in East Chicago.[7] One supporter, Robert Aviña, recalled that Segovia claimed to have spent $5,000 dollars and canvassed every resident in his precinct to win his position.[8] Segovia’s successful campaign drew on his connection to adult learners, and his victory allowed him to win his friends positions as precinct committeemen by repeating the strategy in adjacent precincts and using his supporters as assistants. Many were also fellow members of Twenty-Twenty or the Latin American Democratic Club of East Chicago. Twenty-Twenty served as a vital incubator for future talent and a method to build campaign funds. Each of the twenty core members donated twenty dollars to the budget, which in turn funded select candidates for office both in East Chicago and in Local 1010 of the United Steelworkers Union (USW), one of the largest unions in the United States.[9] It was his connection to the Twenty-Twenty network, along with his ability to reach district residents (both through the classroom and via canvassing) that helped Segovia win his position as precinct committeeman.

This voting block of Latinas and Latinos became a vital component of Segovia’s political power and influence. As a precinct committeeman, Segovia gained the ability to hire his supporters to work polling places. Uniting residents behind particular candidates allowed Segovia to ensure that those loyal to him began to fill other offices, such as the precinct committee, and later councilman positions. With this voting position in city government, Segovia advocated for more supporters in positions of hiring, such as the Parks Department, granting him informal influence over even more patronage. This only grew as Segovia gained direct influence and the final say about hiring in the school district. From his office, Segovia could use his political power and extensive network to broker a job for any supporter, or potential supporter, who asked.

For a political machine, the precinct committeeman represented a vital gear. As the face of the party in their precinct, these individuals canvassed homes each election to ensure that the preferred candidate received votes. According to Aviña, “Usually the precinct committeemen are picked [by the Democratic Party], or who’s going to run for the precinct committee is determined by the man who has the councilmen position.”[10] However, Segovia built up his own base before even being elected to the precinct committee. Through Dehon College, Segovia gained access to potential new voters and could frame himself as a leader in his community. In this position, Segovia reiterated the need for unity to ensure Latinos controlled their blocks and neighborhoods, giving them power that they could then leverage across the city.

By building this support backward, Segovia formed a voting bloc that ensured him more precinct committee positions each election—this meant that before there were ever any Latino councilmen, Segovia had created an effective sub-machine to guarantee their success. This sub-machine forced the main political machine to negotiate with the Latino community. Opponents of Segovia began to label him “the Machiavelli of the Mexican American people.”[11]

Dehon College contributed significantly to the growth of a Latino sub-machine. Former students became vital supporters not only for Segovia but also for his preferred candidates and friends, allowing Segovia to build a patronage network that extended into Local 1010 of USW, the school district, and the Parks Department, all places where Segovia’s supporters held hiring positions. For example, one of Segovia’s former pupils, steelworker Victor Manuel Martinez, went on to become a writer and editor for the bilingual Latin Times. From this position, Martinez penned fiery columns denouncing political machines, the manipulation of the Latin community, and calling for unity, like Segovia, among the residents into a cohesive voting block.[12] By 1959, a majority of the precinct committee in the Sixth and Fifth Districts were Latinos and supporters of Segovia.[13] That same year, Segovia got a job at Washington High School, where he became the Assistant Principal and Dean of Boys in 1963. Martinez would use the Latin Times to publicize where Latinas and Latinos found work, often due to Segovia’s promotion to the Assistant Superintendent of Personnel, in 1970. As the Assistant Superintendent of Personnel, Segovia could distribute patronage in custodial, clerical, and teaching jobs. This ability to help hire in Latinas and Latinos only expanded his network of influence.

Segovia’s successes forced the political machine to reevaluate its relationship with the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. Mayor Walter Jeorse became the first machine candidate to include a Mexican on his ballot, Joseph Maravilla, for the school board. When Jeorse failed to appoint a Mexican American into the position of Department Head in any municipal department, Segovia’s bloc switched to Jeorse’s opponent, Dr. John B. Nicosia, who then won a narrow election with strong support from the Latino districts.

However, there were limits to Segovia’s political power. In 1958, he launched an unsuccessful bid for Sixth District Councilman.[14] While the district contained a large concentration of ethnic Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, it was not the entirety of the residents. Furthermore, the presence of other Latino candidates, who Segovia supporters claimed were paid to run by the Democratic machine, split the vote and cost Segovia the election. After this failed bid, Segovia exited electoral politics as a candidate, opting not to even run for reelection to his precinct committee position.[15]

Some critics claimed Segovia attained success through nefarious means. In 1964, a probe by the Northwest Indiana Crime Commission accused Segovia and his supporters of allowing voting infractions to occur.[16] While these allegations never became formal charges, they illuminate Segovia’s particular understanding of politicking. The accuser claimed that Segovia and his Latino precinct committee had “foreigners” voting under registered voting aliases and that, in some cases, Latinos from neighboring cities were voting in East Chicago. Critics had leveled similar accusations at the East Chicago political machine for decades and, if the allegations against Segovia were true, they suggest that he adopted the political methods of his surroundings.

