Every September in Indiana Harbor (East Chicago), Lake County, Indiana there is an annual parade and events for Fiestas Patrias, a celebration of Mexican Independence Day. The earliest record of this Hoosier staple celebration of Mexican heritage was in 1924.
The Times reported on August 21, 1924, a planned September celebration of Mexican Independence being organized by Sociedad Mutualista Benito Júarez, led by Julian Buitron. This mutualista (mutual aid society) was comprised of 123 active members, who led preparations for a grand series of celebrations. Mayor Frank Callahan issued a permit for a street parade. Other events were a dance and banquet at the National Hall (139th and Butternut Street) in Indiana Harbor. Chicago-based Mexican Consul; Luis Lupian G. would address the Mexican colony at the banquet. For the parade, businesses and residences along Block, Pennsylvania and Washington Avenues in Indiana Harbor were decorated with flags and bunting with the patriotic colors of Mexico and the United States. Population estimates of the Indiana Harbor Mexicans are reported in local newspapers as between “2,000 – 3,000 souls.” Presently this annual tradition of a Fiestas Patrias parade exists today, it is organized by Unión Benefica Mexicana (formerly Sociedad Mutualista Benito Juárez and Sociedad Mutualista Cuauhtémoc).
Perhaps the most recognized and celebrated annual tradition is the election and celebration of the Queen of Fiestas Patrias. While the parade began in 1924, the queen tradition began in 1926. On Wednesday, September 15, 1926, at a grand ball at Auditorium Hall (Michigan Avenue and Grand Boulevard), twenty-one-year-old Maria del Refugio Ramirez (later Godinez) was crowned as the first ever Queen of Fiestas Patrias. She was born in Ixtlán de los Hevores, Michoacán, Mexico, and came to live in the United States in 1917, initially in Kansas City, and later settled with her family in Indiana Harbor in 1925.
In 2017, Maria del Refugio’s daughter, Sandra Valdes sat down for an audio-recorded interview for the Indiana Historical Society’s Multicultural Collecting Initiative. She recounted her personal experience growing up in The Harbor and her mother’s experience being nominated as queen and the early days of Indiana Harbor. Maria del Refugio would leave Indiana Harbor, publishing a heartfelt and patriotic goodbye letter to the Mexican Colony of Indiana Harbor in the local Spanish-language newspaper; El Amigo del Hogar on October 31, 1928. She later returned to Indiana Harbor in 1947 and remarkably lived to be 104 years old, passing away in 2010. During Sandra’s interview, she presented a series of stunning photographs of her mother as queen with her court. Previously these photos were not publicly shared outside of the Valdes family home.
After a several-year hiatus (the third in its history), Indiana’s oldest celebration of Mexican-American heritage and the Fiestas Patrias parade resumed on September 11, 2022.
This story and the lived experiences of many others will be released in a publication later this fall from the IHS Press, Hoosier Latinos: A Century of Struggle, Service, and Success. It covers the diverse history of Indiana’s Latino community, their history, culture, and contribution all in their own words. It is authored by Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, Daniel Gonzales with forward by Dr. Sujey Vega (Latino Heartland, Of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest).
Please check www.indianahistory.org for more information.