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Latinos choosing suburbs over city

Author: Arts and Letters

Many towns in the 6-county region face new challenges as a study shows that for the first time they have more Hispanics than Chicago

For the first time, more Latinos live in Chicago’s suburbs than in the city, a milestone for the area’s fastest-growing ethnic group with broad implications for the region, a new study says.

From 2000 to 2004, the number of Latinos in the suburbs increased by a third, to 862,000. But after decades of growth, the population in Chicago dropped 1 percent, to 746,000, according to the University of Notre Dame study to be released Tuesday.

Latinos now make up a fifth of the six-county region. And as the population expands, the outer areas in McHenry, Kane and Will Counties are primed for a political and cultural transformation similar to what began in inner-ring suburbs like Cicero and Berwyn during the 1990s, the report’s authors said.

The suburban growth—driven by immigration from Mexico, poorer families priced out of the city and middle-class Latinos from Chicago buying first homes—has good and bad repercussions, said Sylvia Puente, director of the Metropolitan Chicago Initiative at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.

On one hand, Latino-owned businesses have helped revitalize broken business strips in towns such as Waukegan, Cicero and Melrose Park. And Latino homeowners account for nearly half of a recent surge of 89,000 suburban house sales since 2000, according to the study.

On the other hand, communities unprepared for the rapid growth in low-income Latino immigrants may face problems such as overcrowded housing, stretched school resources, insufficient health care and challenges in getting people to jobs.

Not enough affordable housing is being built in the suburbs to accommodate typically larger Latino families, the report notes. Meanwhile, bilingual teachers are in short supply and health insurance among immigrants is rare.

“This kind of growth is something the Chicago area has never seen,” in terms of size and geographic scope, said Puente, who attributes the growth among suburban Latino immigrants to family connections and a surge of jobs in manufacturing plants, hotels or restaurants in those areas. “The overall theme is that this population is here to stay and that its incorporation to the region is really critical to the region’s prosperity.”

While the report does not break down Latinos by nationality, experts say the growth has been driven by a wave of immigration from Mexico in the last decade.

Researchers culled data from a wide range of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago Metropolis 2020, Illinois state agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Margarita Calvillo is among 41,000 new Latino homeowners in suburban Chicago since 2000.

An assembly-line worker at a Bolingbrook packaging plant, Calvillo and her family moved in 2002 from Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood to Joliet, where she bought a three-bedroom house for $140,000.

There, she and her three children, age 7, 10 and 12, live in a mixed-race neighborhood with other Latinos, African-Americans and white families, Calvillo said.

“I wanted to provide my children with a better education so we came out here,” said Calvillo, who emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1997. “I was a little nervous at first coming out here but everyone on this block is friendly. We all say good morning and good evening to each other every day.”

On Tuesday, researchers will host a panel discussion on the policy implications of the report at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. State Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), one of the panelists, said the report should help focus attention on Latinos, who have long been overlooked in the suburbs.

“They are learning,” del Valle said of elected officials in the suburbs. “Each time I get up on the floor and speak on these issues, my colleagues gain information. This [report] ensures credibility to the issue.”

Among the report’s most pressing findings is the growth of a Latino community stuck in low-wage jobs, with little chance of advancement. That leads to an increasing wage gap in the region, as well as contributing to broader problems of poverty such as overcrowded housing and a lack of health insurance.

In 2003, the annual median wage for Latino workers was slightly more than $21,000, while the median was $26,000 for African-Americans and almost $37,000 for non-Hispanic whites.

Many Latinos pool their resources to buy or rent homes, filling single-family houses or apartments with relatives or friends, the study reports.

Meanwhile, 21 percent of Latinos younger than 18 have no health insurance, a potential burden on area emergency rooms as the Latino population continues to grow. By comparison, 16 percent of area blacks and 7 percent of whites have no health insurance.

Maria Martinez is among those who have found life in the suburbs to be a struggle.

Martinez, 22, had never heard of Rolling Meadows until she moved there in 1998 from Xalapa, Mexico. All she knew is that she was moving to “somewhere near this place called Chicago” to live with her cousins. Her mother and brother followed in 2001.

Martinez, who now has three children younger than 6, makes $6.50 an hour as a temporary factory worker at plants in Elk Grove Village, Palatine and other northwest suburbs.

With only nine years of schooling and limited English, she can’t even land entry-level jobs in fast-food restaurants, Martinez said.

“They told me they would let me know. But I never heard anything,” she said.

Timothy Ready, a Notre Dame researcher who co-authored the report, said such predicaments among immigrant parents make it all the harder for their U.S.-born children to succeed.

Only 27 percent of U.S.-born Latinos were high school graduates in 2000, U.S. census figures show. The high school graduation rate for blacks also was 27 percent while for whites, it was 56 percent.

But, for every tale of struggle in the Latino community there are examples of newly arrived immigrants overcoming the odds.

That was the case for Leonardo Gonzalez, who, on the strength of sales from his cart of Mexican-style corn on the cob, or elotes, recently bought a home in Streamwood.

“My family told me I should come here, that we would find a lot of Hispanics,” said Gonzalez, 40, who first worked as a car-wash attendant when he arrived to Rolling Meadows in 2000. “I came and I started to work right away. Here is where I started to do well, thank God.”

Originally published by Antonio Olivo & Oscar Avila (Chicago Tribune) at on November 01, 2005.