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Emiliano Aguilar

PhD Candidate in the Department of History

Emiliano Aguilar

My research explores how the Latinas and Latinos in my hometown of East Chicago, Indiana navigated and utilized machine politics to gain representation in the city.”

Emiliano Aguilar is a PhD candidate in the Department of History in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His dissertation focuses on how the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican community of East Chicago, Indiana navigated corrupt machine politics to pursue their inclusion into the city. Emiliano completed an internship through the Northwestern Chicago Humanities Initiative (CHI) last summer and he is an alumnus of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) Public Writing workshop. His writing will be included in the forthcoming book, Building Sustainable Worlds: Latinx Placemaking in the Midwest (University of Illinois Press).

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research explores how the Latinas and Latinos in my hometown of East Chicago, Indiana navigated and utilized machine politics to gain representation in the city. This representation included elected officials, appointments across city departments, and municipal employees. However, I want to explore why this inclusion did not solve discrimination issues or the livelihood of the community in general. Generally speaking, why did a more representative government for Latinas and Latinos not solve the community's concerns in the city? 

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
Adjusting to completing research and writing during the pandemic is one of the most challenging twists in my career. Initially, I envisioned making a lot more oral histories for the dissertation. The few interviews I have conducted this year have revealed a whole new aspect of the project that will wait for the book. Many of these interviews have mentioned one particular person, Robert Segovia, a "kingmaker" in the community. Segovia was one of the city's first Mexican American educators and an early political figure, albeit behind the scenes. The surprising twist is that every one of his friends has asked me if I have read Machiavelli's The Prince, his favorite book, and where he derived a lot of his political know-how. As a 20th century historian, I never expected that I might have to read Machiavelli, but it’s now at the top of my to-read pile.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
In my senior year of high school, I became Mayor of East Chicago for a day. The contest asked high school students what changes to the city they would make to improve the community. A few months before this contest, the city's previous mayor was removed from office after misusing city funds. I wrote my essay calling for transparency in city administration and finances. Somehow, I won, although they never held the contest again. Moving back home and seeing some of the same issues even a decade later led me to return to these issues and explore how this sort of political culture became entrenched and allowed to endure for so long.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Although my dissertation discusses my hometown, an industrial and urban space, many of the issues and questions speak to more significant, institutional problems. If democratic institutions can be corrupted, then the system itself is flawed. Like political scientists have presented, there are changes to democracy that could be made to make it more representative and responsive to the people. I hope that by exploring the specifics at an intimate level, some of these institutional flaws can be highlighted and encourage the public to see that the status quo in the political system is not working. 

How do you unwind after a long day?
At the start of the pandemic restrictions, I dove back into reading comic books. Growing up, I was a huge Marvel fan. I still am, although I read a lot more Image and Independent comics now. After a long day, or when I need a break between tasks, I will read a couple of issues from my ever-growing stack.

What books are on your bedside table?
Right now, I am reading Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It? by Martin Gilens and Northwestern's own Benjamin Page for research purposes. My leisure read is The Time of Contempt (part of The Witcher series) by Andrzej Sapkowski.

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Throughout my college career, I have had to tackle the feeling of imposter syndrome. Since my first year in college, I have compared my success to what others have accomplished. Instead, I would tell others on this path that there is no benefit to comparing your trajectory with that of anyone else. This process is highly individualized, and finding your niche (a professional association, a particular kind of writing, workshops, etc.) is a vital step. I have become much happier with myself and more comfortable as an emerging scholar by reflecting on what I have enjoyed about my graduate studies.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
A few weeks ago, Purdue University Northwest (where I earned my MA) invited me back to present as a part of their Hispanic Heritage Month programming. A bus of students from my former high school and hometown joined, which I thought was just amazing! Presenting about my hometown to fellow East Chicagoans and having them engage and ask questions reaffirmed the work I have done so far.

Published: November 23, 2021

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