When longtime West Chicago Alderman Ruben Pineda was appointed to replace the late Mike Kwasman last May, he became the city's first Hispanic mayor.
Pineda said being Hispanic, in a town in which more than 51 percent of its 27,000 residents also are Hispanic, certainly hasn't hurt his cause. But in a recent Daily Herald endorsement interview, each of the three mayoral candidates in the April 9 election discussed the importance of Hispanic leadership and how they would embrace and represent the community.
"I've lived here all my life and I'm Hispanic. Did I come on board because I'm Hispanic? Or am I proud of the fact that I was the first Hispanic mayor? Absolutely. But that is not the issue I'm looking for," Pineda said. "To me it's all about West Chicago and yes, we are 51 percent Hispanic. When you have half the population, you should have a few more leaders to represent them."
Pineda said he believes the evolution of more Hispanic leaders could help bridge the divide he and challenger Wayne Woodward believe still exists between the Hispanic and Caucasian populations.
Woodward, a 69-year-old former alderman, said he still gets phone calls seeking help from residents who think he's on the council. He said he's happy to help, regardless the race or culture of the person on the other end of the phone.
"I don't like to see any divide in the community, even though I know it exists. I help people because that's my nature," Woodward said. "I don't ask if they're Hispanic. The street that I live on is two blocks long and is 20 percent Hispanic. That's great. I hope segregation is disappearing."
Woodward said he's seen the need for Hispanic representation on the council as far back as 17 years ago when he supported Pineda's appointment to the city council.
Challenger Nicholas Dzierzanowski, however, said he believes the days of a racially divided West Chicago are over.
"I don't think there's a divide, except for a few individuals who have racist overtones but I certainly don't have them. I embrace everyone," Dzierzanowski said. "I represent everyone equally across all lines. And I'll recruit anyone interested in moving the community forward regardless of their heritage or race."
Since he's been appointed mayor, Pineda said he is hearing from other minorities who say they've gotten involved in the city because of the strides he made.
"If I made that bit of a difference, fantastic. I hope I can get more people to be interested and step up," Pineda said. "We need more community involvement and we need to quit feeling that separation in town."
He also believes he's gotten support from an unsuspecting group.
"A lot of seniors have lived here all their lives. They have a different perspective on race and issues but they've all come out to support me because they don't see me as Hispanic," he said. "They see me as Ruben Pineda who's lived her for 52 years and done a lot for the community. I'm proud of that."
Despite the progress that may have been made, Dzierzanowski said there are still some places in the city he feels unwelcome, especially the "Mexican markets" that are plentiful in the city's downtown.
"With the Mexican markets, all of the signs are in Spanish and I don't know exactly what they're selling, unfortunately. That doesn't make me feel welcome to go into these markets," he said. "I think a lot of people feel the same way I do and would frequent these businesses more if they embraced everyone and printed their signs in Spanish and English."
Pineda said he knows the heavy Hispanic flavor in downtown can be intimidating.
"Unfortunately you see a lot of businesses downtown that are Mexican restaurants or Mexican stores and that bothers some people," Pineda said. "But I'm letting them know we're trying to get a diversity of business down there and we will. It's one of my biggest goals."