The latest census numbers tell a surprising story of how the racial makeup of Chicago’s suburbs has changed over the past 20 years. In many places, Latinos now outnumber whites. West suburban Elgin is one of those places. But as the population in Elgin has taken off, Latino representation at all levels of local government has not kept up.
“Just look at this stuff, the ethnicities represented here,” said Gil Feliciano, standing in the lobby of Elgin’s Gail Borden Library. On a summer afternoon, the lobby is filled with children of all backgrounds: white, black, Hispanic, Asian. It’s common to see them dragging their parents across the main floor to the children’s room in the back.
Feliciano was born and raised here in Elgin. His parents came from Puerto Rico. Feliciano was also Elgin’s Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for ten years. He was the glue that connected Elgin’s Latinos with city functions.
“A gentleman one time came to see me,” recounted Feliciano. “When I approached him at the counter, he throws down two photographs, both of his porch. One where his porch is a disaster, and one where his porch looks gorgeous.” The renovation had been the man’s own handiwork, Feliciano said. “I go, ‘Well, that’s wonderful work.’ And he goes, ‘Well, not according to you guys.’”
The man showed Feliciano a letter he had received from Elgin’s Historic Preservation Department. It said all his work either had to be undone or changed because it didn’t comply with department guidelines. Feliciano says he had to walk lots of immigrant residents, like this man, through those kinds of confusions. Often, they didn’t know the rules, or they didn’t understand them. Feliciano was the one who’d explain to them that even if they owned the house, the city still had a say in whether, or how, they could modify and occupy it.
One thing that could have helped? Having Latinos help to craft those policies in Elgin. Feliciano said when he started his job in 1997, Latinos weren’t in elected positions, they weren’t in upper management, and they weren’t on most city boards and commissions.
“We knew that things needed to change,” said Feliciano, “especially if we were interested in having a reasonable reflection of the community.”
Behind the library, across the river, the Metra train shuttles people between this suburb of stately Victorian homes and Chicago. More than two centuries ago, it was railroad labor opportunities that brought the earliest Mexican immigrants to western suburbs like Elgin. Puerto Rican women came, too, to work as housemaids.
But the numbers really started climbing about 20 years ago. In 1990, Elgin’s population was 19 percent Latino. In 2010 , that had grown to nearly 44 percent. That was a huge change over just 20 years, but during that span, Elgin managed to gain only one Latino city council member: Juan Figueroa.
“We were lacking representation in the school boards, library, township, city council,” recalls Figueroa.
Figueroa took office just a couple of years into Gil Feliciano’s time at city hall. And slowly the two of them started doing what they could to draw Latinos into the city’s affairs. Figueroa put Latinos on boards and commissions. They formed a political action team to register Latino voters. Figueroa says they were building momentum in the community, but then it started falling apart.
“There was a small group of people that thought it was time perhaps to have a city council (member) from a different ethnic group,” said Figueroa, “in this case the Mexican community.”
Figueroa is Puerto Rican in a city where most Latinos are of Mexican origin. In 2008, that was suddenly a problem for Figueroa. He found himself running for reelection along with two Latinas of Mexican descent. None of them won.
Even though they weren’t all running for the same office, Figueroa believes the three Latino candidates split the vote. He says rivalry among Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latin Americans is one reason that, though they make up nearly half of Elgin’s population, Latinos today have zero seats on the city council.
Figueroa believes what they need is one charismatic leader. “It will take a person that can unite the community again, that can bring the groups together,” Figueroa said, “that can heal some of the bad experiences, the issues, the conflict. All those things that have not allowed us just to be together, as we used to.”
Allert Brown-Gort has studied Latino political involvement in Chicago’s suburbs. He says there may be another reason Elgin’s Latinos haven’t organized behind candidates and causes - and ironically, it’s the same reason they moved there in the first place.
“The Chicago metropolitan region is really quite friendly to immigrants,” said Brown-Gort, “so as immigrants don’t feel particularly threatened maybe that does not mobilize them.”
For the most part, this has been true throughout Chicago’s suburbs, and Brown-Gort says you can see that from an important switch in immigration patterns that started a few years ago. It used to be that immigrants would first come to Chicago, then move to suburbs when they were more established. Brown-Gort says in 2005 that changed. Now, Chicago’s suburbs have become the first stops - the gateway communities for immigrants.
That’s been true for Elgin, and as old-time residents observed the changes over the last two decades, some were uncomfortable with the city’s new demographics. Dianha Ortega-Ehreth felt that tension when she was house-shopping there in 2004.
“Our realtor told us that we should be careful moving to the Elgin area because of all the Hispanics that are taking over the city,” recalled Ortega-Ehreth. “To which I responded, ‘That’s great, I want to be around more people like me.’ And I don’t think he knew I was Hispanic.”
But on the whole, Ortega-Ehreth and many other Latinos say they feel welcome in Elgin. They mutter thanks that things haven’t gone the way of their neighbor to the north. Carpentersville, 50 percent Latino, created tensions years ago when it considered policies to drive undocumented immigrants away.
Instead, many in Elgin hope their city will turn out more like Aurora, to the south. There, Latinos make up 40 percent of the population and hold positions across local government. They focus on the same issues that matter to Latinos in Elgin - and that matter to most people: jobs, education, public safety.
Elgin’s city elections come in 2013. That’s the next chance to see whether Latinos will be at the table, helping to shape Elgin’s future.