Beyond Borders: In Addison, Schools Take the Lead on Acculturation
Chicago's western suburbs have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Latino residents. Latinos are transforming these communities, but some white residents are uncomfortable with these changes. In suburban Addison, themayor says Latinos can help ease this tension by learning English and taking other steps to embrace life in America.
As part of our Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders series, Chicago Public Radio's Jay Field reports on how the local high school in Addison is leading the effort to help Latinos make this transition.
In 1980, Latinos made up just six percent of the population in Addison. Today, that number has climbed to more than thirty percent and nowhere is this demographic earthquake more evident than at Addison Trail High School.
DuFour: From when I'm a freshman, I've seen a lot of Latinos grow in the numbers at our school. It keeps escalating each year.
Joe Dufour is a senior now and has stopped to chat on his way home.
DuFour: Like my freshmen year, I didn't know much about, you know, what was going on with the school. But through all these programs I've been inâ€”Latino students have been with meâ€”I've grown to know and understand their culture and where they're coming from.
Dufour says white and Latinos get along pretty well at Addison Trail and some Latino students, gathered outside the school, agree. John Alonzo and Cindy Perez are seniors.
ALONZO: For the most part, everyone talks to everyone, you know? It's not really, 'Oh, you're Mexican, don't talk to me.' Everyone really talks to everyone.
PEREZ: By the time we get to senior year, everyone really talks to everyone. It doesn't really matter about race.
But away from the high school, in town, things get a little more complicated.
FLORES: If you know Addison well, you'll see that its divided. Addison's divided. With the Latinos on one side and the whites and other races on the other side.
Benjamin Flores is standing outside a dollar store in a strip mall along Route 20. A traveling circus is going on in a field next door. It's got real live elephants and Flores has stopped to look into tickets. He says in the Addison he knowsâ€”Latinos stay away from whites.
FLORES: I wouldn't call it afraid. I'd call it distance. I would just call it distance.
Flores says friends of his who are undocumented are afraid of getting into confrontations with whites that could attract the attention of the police. Many longtime white residents here say they should be worried. James Lombardo Sr. serves needy clientele at the city's food pantry.
LOMBARDO: I do know that….the law's the law. And you know what? If you can't live by the law. You don't belong here.
HARTWIG: We've become a more diverse community. And with diversity comes some challenges.
Mayor Larry Hartwig moved here in 1972. Back then, there were few minorities in this small village along the Salt Creek, named after the English poet and essayist Joseph Addison.
HARTWIG: People don't like change. A lot of people react to change.
Northwest of here, in the Village of Carpentersville, this sort of discomfort has fueled a fight over illegal immigration that's torn the community apart. Addison has roughly the same number of people as Carpentersvilleâ€”37 thousandâ€”and some of the same tensions, says the Mayor.
HARTWIG: Here is one of the areas that's heavily Hispanic. This is our Michael Lane area.
Hartwig is giving a tour of one of the town's Mexican neighborhoods from behind the wheel of his white S.U.V.
HARTWIG: Just look at the difference. See the houses, see over this side, compared to how they're maintained on that side.
On one side of Michael Lane, well-maintained, owner-occupied buildings sit on small, plots of manicured grass. Across the street, where more renters live, the buildings are ragged, the lawns messy by comparison.
In the mid-1990s, village officials proposed tearing down apartments here, as part of a plan to remove blight in Addison. But the U.S. Department of Justice alleged village officials were targeting blocks that were heavily Latinoâ€”in a bid to drive immigrants out of town. The village eventually settled a federal fair housing lawsuit without admitting guilt. But Mayor Hartwig says resentment over the standoff lingers. Whites, he says, are especially worried about property values.
HARTWIG: I think that's what scares the heck out of people. My biggest investment is my home. And I certainly don't want someone or group of people to move into my neighborhood and not take care of their homes.
Hartwig himself believes these fears are based on false perceptions, rather than reality. He's working to put together a series of village meetings, where people can come together and talk about what they're afraid of.
But leaders in the Mexican-American community say Latinos shouldn't be sitting around, waiting for the white community to accept them. Business owner Alfredo Diaz is sitting at a window table inside his taqueria. He also runs the grocery store next door.
DIAZ: We definitely need to learn English a little more. Get involved in our education, our kids. And I think if we learn a little bit more on that, everyone is going to be happy, everyone is going to work with us.
Diaz, who's lived here twenty years, says it's Addison Trail High School that's doing the most to help Latinos successfully adapt to life in America. Marco Gasca is the school's liaison to the Latino community.
GASCA: Some of the kids are telling us can you please help me explain to my dad or my mom that its important for me to go to college. That shows that the kids themselves are more acculturated at that point.
A few years ago, officials at Addison Trail realized Latino parents needed help supporting their kids' educations. So the school hired Gasca and invited teachers, community leaders and parents to a series of dinner meetings.
GASCA: One of the top topics that the parents, as a whole, brought to the table was that they wanted to learn English. That is a process to me of acculturation and also of integration. Because they, without us telling them, already knew that it was an important step in their lives.
School officials began offering English language classes on Saturdays. And they started a program they call Five and Dine, where teachers and other school leaders gather at the homes of Latino families to eat and talk about how they and their kids are doing. Addison Trail Senior Cindy Perez says all the outreach is making a difference.
PEREZ: Like compared to a few years ago at Addison Trail, its been a lot better now. And like all the social workers are really working at it and they're doing really good job at it.
Perez says a few years back many Latino students and their parents simply didn't feel like there was anyone they could go to with their problems. Now, Perez says the school has become a sort of community center, where, through helping their kids, Latino parents are also adjusting to life in America.
I'm Jay Field, Chicago Public Radio.
This report was edited by Julia McEvoy. The executive producer of Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders is Sally Eisele and the series is produced by Alexandra Salomon. Alison Cuddy is the Project Coordinator.
Chicago Matters is an annual public information series made possible by The Chicago Community Trust, with programming by Chicago Public Radio, WTTW 11, the Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Reporter. Visit chicagomatters.org for more information.