If you have yet to visit Mexico, you may need to make a trip soon. Yea, you might have heard of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta but other places that provide you the rich history of what the culture is really about is what many may need to invest to see first hand. This month (September) we take a look at the organizations, people, groups, youth, and events that have kept the Mexican tradition alive and well here in the Midwest. Just because Mexico is 1000 miles away does not mean we cannot celebrate the culture as if we were living there right now.
Many individuals have come here from Mexico to start their lives, businesses, and families and because of that the Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland area have blossomed with latinos from all over, especially of the Mexican heritage. Some may be against the thought of having so many immigrants running around the region, but people also forget that those so-called “immigrants” are the ones providing rich culture to the community, the economy, and education system.
If Miss Universe (Miss Mexico) is not a sure sign of Mexican Americans being more than just in the eyes of most ethnicity, (a typical Hispanic) than think again. Ms. Universe is the symbol of growth to the Mexican community, and the expansion of what has already begun here in the United States. As Ms. Universe took center stage in front of the entire world, locals here in Northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland plan to take part in the Bicentennial and Centennial activities occurring in the month of September. Some of those individuals took the time to discuss their stories and their plans for the commemoration. One of those groups is the Union Benefica Mexicana in which in many eyes is and still the prestigious organization in which started the whole ordeal of Mexican Culture awareness in Northwest Indiana.
The Union Benefica Mexicana or also known as the U.B.M. was founded in Indiana Harbor, on July 8th, 1956. It was formed by the former Mutualist Societies “Benito Juarez and Mexicana Cuauhtemoc” and later on the 25th of November of the same year by the Sociedad Protectora-Benefica de Trabajadores Latino-Americanos,” adopting as it motto Union, Progress and Fraternity. It is currently under the hands of Antonio Barreda. Barreda has been an active member since 1964 and has done many wonderful things with his time there. With over 40 years with the UBM, Barreda and others have been able to keep up the tradition that many founding leaders of the UBM built from the ground up. As it did when it first started in 1956, the same aspirations are still in tact; “provide cultural, educational, health and other programs of benefit to the Mexican community and others in Northwest Indiana, and to advocate on issues of interest to its members, and to provide mutual aid for members and others, and to sponsor social and cultural events, and to provide space and facilities for a broad range of purposes. In pursuing these objectives, the Union Benefica Mexicana aspires both to serve and empower the Mexican Community. It seeks to serve all residents of the region as well.”
Once a member,Always a member
Gloria Reyna, has been an active member of the UBM since her and her husband Raul were married in 1955. The Laredo, Texas native moved to East Chicago, Indiana in 1953 after spending the first 21 years of her life there. Her husband would join the UBM and become one of the most notable men in history of the organization. He became president in 1959 and helped lead the organization to some of the most memorable years in UBM’s history. He organized the UBM’s 1st parade and ever since then, it has been noted as the most entertaining parade in Northwest Indiana.
Gloria would soon become active in the UBM after her husband was comfortably settled in. Gloria teamed up with some of the most respected women not only in the UBM but the Northwest Indiana region.
Gloria would go on to become President of the Ladies Auxiliary in 1966 and continue to impact the UBM through her volunteering efforts such as organizing dances, tickets for events, and assisting any officers with help.
Having seven kids is no easy task for a women in Gloria’s position at this time, so with this came the responsibility of being a working mom finding ways to control her free time from the UBM and her family. To Gloria having a big family was very important to her, but she knew she did not want to leave the UBM for good. The 78 year old Mexican activist would continue to do work for the UBM at home, whether it was making phone calls, sending mail, or donating money to the UBM. Of course having seven kids, a UBM Queen was bound to be in the mix, perhaps even two. Her two daughters, Rosalinda and Silvia were both crowned UBM Queens in their own respected years. For Gloria it was an honor to have her daughters win such an acclaimed award especially for their culture. “The UBM grows within generations, and I just hope to see more and more youth get involved so they can continue to past down the legacy they could possibly have through the UBM and if not the UBM, maybe an organization like the UBM,” said Gloria.
With the Bicentennial and Centennial approaching, Gloria tells Nosotros Us Magazine that she is just as excited to celebrate this holiday as she would any other Mexican holiday. “Every year is just as important as the 200th and 100th year of Mexico’s independence. “When I moved here from Texas, the amount of Mexicans living here was much higher and because of that, it was more important for us to celebrate our independence each year.”
The significance of such a powerful organization
“The UBM was once known as the most powerful cultural organization in both Northern parts of Indiana and Illinois but since the lack of involvement the numbers have gone down and it is a shame. We are celebrating the Bicentennial and Centennial of Mexico and our very first ever organization cannot even compare an event to an event that happened
40 years ago because it is not even close to where it needs to be. Politicians use to have prior arrangements for these UBM events so they can come and greet people but yet still support the UBM for their efforts, now… you will be lucky to see one politician there. Granted they supply a pretty penny for the winners but they are still there for the citizens but most importantly for the Mexican community. There are way too many Mexicano’s here in the city to let such a great and historic organization go down the drain. People talk about how the culture is dying out, but yet there are all kinds of opportunities to be taken but no one wants to do the work. I saw the things and the sacrifices my husband had to do to assure the UBM stood tall for the Mexican community and now they can barely have a whole board committee. When he passed away in 1988, yes I could had left and gone wherever I wanted but I stood here in East Chicago, Indiana and cried. I may not be crying anymore, but I am still here serving my Mexican duties to the UBM and to me that is all I believe I can.”
Come and Go
The UBM has seen members come and go, but in all of the years in existence one member stood out from the rest and she let it be known to many. Celia Martinez, widow to the infamous Alfonso Martinez had been apart of the UBM for over 30 years and did quite a job as she served in numerous positions for the organization. Celia took the lead when most women never stood a chance at this time and made it possible for women’s voices to be heard. Her resilience to let a man overthrown her at anything was out of this world and took the UBM by storm.
Celia resides in East Chicago, Indiana and still serves her community at St Catherine’s Hospital as a volunteer worker at their gift shop. The hard worker she is, you can almost tell that she has a story that goes the distance and makes people wonder if she will ever stop. The California native came to East Chicago with her family and forever stood a local resident of the Harbor. She lives in the same house that her and her husband Alfonso Martinez Sr. bought in the 1970’s and continues to live her life the way she wants and the way she knows she can. Her rich Mexican heritage background keeps her resurgence within herself and her family, the pride that comes out of being a Mexican American helps her each day and teaches others that one person can make a difference if they are willing to take up the challenge.
Celia and Alfonso wanted to make an impact on the community as best as they could so Alfonso went on to join the UBM and Celia went on working for the city under Mayor Jeorse. When Alfonso began his work as police officer, Celia stepped down and went to work at the Lake County Health Department. Now, you may wondering, how many jobs can Celia possibly have had, well to her it wasn’t work until she opened up her restaurant in Calumet City that grew tremendously throughout the region that she wanted to give all that up to become a stay home mom for her two children. “I could remember Alfonso getting really upset with me, because I wanted to close down the restaurant just so I could stay home and be there when the kids got out of school. He said, “but we are making so much money and doing so good, we can’t just pick up and leave.” I told him, “I wanted to be there when my kids got out of school so I can watch them and make sure they are safe.” Of course Alfonso had no say over this, and Celia’s way of words, in which she was known for, influenced Alfonso to close down the restaurant and allow Celia to be the mother figure she always wanted to be.
Taking on a new Challenge
When Celia had supremacy with her beautiful children she decided take up a secretary role at St. Judes Church Auxiliary, then later taking on the challenge of running for State Representative. Yes, Celia “Sally” Martinez was a state candidate but ran into a huge issue as decision time came around. While most Hispanics are taught to always stick together, Celia was thrown into a position where she and another Hispanic where in the same race for the final eleven positions which could have led into being in office. Celia knew that the state of Indiana would not vote two Hispanics in and so she could not understand why this gentleman would continue to try and run against her. A difficult decision it was for her and her family but both candidates stood in and failed to receive enough votes to get into the final eleven. “This just goes to show you that we need to stick together as a culture, other races do not care and if we as one society cannot work together how do we expect to win as one race,” said Martinez.
Soon after the letdown of the election, Celia decided to focus more on local needs. She became active in the U.B.M. (Union Benefica Mexicana) along with her husband being on the board. Celia was asked to run the Mexican pageants but before she took part in that, she requested that they drop the rule in which forced the girls running in the pageant to go out and sell tickets on their own and who ever sold the most tickets would increase their chance in winning tremendously. Celia said no more to this rule and requested it to be dropped. After it had been passed, Celia accepted as pageant coordinator and would lead the UBM to professional level pageants.
When the men in the UBM thought Celia had everything she needed, she struck again, this time at the whole board of members. The UBM was ran by men for a great period of time, until Celia took ground in demanding that women should be able to be members as well. To the UBM, women were there only to do the dirty work and Celia was sick of it and wanted to begin to make a much bigger impact and the only way to do it was becoming a active member of the most powerful Hispanic organization in Northwest Indiana. As Celia fought her way into proving to the men that women can make a difference they were soon convinced and finally allowed women to be members.
