When Giselle Gonzalez was growing up in Oswego - a predominately white suburb in Kendall County - other kids at school made fun of her accent. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Gonzalez says she struggled to balance her own heritage with pressures to assimilate into the white culture all around her.
“It wasn’t like a home community,” Gonzalez said. “If we wanted to feel like we could relate, or we wanted to find culture, we would go to Aurora - because it wasn’t in Oswego.”
But Kendall County - and the Chicago suburbs at large - have changed since Gonzalez, 21, was a teenager.
She is part of an enormous and growing Latino community across the Chicago suburbs that sees little to no representation in local government. Now, Gonzalez is running in next April's election for Waubonsee Community College Board, her alma mater, where she hopes to introduce a shuttle system and allocate funds to undocumented students.
“Latinos have always been here locally,” Gonzalez said. “I hope to bring representation… We have to start somewhere. I think that the county is starting to transform, and I think that people are ready for change. They’re ready to see new faces with new experiences.”
The 2020 election will be the first election in U.S. history where Latino people are the largest non-white voting bloc - accounting for 13.3 percent of eligible voters, according to Pew Research. One million of these eligible Latino voters live here in Illinois.
Yet the Illinois Latino vote is by no means concentrated in Chicago.
Across the suburbs, local Latino populations have boomed in recent decades due to rising rents in the city and first-generation immigrants starting families of their own. In 2000, 43 percent of Illinois Latinos lived in the suburbs. By 2016, 53 percent lived in the suburbs, according to the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago.
Yet diversity in the neighborhood has not translated to diversity in local government.
Little to No Representation
County, school, village and township boards, and city councils across suburban Chicago remain overwhelmingly white. In Kendall County, for instance, its 10 member county board remains all white despite Latinos accounting for 20 percent of the county’s population, per census data.
In neighboring DuPage County, which is 15 percent Latino, it’s county board is all white save one member who is Muslim.
The trend continues with the 26-member county board in Will County, where Latinos are 18 percent of the population yet have no representation.
All told, these three counties are home to nearly 300,000 Latinos, none of whom hold a seat on their county boards.
“Latino demographics don’t match Latino representation at any level of elected office, certainly anywhere in Illinois and in most of the country,” said Sylvia Puente, the executive director of the Latino Policy Forum. “It’s the ability to reach out so that people know they’re welcome to participate and be appointed to boards and positions. It’s so sad. There’s a need for outreach by municipal leaders.”
A myriad of factors prevent Latinos from running for local office. Often, it’s a lack of resources and political know-how, from gathering petition signatures for a candidacy to submitting financial information.
Other times, entrenched local politicians hand-pick and groom their successors directly from their inner circles.
“When it comes to running for office, usually it’s a first timer,” said Tanya Arias, the operations chair for the Will County Democratic Central Committee. “They seem to fall through the cracks, so they’re not as noticeable as other candidates who may already be in the know.”
Lack of representation causes far-reaching consequences for Latino communities. White politicians can allocate fewer resources to vulnerable and immigrant neighborhoods. Polling sites and government offices can lack Spanish-language materials and translators. And segregation can prevent integration between immigrants and their local communities.
“That shift for resources hasn’t been made,” said Sandra Gonzalez, a 27-year-old candidate for Waubonsee Community College Board. “More of the resources for the immigrant community still stand in Chicago itself… but students and younger people are trying to work with that and bring about change.”
‘I can relate to her’
Despite historic underrepresentation, more Latino candidates and organizers are breaking-out onto the suburban political scene.
In Will County, the local Democratic Party plans to form a Latinx caucus and hold political bootcamps for aspiring candidates. They’re also throwing their support behind Dagmara “Dee” Avelar, the Democratic nominee for Illinois House District 85.
An Ecuadorian immigrant from Bolingbrook, Avelar, 33, became motivated to run for the open seat after other first-time, diverse candidates won elections in the 2018 midterms. Having lived through the flourishing of the suburbs’ Latino population, Avelar sees her candidacy as a sign of the region’s new face.
“Ultimately, what Latinos are looking for is representation,” Avelar said. “The tides are changing. We are an intersectional community. We don’t just care about immigration. We care about education. We care about health care. We care about seniors.”
For other first-time, Latino candidates, like Giselle Gonzalez, basic representation could inspire an even greater wave of diverse elected officials across the suburbs.
“If they see a Latina who’s elected, they’ll see someone where they can say, ‘I can relate to her. Maybe I can do it too,” Gonzalez said. “That’s how it starts, and I think that’s why representation is so important.”