Tales from the ‘overseen’: East Chicago residents line up to vote

Esmerelda Gutierrez outside the polling station in Marktown on Nov. 8
Esmerelda Gutierrez leaving the polling station in Marktown, East Chicago in Indiana on Nov. 8. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

By Cloee Cooper

“I think we got screwed this year,” said Ashley Zavala, a 28-year-old custodian at a public school in East Chicago, Ind. She voted for Hillary Clinton, but said her option this election was between worse and worst.

“When you have a small town like East Chicago, you are overseen,” said Jose Rodriguez, sitting in front of the polling booth with Zavala. “A lot of the small towns in America today, [politicians] just seem to pass over us.”

Rodriguez used to work for the City of East Chicago but is now unemployed.

East Chicago is located just 25 miles south of downtown Chicago, Ill., yet it is far removed from the bright lights of the cosmopolitan center.  East Chicago residents share the air with two large industrial sites– the largest BP oil refinery in the world and Arcelor Mittal, the largest steelmaking facility in North America.

“My dad got cancer. Then my brother died of brain and throat cancer because we live in this polluted city that we try to fix,” said Ruby Guillen, an East Chicago resident, and former school teacher. She said she also survived cancer.

In the last year, an elementary school was shut down and an affordable housing complex was investigated by the EPA due to dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic. The residents have been advised by public officials to leave the project.

While Indiana as a whole leans toward the Republican Party, East Chicago traditionally votes for the Democratic Party.

“Hillary is definitely going to work with the people. Trump, he is trying to destroy the country,” said Otis Harris, a lifelong East Chicago resident and  military veteran. He stood outside a polling station with his 16-year-old daughter.

“When I served in the military, it was everyone over there. It was black, Hispanic, Native American. We all fought together. Now you’re taking a country where every soldier goes to battle and telling them they don’t have rights?”

Harris said the election has racial undertones that have reverberations for his daughter and future generations.

“Trump is more about getting rid of what Obama stood for than what Hillary Clinton stands for. Obama made us proud to be Black and we are proud to be American,” said Harris.

What drove them to the polls were the issues of  jobs, education and the threat of Trump, many said.

“No matter what happens, we all work together in East Chicago,” said Harris. “They are trying to divide us, but we are sticking together. We have to.”

Esmeralda Gutierrez just voted at her Marktown polling station in East Chicago, Indiana on Nov. 8. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)