Now that Celia had herself in the UBM’s core, she began making more things possible, and one of those were the first ever Cotillion. In 1956, Celia went on to build the first Cotillion Ball in UBM’s history. The successful event went on for several years before it faded away, but sure enough coming back in the late 1990’s .
Coming to terms with Society
“You can’t please everyone, and you can’t expect for people to accept you, but it is how you take it and go from it.” Celia recalls, when her and her husband were in search for an apartment in East Chicago and the majority of people living in EC where whites, and some of the landlords would turn down Mexicans, saying “we do not rent to your kind.” Being very hurt after hearing that, Celia would not give in, and certainly would not give up in looking to find their own place to live at. On Parrish Avenue, some white homeowners would purposely bump up prices to Mexican buyers who were looking to purchase a house. “It was a sad time to be Hispanic with all the racism taking place, but now that you look at East Chicago, the whole population is Hispanic so I suppose we won that battle a long time ago, said Martinez.
“This year is not just another year in the books of Mexico’s history, it is more than just a celebration, and people need to understand that. For one, I am just happy that I have lasted this long to be apart of Mexico’s Bicentennial and Centennial,” said Celia Martinez. “I am happy to see so many organizations being more involved with their culture and there new Latino Flavor. If my husband was here today with us, he would be very proud of what Mexico has gone through and where they are at now, all of us have come a long way, and this year means and proves to everyone that we are here, we’ve been here, and we are not going anywhere.”
As we turn back to Celia’s legacy as a wife, a mom, a grandmother, a friend, and a community leader, she will always be noted as one of the most respectable and well-known woman in East Chicago’s history. With so much to say about a woman who came from the hills of California, to the city suburbs of Chicago, we can say that we have learned so much from her and hope that another Celia Martinez is sure enough to come passing through East Chicago and willing to take on some of the challenges she once did.
The First Royalty
As discussed before, with the UBM having its numerous of given names before becoming today’s known organization (Union Beneifca Mexicana), the first ever Mexican Queen was crowned in 1939. Consuelo “Connie” Manzo was the local organization’s first ever Mexican Queen and held the title as proud as any of the queens that would later take over the throne. She was born in San Antonio, Texas 1920 and would come over to East Chicago at the age of 12. The well respected and beautiful former majesty worked at Stanley Home Products for over 60 years, and held the title of District Manager as the only Latina to do so at the time.
Retracing her thoughts to the mid 1940’s, Connie spoke about her tenure as queen and why it was such an honor to be crowned such a high royalty. “Well back then, the Mexican community was not embarrassed of who they were, sort of like how we are now. But I was proud to be a Mexican American, well “Tejana” that is…the feeling I had was something hard to explain, not only because it was so long ago but something inside of me that was just unbelievable. I was part of a proud community and heritage. Mexican’s are very proud and by me being able to hold the highest position made me feel like a better person.”
Connie made it known to everyone that her reign as queen would be a tough act to follow, as she became very active in the community and her culture. “I did my best to reassure that my community that I loved knew that I was with them all the way, and I was ready to help them in any way I could.” This assignment of leading by example for everyone is still followed by many of those past and present queens and because of Connie introducing such an important role of leadership, the UBM could not be any happier for her being their first queen.
Without any desire to be in doubt about the Bicentennial and Centennial of Mexico, Connie gives us the clear picture of what 200 years and 100 years of Mexico’s history means to someone who has been an inspiration for many and a icon to those who have been involved in the UBM’s pageants. “It is such a big deal for me to be given the opportunity by my “Lord” who not only allows me to witness this, but to also be apart of it. We have come a long way. It was not always easy and with all of the issue’s surrounding today’s society, it is still a fight. But us Mexican people are proud and strong, if we have to fight for our freedom again then so be it. We would not be celebrating 100 years if we weren’t.
From the our past to our present we go, and thankfully we were able to catch up with recent former Mexican Queen of the UBM Jacqueline Alvardo, to tell us how being involved with her culture and heritage has helped her succeed into becoming the respectful young latina she is now.
