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By Azra Halilovic / CU-CitizenAccess.org / Hoy– It was 40 years ago that 7-year-old Herlinda Kauffman squeezed into a brown Chevy Impala in Mexico with nine other people and headed for Illinois.
“There were 10 people in a small car with all the things that we owned in the world,” said Kauffman, who recalled piling on top of her brothers and sisters. “The little ones had to sit in the floorboards. The big ones got to sit on the car seat.”
With only a few belongings, Kauffman and her family drove nearly 1,400 miles in four days from Cadereyta Jiménez to Arcola.
“[My dad] didn’t feel comfortable enough to drive the whole way,” said Kauffman, laughing as she recalled him nervously chain-smoking the entire trip. “Dad had never learned to drive till he bought that car. But I mean his friend was in the same boat — he had just learned to drive.”
Kauffman’s family, like others from Mexico that would arrive in Arcola over the years, came because of the “broomcorn” – corn made into brooms in Arcola.
A small town of nearly 3,000 residents in Douglas County about three hours south of Chicago, Arcola is known for the Amish community that settled in 1865. Since then, the Amish have mostly settled in Arthur, 10 miles west of Arcola.
City Administrator Bill Wagoner says Arcola is like about any other small Midwestern town, except for its broomcorn and sizeable Latino population.
“Just a blue collar town,” said Wagoner, who was born and raised in Arcola. “Our roots are in the broom and household product industry, dating back to the late 19th century. They grew broomcorn here and that kind of brought in the manufacturing of brooms.”
Population growth in Arcola has increased slightly – from about 2,270 in 1970 to 2,916 in 2010.
But over time the town is about 30 percent Latino-a figure that doesn’t include the waves of seasonal Latino migrant workers who come during summer and fall.
Families follow the industry
From the 1880s to the 1950s Arcola was known as the broomcorn capital of the world. Over time, the planting of broomcorn in Arcola itself diminished, but the Libman factory where the material is produced has continued.
Arcolans for generations threw themselves into that difficult labor. Cecil Osborn, a retiree from Mattoon, remembers harvesting the crop more than a half century ago with his father, grandfather and five uncles.
“They were long days,” said Osborn, “It was hard work.”
And, also over time, the ethnic background of those doing the work has changed.
In the 1940s, Cadereyta Jiménez in the state of Nuevo León was considered the broomcorn capital of Mexico, and many residents knew how to harvest the corn and manufacture goods.
Because Arcola started importing Cadereyta’s broomcorn, families began moving to Illinois to carry out the arduous task of cutting, laying out and preparing the plants that can grow as high as 12 to 14 feet.
There are some Tejanos, like Irazema Galyiz of Farr, Texas, and families from places in Southern Mexico like Chiapas. But the majority of the town’s Mexican residents hail from Cadereyta Jiménez.
Cristobal Gonzalez has lived in the town for 20 years and watched the migration of Mexican workers who came to town with the expertise in broomcorn.
“Everyone already knows what to do,” he said.
But after arriving, Gonzalez said some workers branch into other jobs in the area. Kauffman’s father was among the many Mexican immigrants in Arcola who had been a broom maker by trade but came to the U.S. to make more money doing the same job.
Her parents, like many from Cadereyta, picked up work at the Libman broom company.
Kauffman, 48, is now a community liaison and organizer who has been helping Latino families transition to life in the Midwest since 1986.
Wagoner says not only the work, but the culture are why the town has experienced a Latino boom.
“There’s a lot of large classes in the grade school,” said Wagoner about the shift in Arcola’s schools.
Indeed, Latino students made up nearly 39 percent of Arcola’s classrooms for the 2011-2012 school year. In the 2002-2003 school year, there were just under 200 Latino students. By the 2011-2012 school year, there were just over 300 Latino students, a 57 percent increase from the earlier time.
Community center provides many services
Language barriers are a big concern for Latino adults, said Kauffman, and most turn to the local Latino community center, Mi Raza.
Operating out of a former garage storage bay, the center provides childcare for parents in English classes. It also offers resources for legal help, youth community engagement and a computer lab open to the community.
“We are health department tbased but have connections to mental health and just kind of what the community needs,” said Director Tim Flavin, who has been running the center for five years. “We tend to really use our observation more or more instead of what they tell us they want.”
Flavin says he advocates a philosophy of holistic wellness and believes the center has been integral in helping Arcola’s Latinos.
He said Mi Raza prides itself especially for educating young people about the possibility of college through a program called “College is Possible.”
“We had some students who didn’t know they could attend college in Illinois,” Flavin said.
He said they considered going back to Mexico, where they hadn’t been since childhood. The program introduced many adolescents to the possibility of legally going to college through the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM).
The DREAM Act grants residency to undocumented youth if they meet certain conditions, such as graduating high school or getting a GED and going to college.
Meanwhile, to celebrate the growth of ethnic diversity in Arcola, a group of artists known as the Walldogs came to Arcola in June. They were invited by Arcola’s beautification committee, which was impressed by the murals the artists painted in Danville, Ill.
The Walldogs painted 15 colorful murals in downtown Arcola, each one telling a different story that characterizes the town. Some depict Amish families, while others depict Latino immigrants and broomcorn.
Other Arcola businesses are responding to the changing demographics. IGA, the local grocery store, has begun carrying Mexican and Central American foods to cater to the Latino population in town, said Manager David Rauch, who has lived in Arcola since the 1980s.
“Somewhat similar to like what Champaign’s doing the Asian kind of thing and Arthur doing an Amish kind of need,” said Rauch. “We tend to the need of the Latino people because that’s our biggest buyers of in this store.”
He said there is a Mexican grocery store in town, but many Latinos still stop in at the IGA for goods. Rauch said it is the type of place where everybody knows everybody and will help one another out. The broomcorn industry brought a lot of Mexicans to Arcola, he said, but that the corn isn’t what it used to be.
“Broomcorn is something that you don’t see much anymore around in this area,” said Rauch. He said most of the so-called broomcorn is now broom grass with filler. “It costs so much to harvest it (because) it’s got to be harvested by hand, there’s no machine to actually harvest broomcorn, and it’s a nasty job,” he said.
But he said it brought in a new demographic of people that has changed the town for the better. “They’re very good, honest people,” said Rauch. “They don’t want to create any waves or anything like that. As far as community goes, I think they’ve kind of been a plus to it.”
The streets may not yet be filled with Mexican eateries and groceries, but businesses like El Taco Tako are popping up.
Owners Arturo and Maria Zendeja are the only employees.
They see a variety of customers, from local whites and Latinos to passersby and migrant workers. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, the Latino community here kept to its own culture and wasn’t really assimilating,” said real estate agent Wilmer Otto.
But Otto said the Amish are the only group that really keeps to itself now, for religious reasons. “But as the kids went through school, there was more and more acceptance. There are still some conservative bigots who push ‘go back to Mexico,’ but I think the Latinos here are generally recognized as a good labor force,” he said. — (Hoy Chicago Editor Jeff Kelly Lowenstein contributed to this report.)