New exhibit at Elmhurst History Museum traces the diverse journeys of immigrants in Chicago's western suburbs

The United States is home to over 40 million immigrants, more than any other country in the world.

Although Chicago has always been a hub for immigrant workers, the suburbs have become home to a larger and more diverse foreign-born population since World War II.

The result is a visible diversity within the suburbs, and particularly in the DuPage County area, which is evident not only in religious sites, schools, stores, and restaurants but also in the growth of activist groups and civic participation.

The Elmhurst History Museum's new exhibit explores the unique journeys of area immigrants and their descendants who have carved out a sense of cultural identity and belonging in this region. "In Pursuit of Happiness: Immigrants in Our Communities" runs through May 14 at the museum, 120 E. Park Ave.

The exhibit explores the personal stories and pursuits of immigrant residents and their families through first-person interviews, photographs, treasured objects and more to reveal the challenges, pride, perseverance and humor in establishing a new life.

It is co-curated by exhibit consultant Sandy Denninger who researched and wrote the exhibit content, and it is designed by Curator of Exhibits Dan Bartlett.

Denninger has 20 years of experience working with predominantly small to mid-sized museums, and she has researched and designed several award-winning exhibits. Denninger received an undergraduate degree in art history and anthropology as well as a graduate certificate in museum studies from Northern Illinois University.

An immigrant from Poland shares treasured belongings, food items and more as part of the Elmhurst History Museum exhibit "In Pursuit of Happiness: Immigrants in Our Communities." Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

To develop the exhibit content, Denninger interviewed 17 area residents over the last two years, and she was often impressed and surprised by the powerful, candid stories she heard from interview subjects.

"This experience was a real eye-opener for me as both a fellow American and historian," Denninger said. "I was moved by the honesty, strength and humor I encountered throughout this process. My hope is that visitors who see the exhibit will feel the same empathy I experienced and take away a better understanding of what it means to be an immigrant in our country."

The exhibit considers a number of different topics related to the immigration theme, including:

• The path to U.S. citizenship including essential documentation, language barriers, prejudice and more, featuring an actual citizenship test for museum visitors to try.

• The history of immigration laws that both support and hinder potential citizens.

• Video accounts from a variety of DuPage County immigrants, refugees and their descendants who share their diverse experiences and discuss their first impressions and what brought them to this country.

• Displays of meaningful, treasured objects from countries of origin that have been passed down through generations.

• Special traditions including foods, language, music, rituals and attire that immigrants share with their families and communities to retain a sense of cultural identity.

Many of the area residents interviewed as part of the "In Pursuit of Happiness: Immigrants in Our Communities" exhibit are sharing some of their treasured objects or special traditions for display. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

Special programs

The Elmhurst History Museum is presenting an eclectic array of related programs connected to the "In Pursuit of Happiness: Immigrants in our Communities" exhibit. More information can be found at

• On Saturday, Nov. 5, the museum is partnering with Immigrant Solidarity DuPage to present a family-friendly celebration of the profound Día de los Muertos tradition rooted in Mexican culture.

The free event from 6 to 9 p.m. includes a presentation on the history of the Day of the Dead celebration and its symbols, artwork by local schoolchildren, face painting and craft activities while supplies last.

The evening also features performances by pre-Hispanic musicians Grupo Nahui Ollin and Gavilanes de Chicago mariachi band and after-hours access to exhibits. Join a catrinas procession around the museum campus at 8:45 p.m. accompanied by mariachis.

• On Friday, Nov. 11, author, podcast host and multiple Moth Story Slam winner Nestor Gomez presents a storytelling showcase featuring immigrants, refugees and their descendants to explore issues surrounding U.S. immigration including national identity, culture, family and borders. It will be presented at 7 p.m., both in person at the Elmhurst Public Library, 125 S. Prospect Ave., and virtually on Zoom. Register at

• On Thursday, Nov. 29, participate in the "One Book, One Elmhurst" book discussion facilitated by Elmhurst Public Library and Elmhurst History Museum staff by reading "American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures," featuring personal essays by prominent Americans from diverse cultures. The discussion of the book, which was edited by America Ferrera, will be 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the museum. Participants will have after-hours access to exhibits. Reservations are required.

• On Sunday, Jan. 15, join a free exhibit gallery talk at noon. Sandy Denninger will lead participants through highlights of the exhibit and answer questions about developing the exhibit. Reservations required.

• On Sunday, Jan. 29, author and College of DuPage Professor of History Sam Mitrani presents a lecture on why and how the Chicago area has been a draw for waves of immigrants throughout history who have shaped and been shaped by this region. "How the World Arrived on Lake Michigan's Shores" will begin at 2 p.m. in the museum education center. Cost is $5 or free to museum members. Reservations required.

• On Saturday, Feb. 25, join Brewpoint's Head Roaster Haley Sliwa and founder and CEO Melissa Villanueva for a discussion about coffee and its relationship to cultures across the world. "Cultural Connections Through Coffee" will be 1 to 3 p.m. at Brewpoint Craft Elmhurst, 617 N. York St. It also features live music performed by Brazilian guitarist Luciano Antonio. Cost is $10 per person. Reservations are required.

Sample of a gallery panel describing shifting demographics in the 1940s-'60s. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

Museum hours are Sunday and Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, and limited free parking is available. The exhibit is sponsored by Community Bank of Elmhurst; Feze Roofing; Kriezelman Burton & Associates, LLC; Michael V. LoCicero, Attorney at Law; Rotary Club of Elmhurst; Storino, Ramello & Durkin, Attorneys at Law; and Superior Ambulance Service. For the latest information, visit

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