From his position at Dehon College, Segovia built a vital foundation, block-by-block, for political power in his community. These blocks would assist him in creating a brief but effective sub-machine that the city was forced to contend with until it no longer remained a cohesive source of votes. Segovia’s political machine began to break down when the Latino unity that it was based upon faltered. In 1975, Segovia’s sub-machine lost several precincts when the primary political machine pitted his candidates against African Americans and other Latinos, often Puerto Rican, as well as dissenters from Segovia’s organization. In 1977, the city administration removed Segovia’s appointee to the Parks Department, replacing him with a Latino more closely aligned with the administration than Segovia.[17] This deprived the aspiring “Machiavelli” of access to patronage appointments in the Parks Department, where his allies had been able to hire Segovia supporters. Shortly after, a group of Puerto Rican and Black residents complained that Segovia excluded their communities from positions within East Chicago’s school district.[18] Under these allegations and resulting public pressure, the city council fired Segovia as Superintendent of Personnel.[19] Without the ability to unilaterally distribute patronage appointments to the Parks Department or school system, Segovia’s sub-machine faltered. An ethnic sub-machine gave way to a more precarious multi-racial machine, whose components competed over an ever-dwindling amount of resources as deindustrialization brought more difficult economic times.

Emiliano Aguilar is a political and labor historian of the United States, specifically the Latina/o Midwest, at the University of Notre Dame. His manuscript in progress, Building a Latino Machine: Caught Between Corrupt Political Machines and Good Government Reform, explores how the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican community of East Chicago, Indiana, navigated machine politics in the 20th and 21st centuries to further their inclusion in municipal and union politics. The project further outlines this inclusion’s costs (and paradoxes) for generations of residents and reformers. In grappling for political power, these Latina and Latino residents renegotiated their place within the city, particularly under the threat of urban renewal and later deindustrialization within the rust belt community.

[1] Señoras of Yesteryear, Mexican American Harbor Lights: Pictorial History (1992), 83.

[2] “St. Jude Annual Parish Report,” Diocese of Fort Wayne, Oct. 31, 1951, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Archives.

[3] “Dehon College’s Goal: Helps Americanize Immigrants,” The Hammond Times, March 20, 1955, p. 8.

[4] For the repatriation movement, see Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (2006). On repatriation in East Chicago, see Emiliano Aguilar, “‘Many people opted to leave’: The Repatriation Movement in East Chicago, Indiana,” Immigration and Ethnic History Society Online, March 23, 2020. Frederick Ruiz Maravilla interview by Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, September 24, 2016, (Indiana Historical Society Latino History Project, William H. Smith Memorial Library, Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center); Frederick Maravilla interview by Emiliano Aguilar, March 19, 2018, notes (in Emiliano Aguilar’s possession).

[5] “Dehon College’s Goal,” The Hammond Times.

[6] “Dehon College’s Goal,” The Hammond Times.

[7] Julian Samora and Richard A. Lamanna, “Mexican Americans in a Midwest Metropolis: A Study of East Chicago,” Mexican-American Study Project (July 1967).

[8] “Interview with Robert Aviña,” transcript, folder 4, box 139, East Chicago Study, Julian Samora Papers, Benson Latin American Collection (University of Texas at Austin).

[9] Antonio Barreda interview by Emiliano Aguilar, September 4, 2020, notes (in Emiliano Aguilar’s possession); Ray Guillen interview by Emiliano Aguilar, July 31, 2021, mp3 (in Emiliano Aguilar’s possession).

[10] “Interview with Robert Aviña,” Julian Samora Papers.

[11] The title appears in various newspapers, though the bilingual Latin Times actually utilized the term endearingly to describe Segovia.

[12] The author’s favorites are Victor Manuel Martinez, “Politics Concerns You,” Latin Times, Dec. 11, 1970, p. 3; Victor Manuel Martinez, “Those ‘No Good Mexicans,’” Latin Times, May 7, 1971, p. 2; and Victor Manuel Martinez, “Think About It Latins,” Latin Times, Jan. 14, 1972, p. 2.

[13] Samora and Lamanna, “Mexican Americans in a Midwest Metropolis,” 88–89.

[14] “Los Politicos Y El Pueblo Opinan,” Latin Times, Dec. 27, 1958, pp. 1, 3; “Jeorse Has 2-1 Margin In Victory,” The Hammond Times, May 6, 1959, p. 1.

[15] “Interview with Robert Aviña,” Julian Samora Papers.

[16] “Crime Commission Probes Vote Fraud,” The Hammond Times, June 14, 1964, pp. 1–2; “Segovia Denies Ousting Twin City Poll Workers,” The Hammond Times, June 20, 1964.

[17] Samuel Wyatt, “Politician Loses Clout,” The Times, Hammond, Ind., March 20, 1977, p. 19.

[18] Samuel Wyatt, “Black Votes Courted,” The Times, Hammond, Ind., May 2, 1975, p. 15; Samuel Wyatt, “Segovia’s Politics Criticized,” The Times, Aug. 31, 1975, p. 17.

[19] Samuel Wyatt, “Segovia Axed as Personnel Chief,” The Times, Hammond, Ind., Dec. 28, 1976, p. 13.