While most 17 year olds are out and planning what might be going on a Saturday night, Jacqueline Alvarado was planning her future and making decisions which could lead her and her family to a much easier route for college. The 2009/2010 UBM queen had her word cut when she decided to run in the UBM’s Mexican pageant. The Munster Native and Purdue University Calumet bound nursing major was more than overwhelmed when she won the crown but rather was just content in running and having the opportunity to be apart a great cultural program that represents young Mexican women in the most profound ways possible. At the time,Jacqueline was 17 years old and thus making her the youngest queen ever in UBM history. Besides Jacqueline making history at such an early age, her older sister Dayanna,was also apart of the UBM’s Mexican pageant in 2006. Dayanna won the title of Duchess and was a huge influence on Jacqueline’s run at the Mexican Queen title. With the UBM having a long history of queens, Jacqueline has put herself on the pedestal and hopes to continue having an impact on the Mexican community. Even though, she has just given up her royalty to the latest UBM Queen Marianne Rosario, Jacqueline will move on to her studies and hopefully stay in tact with her inner roots.
Along with the crown came some responsibilities, and Jacqueline and her court were more than happy to oblige them. “My court and I were to sign a contract which basically stated that we now represent the UBM and we couldn’t do anything negative or inappropriate. My court and I represented the UBM throughout the entire year; and if I may say so myself I think we did an amazing job. We were invited to many different events and met people in incredibly high places. We not only did things that made us look good however, we also did things that helped our community.” Jacqueline and her court took action in the Latino Fair in Hammond, there they had vigils and marched for the rights of immigrants, they also participated at the Moms as Mentors Workshop at Bishop Noll Institute. Jacqueline also participated in a program called “Women of the Mexican Revolution” which was an act for the Ballet Folkorico Las Villistas. “I portrayed a soldadera named Margarita Ortega who was an amazing woman. This program helped people learn about the women who made a major difference in Mexico’s history, yet received little to no credit for it at all. This program impacted my culture greatly because, this not only has taught me about my background, it has also taught many different people. Also, each year the Queen and her court must complete several hours of community service, I believe that was a wonderful idea because I am a volunteer at different locations and I know how great it feels to give back to your community, so the fact that this was a requirement for the Queen and her court is an absolute delight.”
Bicentennial and Centennial
As most people believe that the newer generation today may not know anything about the Mexican Independence and its celebration to the Bicentennial and Centennial to come, well that is a no brainer. According to Jacqueline this year’s events should be celebrated with greater meaning than just a one day fiesta. “ Everyone should celebrate this because we cannot forget our roots. Children in today’s society are second or third generation already, therefore they do not really know where they came from, and most can’t even speak Spanish. I believe the Bicentennial and Centennial gives the people the opportunity to share stories of their heritage in Mexico and allows the kids to be proud of where they came from. It is something amazing that the children, teenagers, adults and the elderly get a chance to be a part of because we are alive to celebrate these amazing actions.” “We are allowed to celebrate for those who sacrificed their lives for us and get to commemorate them for their struggle, courage, and bravery.” With most of the youth losing ground on their heritage, Jacqueline encourages young Mexican Americans to continue on with their education. “The main thing young Mexican Americans can focus on is graduating, I know with hard work us Latinos can break the stereotypical barriers of Latino dropouts and right now that should be our main goal as the we stand as the outcast in this nation.
As Senorita Gloria Reyna said in her interview, that the UBM stood more than just a landmark for latinos in East Chicago, but for younger inspiring future Hispanic leaders that saw the UBM as a growing icon for further expansion of organizations like the Union Benefica Mexicana. “I remember sitting in meetings and a random guest would come take a seat and take notes of how we ran our organizations and then afterwards would introduce themselves and tell us that they wanted to begin their own group like the UBM in Illinois or elsewhere.” We were more than just the E.C. Mexican Home, we were a stepping stone for newer organizations to begin around the Midwest. Some of those organizations have grown so big that they are nationwide.”
Unfortunately we were not able to get ahold of some of those nationwide organizations but were able to take the time from the Midwest Mexico Tourism Board (MTB) which are stationed in Chicago. Even though the Midwest Mexico Tourism Board was not inspired by the UBM, they are still a symbol of Mexican organizations growing and looking for expansions as did the UBM at one point. Rodrigo Esponda, is the director for the Midwest MTB and has been working for the them since 2000. Rodrigo was born in Mexico City but was brought over to the Midwest to help promote tourism to Mexico by means of joint efforts with all stakeholders. MTB understands the importance of keeping the culture alive in the U.S. so they try to send more and more people to Mexico to learn about the heritage and history. “Mexican Americans are loyal travelers to Mexico. The need to learn and discover family roots in Mexico have contributed to increase tourism and has created jobs in many parts of Mexico. One out of every ten Mexicans work in tourism related activities,” said Esponda. With the Bicentennial and Centennial under the radar to most U.S. citizens this has given the MTB opportunity to lash out to travelers and give them room to learn about the history of this historic event. “For the Mexico Tourism Board, the Bicentennial and Centennial celebration are giving us the opportunity to promote our rich heritage by inviting people to visit the same cities and town where those historical events happened. We have worked with our tourism partners to promote special events happening throughout Mexico, some of them are currently offering or have already offered tours with the Bicentennial theme.”
