As a teenager in the early 1930s, Abe Morales scoured East Chicago alleys
searching for wooden boxes to break into pieces to heat his family's house.
The Depression had left his father without work and their two-bedroom home
without electricity, gas or water.
For years the family of eight struggled against hunger and other daily
hardships while they faced another threat -- being forced to leave Northwest
Indiana, their home since 1924.
"We didn't want to go back to Mexico," recalls Morales, now 76 and a Gary
resident. Many Morales relatives lived in the East Chicago area by that time.
All around them, neighbors and friends -- once workers in local steel mills
and other industries -- piled into trains bound for their homeland.
Some chose to leave; others felt pressured to go. And those such as Abe
Morales' family made sacrifices to survive and remain in America.
Like some other U.S. communities with significant Mexican populations, Gary
and East Chicago in the early 1930s initiated "Repatriation," a plan aimed at
deporting unemployed Mexican families and reducing public aid spent on them.
The American Legion proposed the plan locally.
"...Ridding our local labor market of Mexicans has been, as I have seen it,
a way of relieving the unemployment situation here," wrote Paul E. Kelly, an
American Legion representative appointed to assist other agencies with the
Township trustees, industries and private citizens footed the bill for much
of the transportation while railroad companies provided special fares.
The movement "knocked the heck out of" the Mexican community in Northwest
Indiana, Morales said.
In 1930, Indiana Harbor in East Chicago was home to as many as 6,000
Mexicans, said Lance Trusty, professor of history at Purdue University Calumet.
That number had dwindled to roughly 1,300 by 1940.
Many Mexicans had come to Northwest Indiana during the 1919 steel strike and
in the 1920s to work as laborers in the mills or on railroads when economic
times were good. Local industries had recruited some of them to fill in during
the strike or supply extra labor later.
During the Depression, many Mexicans -- and other workers -- lost their jobs.
With no income, some families undoubtedly volunteered to leave, Trusty said.
"If you came up here to work and there's no work, you don't have to be
driven out," he said.
Agreeing to relocate to Mexico sometimes was easier than receiving public
assistance, historians said. Generally proud people, Mexicans often didn't want
to take public aid, Trusty said. And some families reported they couldn't get
relief if they didn't accept repatriation, historians said.
"It was sort of coercive," said James B. Lane, professor of history at
Indiana University Northwest.
"Either go or starve," was the message perceived by Mexicans at the time,
said Morales, born in Texas. His father was the only family member not born in
the United States.
The Morales family had left cotton-picking in Laredo, Texas, in 1922 with
plans to move to East Chicago where wages were said to be higher. Stints of
work in Blue Island and South Chicago delayed their final destination until
Abe Morales' father lost his Inland Steel job in 1931. By 1932, steel mills
in the region were operating at only about 15 percent of their capacity.
A committee of citizens and officials organizing the repatriation maintained
a list of Mexican families unemployed or receiving public assistance and
targeted those individuals for trips to the Mexican border.
The Morales name was on the list.
But relocating to Mexico wasn't part of the family's plan. The children and
parents made sacrifices and worked to hang on until their father found another
"Sometimes I wouldn't eat so my brothers and sisters could have more. I'd
tell my mother, 'I'm not hungry, give it to them,'" said Morales, the oldest
Morales shined shoes and delivered newspapers to scrape together extra money
for groceries. His father, Abraham Sr., did odd jobs in exchange for food.
The children hauled buckets of water home from a school across the street.
A small house combined with a growing family created some difficulties,
too. "We were crowded. Some of us slept on the floor," Morales said.
Finally, in 1934, Morales' father agreed to take a train to the border, and
plans for their passage were under way. He intended to settle the family in
Texas, not Mexico, Morales said.
But a few weeks before their scheduled departure, the steel mill called
Morales' father back to work for two days a week, and the family narrowly
avoided the move.
Tales of life back in Mexico terrified Pilar Gamez Norrick's family in 1930.
"People got sick; children died," said Norrick, now 73 and a resident of
Wheatfield in Jasper County. Many of the unemployed who left couldn't find work
in Mexico either, historians said.
Gamez Norrick's Mexican-born parents, Jose and Maria Gamez, moved to East
Chicago in 1924. Former migrant workers in Texas, the pair hoped for a better
Once in Indiana Harbor, Jose worked for a cement company and the family
prospered. But in 1930 he lost his job.
To avoid returning to Mexico, the Gamez family -- then two adults and seven
children -- trekked to Iowa to work in the sugar beet fields until they could
come back to East Chicago. Three of the children, including Pilar, worked 10-
and 12-hour days in the fields.
"It was hot and dry, and the ground was hard," Gamez Norrick remembered. "It
seemed like the rows went on forever."
Two years later, the Gamez family returned to East Chicago where their
father looked for work for about six months. He later got a job at Inland Steel
and the family grew to 13 children. Gamez Norrick has four children and 20
grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Throughout their troubles, her parents were fiercely patriotic and always
considered America "the land of opportunity," Gamez Norrick said. All nine of
the couple's sons served in the U.S. military.
Morales, himself a veteran of the U.S. Marines and retiree of Inland Steel,
agreed that fighting to stay in America was worth the sacrifice.
At 76, he volunteers at area social agencies and visits nearby farms to
teach migrant workers how to read English.
His own generosity likely stems from that of his father, who even in the
worst months of the Depression offered people sleeping on park benches a warmer
spot next to the stove on the floor of his home.
"I think that's why I became involved in community work. I've been doing it
all my life."