College of LAS « Illinois


Nuevos Americanos

Is the current influx of Latinos so different from past immigrations?


The Latinos moving to the Midwest in record numbers speak Spanish and come from Mexico. They are also American citizens, who speak perfect English and who are part of a secondary migration from other parts of the country. They are unskilled day laborers, as well as entrepreneurs. They work production chains in meatpacking plants, like the Excel pork processing facilities in  Beardstown, an Illinois River town that has seen a 2,000 percent increase in Latino population between 1990 and 2000—the largest such increase statewide.

Regionally, the majority of Latinos settle in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and other urban areas, but in recent years  the Latino migration is increasingly more diffuse. Newcomers settle in traditionally white, rural communities, places like Arcola, Ill. (20 percent Latino), Chelsea, Iowa (31 percent Latino), and Lexington, Neb. (50 percent Latino). These places can suffer growing pains as schools and health care facilities overflow. But the new arrivals also rejuvenate graying communities and replenish a depleted workforce.

As one wades through the rising stack of statistics and articles regarding the shifting demographics, there is a feeling that what many call "a browning" of the region is a new phenomenon. True, during the 1990s the Latino population grew by 81 percent in the Midwest—the largest percentage increase for all four regions of the nation. During the same time period, the Latino population in Illinois grew by 69.2 percent. Still, Latinos are only 4.9 percent of the population in the Midwest, the smallest percentage of the four U.S. regions.

What is rarely mentioned, however, are the rich and deep roots of Latinos in the Midwest that date back into the early 1900s and beyond. Eileen Diaz McConnell, LAS assistant professor of sociology, who has authored several publications on Latino migration for the U.S. Census Bureau and conducts research on the bureau itself, says to fully understand the present we need to remember our past.

"A lot of people are looking at this migration and asking, ‘Is this different?' I would say that in some ways it's very similar to what's happened before—in terms of migrants who come in and do jobs that other people don't want to do. And they are often vilified in the same ways the Irish and Italians were vilified when they first came here and were blamed for a lot of the country's problems at the time. I think the main thing is a lot of people forget history."

By the 1840s, Diaz McConnell says, the trees and prairies were cleared and the economy shifted toward an agricultural-based economy. Sugar beets became the hot crop in the Midwest, but farmers found that the stoop labor required to tend and harvest the crops was too strenuous. Local sugar refineries solved the labor problem by recruiting newly arrived European immigrants from nearby Midwestern cities. Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Serbians, Belgians, and other first-generation eastern-European immigrants soon found themselves at the forefront of the region's migrant labor force. This ended at the beginning of the 20th century, when these immigrants experienced upper mobility and when the 1917 Immigration Act "limited the number of Europeans entering the United States."

The 1917 law exempted Mexicans, and companies such as Michigan Sugar, Continental Sugar, and Columbia Sugar began a trend that continues to this day: they began recruiting Mexican nationals. Not only did the sugar industry benefit from the new influx of workers, but also the vast cherry, peach, and apple orchards of the area. Urban areas also saw rapid growth and Mexicans worked in some of the most hazardous industrial jobs of the time. They were also regularly brought in as strikebreakers.

Diaz McConnell

Diaz McConnell notes, "In 1920, an industrial community in East Chicago had the densest concentration of Mexicans in the United States.  And there were very prominent Latino theater groups in northwest Indiana. They had churches, their own mutual organizations, restaurants, and movie theaters." The ebb and flow of Latinos into the Midwest continued through shortages brought on by World War II, through the boom and bust vagaries of the Rust Belt economy, and into the post-North American Free Trade Agreement years, where, ironically, manufacturing jobs headed south, to Mexico.

Today's influx of Latinos is also propelled by economics but with one major difference. These newcomers—in the prime of their working life, ages 18 to 44—are settling in small, often dying-on-the-vine, Midwestern towns that have experienced brain drain and out-migration. But because the land is relatively cheap the towns are now prime locations for non-unionized manufacturing concerns. For meatpacking plants the lure of the rural is the proximity to animal feed sources. Diaz McConnell cites U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that show a 5.4 percent increase in manufacturing jobs in non-metropolitan areas between 1990 and 1997. In Illinois these jobs are assembling brooms in Arcola or compact discs in Jacksonville, or slaughtering hogs in Beardstown. To replace workers in these often high-turnover jobs, employers recruit Latinos from Mexico or from other parts of the United States.

Diaz McConnell says these places never had very many Latinos or had some Latinos, but saw them leave in the 1920s, for example, during a repatriation program.  At that time, local governments and churches worked with the railroads to return Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans to Mexico. "These young people are coming into a lot of communities that are kind of old and traditional...that remember things the way they used to be," says Diaz McConnell. "They don't like all the new businesses and they don't like the writing in Spanish. So there definitely is conflict." Even modest in-migrations can have dramatic impacts on these small towns, says Diaz McConnell. "You only need 50 Latinos to change the school system. There is often this conflict between trying to court workers—because they need the money and they need the influx of the tax dollars—and all of the changes that come as a result of an influx of families. But a lot of populations in the Midwest would have lost population if it weren't for Latinos.  And in the case of immigration, they are getting the prime workers from Mexico to do work that nobody else wants to do." With Latinos comprising only 4.9 percent of the population, it may be decades before the Midwest sees the social and political challenges that currently face other regions where that percentage is higher. Yet, even at this early stage, some of the same questions being asked elsewhere are surfacing in the Midwest. Diaz McConnell says, "There is concern about whether the country is going to erupt and this constant concern about, well, ‘How will we still be America if there's people speaking Spanish and there's people speaking English?'"

Again the answer is found in this nation's history books. Diaz McConnell says it has always taken time, but people eventually learn English. Often the children learn first. When Iowa recruited immigrants in 1869 with the publication of Iowa: The Home for Immigrants, the book was published in English, German, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish. Today, like most Midwestern states, Iowa features a variety of ethnic celebrations, including Dutch and Nordic festivals and, of course, Cinco de Mayo.

Then there is the age-old emotion that will always trump ethnic differences: love. "There's so much inter-marriage between Latinos and non-Latinos," Diaz McConnell says. "And one of the highest levels of assimilations you can have is marital assimilation. Men and women will always get together."

U. of I.'s Latina/o Studies Program

Since 1980, the Latino college population nationwide has tripled to 1.5 million. During that same time, the Latino enrollment at the University of Illinois has grown to 1,819, a four-fold increase over the 460 students enrolled in 1983. In the same 20 years, the number of Latino faculty has tripled from 20 to 65. Nowhere else on campus is that increase in both students and faculty felt more acutely than at 510 E. Chalmers Street, home of the College of Liberal Arts and Science's Latina/o Studies Program.

Read more about the Latina/Latino Studies Program.

By Stephen J. Lyons
Fall/Winter 2005-06