Other smaller organizations are planning there own type of celebrations for the Bicentennial and Centennial, one of those groups is “Su Casa,” a program built for the Hispanic community for guidance and support ranging from aiding the youth, adults, and the elderly. Su Casa helps Hispanics who may not be able to understand some of the English Language yet and may need the extra push to begin developing a more comfortable life beginning at home. Su Casa, which means “your home,” is helped out by local bilingual educators and professionals who dedicate their time to help and give back to their Latino community. Raul Sanchez, an active member of the Su Casa program relates to some of the people who come in and out of “Su Casa,” and tells us it is because of his hard working family who came to Northwest Indiana from Mexico. “My parents were both born in Mexico. My mother is from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon where the majority of her side of the family still lives. My father is from Salamanca, Guanajuato and came to the United States at a young age. Most of his immediate family lives in Northwest Indiana.” With such a passionate side to him about his Mexican roots and history towards his culture, Raul tells us why this year is so important and why it should be important to many Mexicans. “I feel that along with displaying pride for those of us that identify with our Mexican roots and celebration of our historical accomplishments, we must also reflect on the challenges that we have overcome. More importantly, in order to be true to the spirit our identity we must observe the issues that we continue to struggle with in order to understand not only where we are from but where we would like to be as a ‘mestizo nation’ regardless of what side of the border you may be on,” said Sanchez. “We must understand that by educating ourselves, our youth, our people, we develop into an enlightened community that encourages an emphasis on academics and career development to promote professional advancement. Growth will stem from having educated leaders that can stimulate change and progress armed with intelligence and real GANAS!”
Su Casa will be hosting a Mexican Independence Day Celebration (and Open House) on Friday, September 17th beginning at 4pm at the Su Casa Youth Culture Center (4506 Tod Avenue – East Chicago, IN). All teenage students, parents and community leaders are invited to attend. Free of Charge.
A New Beginning
Inspiring former members have gone their own way to assemble their own non-for profit organizations like S.C.C.L.R. (Sociedad Cultural Civica, La Reforma) Debra Bolaños who has been inspired by her father, her mother, and her culture to lead the Latino community to a brighter future has done just that but in various ways. As director of Xel-Ha Escuela de Danza and President of SCCLR, Debra has transformed the premier Latino community into a well known and more respected environment by neighboring and distant cities. “Since 2006 our mission was to preserve the Mexican culture through art, music, history and folklore and educate the youth in our community to respect and be proud of their heritage. We do this with our events we bring to the community every year,” said Debra. SCCLR has brought a new vibe to the East Chicago community and has expanded to local cities around the Northwest Indiana region. To them it is all about giving back to the Mexican Community. They have worked along side of many special guest from the Hispanic world. Their Night of Latin Culture is there most popular event, they include performers from across the nation and even international travelers.
The logo of the organization is the angel de indepencia de Mexico, which is the Angel of Independence of Mexico. They strive to prove to Mexican citizens that they should not be afraid to voice their opinion and become active in the community. Everyone here in the United States, is an immigrant, and people just reflect that to us Mexicans. We need to take advantage of opportunities and take action.” “My feelings are very hard to explain and when I do I get chills. The passion and pride I feel of a country that is so rich in culture and history is unreal. I was born in the United States but because of my parents my roots were instilled in us. We learned about our American history and our Mexican history and that is how it should be for every race, said an emotional Debra Bolaños. One of the upcoming events that are in tact for SCCLR is their unveiling of “The Busto de Hidalgo” “These ideas came up about a year ago. We wanted to donate the bust of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla a Mexican revolutionary priest who is considered the foremost patriot of the Mexican Independence of 1810. Having something that represented Mexico on it’s Bicentennial year of the independence and the Centennial (100 years of the Mexican Revolution) by our group should mean a lot to the Mexican community. It will be something up every day so people can come in and learn a little about their heritage and history of how and why we are free Mexican people to this day.” -Bolaños
You can follow S.C.C.L.R. on their new website at