Latino population growth brings mixed changes
In 1970, when Jaime Garcia moved to Elgin, there were fewer than 5,000 Latinos in town. Today he laughs as he remembers how back then, 5,000 seemed like a lot.
Garcia is the executive director and co-founder of Elgin-based Centro de Información, an agency dedicated to empowering Latinos by helping them gain the tools and skills to integrate into broader society. The organization's services have become increasingly sought after as the Latino population in Elgin has soared beyond 47,000.
Communities across the suburbs have seen similar trends, with the Latino populations in Aurora, Naperville and Schaumburg growing by more than 50 percent since the 2000 census. Craig Kaplowitz, a professor of history at Judson University in Elgin, cited trends of Latinos moving directly to suburbs instead of starting in larger cities. Arlington Heights, Des Plaines and Palatine certainly saw the results of that trend in the last decade as well.
A larger population has meant a greater presence for Latinos, with more restaurants and businesses catering to the community and more people celebrating holidays like Cinco de Mayo.
The population changes have also brought calls for more political power and participation, something especially relevant as the state discusses legislative redistricting in the wake of the 2010 census.
Sylvia Puente is the executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, a policy and advocacy organization currently focusing much of its attention on the redistricting process.
Puente said there is a dichotomy between greater acceptance of Latino food and culture but a refusal to address political challenges.
"The United States has had a love affair with Mexico on Cinco de Mayo and in terms of pop culture and music," Puente said. "'You're invited to the party, but let's not talk politics.'"
Puentes said the contributions by Latinos to the labor and housing markets as well as the population growth that is saving Illinois a Congressional seat are overlooked when it comes to issues like comprehensive immigration reform.
As a country of immigrants, the United States has a history marked by groups of people moving here and weaving their own traditions into the fabric of mainstream culture.
The melding of disparate groups has worked more easily in holidays than politics. Like St. Patrick's Day from the Irish and Oktoberfest from the Germans, Cinco de Mayo has become widely celebrated from all sides of party-loving U.S. society.
And though the holiday is considered minor in Mexico, the United States' capitalist economy means any holiday is a chance for marketing.
The Jewel Osco store at 423 E. Dundee Road in Palatine has one display dedicated to the holiday in the back of the store, another in the produce section, tortilla chips and beer displays throughout the building and a cart with themed Coke products. Other businesses throughout the region are no different.
Assistant Store Director Dave Kross said it's not just Mexicans coming in for the merchandise, but everybody. In his last 20 years working for Jewel, Kross has seen greater emphasis on Hispanic foods and holidays like Cinco de Mayo in the company's stores.
"We try to cater to every single person that walks in our door," Kross said.
And increasingly, that person is Latino.
According to Kaplowitz, the Judson professor, there are not more immigrants living in the United States today than in the 1890 and 1910 census counts. But today, the large proportion of Latino immigrants in that mix is what grabs people's attention. And with many of them going straight to suburbs in the Chicago region, transformations have necessarily followed.
"It's making a lot of the suburbs more politically diverse," Kaplowitz said.
But like Puente did regionally, Garcia noticed locally the disconnect between sheer population size and political power. There is a continued call for recognition by government at all levels, especially with the redistricting process happening right now.
Groups like the Latino Policy Forum and Centro de Información are leading the calls for acknowledgment in redrawing congressional district lines. Armed with facts and figures from the census, groups fight with the hope that a larger population can mean more political power in the next phase of the Latino community's coming of age.