Like the rest of the country, the Peoria area has seen significant increases in the Latino population—the nation’s largest minority group—as well as the services focused on assisting this growing community.

When I graduated from Bradley University in 1987, I remember not having many choices for Mexican cuisine. It was either El Sombrerito or Taco Bell—and I just cannot bring myself to say, without great humility that is, that Taco Bell is a real choice for Mexican food (unless I want to be banished from my family forever!). I could not shop in my local grocery store for tortillas, chipotle peppers, chihuahua cheese or other “Mexican” food items—I had to purchase them from a store in the Chicago area that provided these special “ethnic” foods. But today, I can search the internet for Mexican restaurants in Peoria and find over a dozen choices. They may not all be “authentic,” but they qualify, in my book, as Mexican food. Wow, have things changed over the past 20 years!

Demographic Changes
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people who regard themselves as Latino/Hispanic, African American, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will become the majority by 2042. The Latino/Hispanic population is expected to triple from 47 million to 133 million. (I will use the word “Latinos” from here on because it represents people from Latin American countries, which includes Mexico, my parents’ homeland. The term “Hispanics” refers to people who speak Spanish and are from Spain or countries once ruled by Spain.) The Pew Hispanic Center states that, since 2000, Latinos have accounted for more than half (50.5%) of the overall population growth in the United States—a significant new demographic milestone for the nation’s largest minority group.

In 2007, Latinos made up just three percent of the population in Peoria County, but that number is growing, with approximately 33-percent growth since 2000. Other central Illinois counties have also seen significant increases in the Latino population. From 2000 to 2006, that increase was 32 percent in Tazewell County and 63 percent in Woodford County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Latinos are also the youngest minority group in the United States. One in five schoolchildren is Latino. In Peoria’s District 150, fewer than four percent of all students are Latino, but in some primary schools, the percentage is as high as about 18 percent.

During the housing boom of 1995 to 2005, the nation’s minority groups experienced greater gains than whites in homeownership rates, but as the market crumbled, so did the number of minority homeowners. In fact, homeownership rates fell more for most minorities than it did for whites, as Latinos and blacks generally received higher-priced loans and carried higher debt relative to their incomes.

Meanwhile, immigrants had substantially lower homeownership rates than the native-born, and experienced a smaller decline in the rate during the market bust. It should come as no surprise to note that U.S. demographic patterns are significant in relation to foreclosure rates. Analysis finds that counties with higher than average shares of immigrant residents had elevated rates of foreclosure. This does not imply, however, that immigration levels are the sole cause of elevated foreclosures. Other factors include the local economy, house prices and the costs of higher-priced loans.

American-Mexican Heritage
When I was a young student at a suburban Chicago elementary school, I recall being asked about my heritage quite often. I used to reply that I was Mexican-American, but as I grew older, I became more conscientious of my answer to that question. During my college years, I began saying “American-Mexican,” because I felt that since I was born in the U.S., I was American first, and Mexican second. I am proud to be an American and not ashamed to own my Mexican heritage. So, it was interesting for me to read the results of the National Survey of Latinos by the Pew Hispanic Center that 52 percent of first- and second-generation Latinos ages 16 to 25 identify themselves first by their family’s country of origin: Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, etc. An additional 20 percent generally use the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” first when describing themselves. Only about one in four young Latinos use the term “American” first to describe themselves.

In central Illinois, Latinos/Hispanics account for less than two percent of the workforce, according to a 2008 study by the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Most of these people are categorized as “service workers” and “protective service workers,” as well as “production operative workers” and “administrative support workers”. Personally, I have seen that many Latinos are employed by local grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, cleaning and landscaping service companies, and agricultural businesses.

These are people performing the jobs that make up our community. We need these people, and they need basic human services. As the director of research for the Fayette Companies/Human Service Center, Dr. David Loveland says, “The demand is growing (for behavioral health services), and the demand is definitely there now.”

Addressing Needs in Central Illinois
Overall, it is encouraging to see central Illinois communities recognize the need for services focused on assisting the growing Latino population. As a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Rep. Aaron Schock established a Hispanic outreach committee to address the needs of the growing Latino community. Concerned citizens helped organize the Peoria Hispanics Outreach group, which created a service directory and fostered some Latino entertainment events. Several years ago, the Peoria Civic Center Diversity Committee created the first Latino Fest, now known as World Fest.

The Peoria County Board established the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Ad-hoc Committee to address the issue of county dollars spent on contracts with and procurements from minority, women and disadvantaged-owned businesses. The committee consists of representatives from minority advocacy groups, local trade unions, institutes of higher education, private business and the faith-based community, along with Peoria County Board members.

The Peoria Housing Authority created a formal program to certify minority-owned business enterprises, women-owned business enterprises, and Section 3 business concerns. This certification process serves to better identify and support minority- and women-owned business enterprises and Section 3 business concerns.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters developed a mentoring program known as the “Lunch Buddy” program, aimed at Latino boys in Peoria-area elementary schools. Sara Ramos, Latino outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities, says she hopes to introduce a new program in 2010 aimed at providing ESL (English as a second language) where parents can learn with their children. Ms. Ramos is working with Bradley University to bring tutoring and English language lessons together to help families.

In general, we can see that the needs of the Latino community are growing as the Latino population increases in our community. I have witnessed changes in my personal behavior, as well as other Latinos who are adapting to the “American” way of life. Local business owners are becoming more diversified as Latinos and other minorities are successfully establishing themselves as entrepreneurs.

So it’s great to see that we have more choices in the Peoria area. Now I can enjoy Spanish tapas or authentic Mexican food in a Peoria restaurant and purchase my own tortillas, cheese and salsa at my local Mexican grocery store after having my car fixed at the local auto body shop owned by two American-Mexicans like me. iBi