Then & Now | Northeast Ohio’s Mexican Community

Cleveland’s Mexican population has its roots in the 1920s, in the years just following the Mexican Revolution.  That revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920, caused many Mexicans to cross to El Norte.   That was not a new crossing as the border between the US and Mexico had been open and fluid, and indeed, much of the American Southwest, including California, had been Mexican territory prior to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Crossing the “border” meant safety and jobs, particularly given the expansion of agriculture and railroads in the southwest in the early years of the twentieth century.    Indeed, when the United States created the Quota Act of 1924, a highly prejudicial limitation of immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere, it set no limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, a signal, perhaps, that workers from Mexico were needed in the US.

Like many other migrants and immigrants, Mexicans moved to where they could find work.  Many followed the railroads up to Chicago and found jobs in heavy industry,  some continued to the east and found their ways to the steel mills of Lorain, Ohio, and then onto the industries in Cleveland.  (for an excellent account of early Mexican migration to Lorain, Ohio, see Frank Mendez’s book,  You Can’t be Mexican, You Talk Just Like Me).

By 1920 there were 679 Mexicans in Cleveland, most working in factories.   Many lived in and around the area now occupied by the main campus of Cuyahoga Community College and there, they found their way to Hiram House Social Settlement, which by the late 1930s was hosting displays of Mexican dance and culture.

In that same decade the community established a forum to discuss the problems and issues of the time.  Headed by Felix Delgado, that forum was formalized as the Club Azteca in 1932.   In 1951 the Club had raised enough money to establish a formal headquarters at 5602 Detroit Avenue.  The Club became the sponsor of the celebration of two major Mexican holidays, Cinco de Mayo, which marks the Mexican victory over the French in 1862 and Mexican Independence Day on September 16.

One of the most critical issues confronting Mexicans in the United States during the 1930s was the Great Depression during which many industrial cities, such as Detroit, sent Mexican immigrants back to Mexico by bus or train. During that decade Cleveland’s Mexican population fell to 162.   It would grow again during World War II when workers were needed for the steel mills and industries in northern Ohio and by the early 1980s an estimated 4,000 Mexicans or individuals of Mexican descent lived in the Greater Cleveland area.  By this time the community was centered on west side along Lorain and Detroit Avenues.

Despite the decline of Cleveland’s overall population since 1950 (when it was 914,808) the Mexican-American population has remained at around 4,000 (based on the 2010 census) and stands as the second largest of our Spanish-Speaking communities, and a vibrant part of city’s economy.  Its importance and contributions to the history of the city have recently been recognized by permission to establish a Mexican garden within the Cultural Gardens on Rockefeller Park.  The Western Reserve Historical Society was honored to be able to work with Andrea Villalón of the Comité Mexicano de Cleveland in the process of preparing the application.  

Planning for a Mexican Cultural Garden in Cleveland

Members of the Mexican community of Cleveland gathered at the Hispanic Alliance building to start the process of establishing a Mexican Cultural Garden, one of the chain of over 30 ethnic gardens of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation.