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Article updated: 12/9/2012 6:15 AM

Not one Latino among 23 Elgin council candidates

By Tara García Mathewson

When the roster of Elgin City Council candidates recently was finalized, leaders in the Latino community found themselves not only disappointed but surprised, frustrated, even exasperated.

Out of 23 candidates, not a single Latino will be running for five open seats -- including two entirely new positions required because of population growth.

Elgin is 43.6 percent Latino. Many in the city, Latinos and others, looked to this election as a chance to get more diversity on the council because of those new seats.

The 2010 census confirmed that white Elginites were no longer the majority, with 42.6 percent of the city's population. But now, with candidate filing closed, the community is looking at the prospect of at least two more years without a Latino representative on the council.

Jane Barbosa, a longtime Elgin resident and member of the Latino community, was part of a group of residents meeting throughout the past year to find promising Latino candidates. Even though no candidates emerged, Barbosa still is hopeful.

"I think there's a lot of promise for leadership in the future," Barbosa said.

She expects a shift to happen in the next five years, when people who are focusing on their families and their professional careers reach a point where they have time for the extra commitment. Barbosa said her search has brought her into contact with people who would be great on the council but who did not think they had the time to serve.

"It's telling me people are interested; however, they don't want to just go in there and warm up a seat," Barbosa said. "They really want to go in there and give of themselves and make a serious commitment."

Juan Figueroa was Elgin's last Latino councilman. He was appointed in 1999 to fill the seat vacated by Ed Schock when he was elected mayor. Figueroa went on to win re-election in 2001 and was the highest vote-getter in 2005. In 2009, though, he lost his third re-election bid.

When Schock ran for mayor he advocated filling his council seat with a member of the Latino community. Looking back, he said, Figueroa's presence on the council made the government more effective and responsive to a key segment of the population, which at the time was outnumbered by whites.

"You cannot have the second-largest ethnic group in Elgin unrepresented in government," Schock said, recalling his argument for a Latino appointment to his council seat.

The disparity between the demographic makeup of the community as a whole and its governing body is not unique to the city council. Neither the Gail Borden Public Library board nor the Elgin Area District U-46 school board have a Latino member.

The group's absence from positions of political power across Elgin is puzzling. After all, many candidates find the time to balance elected office with their work and family responsibilities.

Certainly the political atmosphere around immigrants and immigration has deterred some people from running. Gil Feliciano, another early member of the group searching for potential council candidates, pointed to a hesitation about volunteering to be subjected to personal attacks -- whether a Latino candidate is an immigrant or a lifelong U.S. citizen.

But for many in the community, blame comes right back to themselves.

"It is just as much our fault as anybody else's," Feliciano said.

Especially low voter turnout in recent council elections has diminished the potential power of the Latino vote. There, too, Barbosa has hope, having seen the effect of Latino voters' decisive participation in the November presidential election.

Even though there are plenty of people advocating for Latinos on the city council, the fact remains that in the spring elections, none will even be on the ballot.

Feliciano has no plans to run for council. He calls himself a member of the "old guard" and wants to encourage younger leaders with new, fresh ideas. Barbosa, a retired administrator at Elgin Community College, submitted an application for an appointment to replace Councilwoman Marie Yearman, who died while in office in July 2003. That seat was left vacant until the 2005 election, by which time Barbosa had developed health problems that kept her out of the race. She does not plan a future council bid.

The list of Latino leaders willing to support other candidates but don't want to run themselves is long -- but not entirely discouraging.

Barbosa has watched the Latino population grow since her family moved to Elgin almost 60 years ago. And in this city with the fifth-largest Latino population in the state, she said the community is full of mostly new immigrants who are still in the process of assimilating to the new culture and way of life.

"It's hard to expect first-generation and even second-generation residents to become involved in the political process," Barbosa said, "even though I think I see it happening more rapidly than it has before."

The council race is already decided when it comes to Latino participation on the governing body. But filing is open Dec. 17-26 for the library and school boards. And until 2015, when the next round of council candidates vie for election, the community will continue its search for the next generation of Latino leaders.

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