The city of Woodstock over the past decade has continued to bolster its relationships with major cities in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, leading to a program that has given cause to a number of visits from local officials on both ends.
In addition to those visits, the program has spurred many opportunities for exchange programs, and has begun having an effect on several institutions across each side. With officials from Zacatecas having visited in July, officials from Woodstock are planning to take a trip there in September to further expand the program.
It started about a decade ago, originally through the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, former Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager said. It was part of an effort to get a better understanding of the Latino culture as the demographic’s population increased within McHenry County.
Zacatecas is a state that Sager described as a high plateau. Sitting to the northwest of Mexico City, the state is cooler than many other parts of the country. Part of its history involved rich silver mines, which led to it being colonized. As a result, it’s been heavily influenced by colonialism.
“It’s not what most people think of when they go to Mexico,” he said. “It’s not hot, or like the coastal cities people visit for vacation.”
When he was mayor of Woodstock, Sager said, he was invited with then-Sheriff Keith Nygren to take a trip to the state of Zacatecas, and eventually was asked by the city president of Guadalupe, the largest city in the state, whether Woodstock would consider a sister city partnership.
Sager said city officials learned many of Woodstock’s Latino residents hailed from the state of Zacatecas. After discussions with city council, the city opted to move forward with the partnership, Sager said.
“We thought it would be a good idea to establish a sister city with the purpose of understanding the cultures of our respective countries,” he said. “And develop an appreciation … of those cultures.”
That partnership since has been expanded to include the city of Zacatecas as well, which is the capital of the state, Sager said.
Jose Rivera, and his wife, Maggie, originally approached the sheriff’s office with the concept. It wasn’t long after that the office started making arrangements to both visit the state and create the necessary relationships.
“This grew a lot,” Rivera said. “This is growing more than we expected.”
Current Woodstock Mayor Michael Turner said he thinks the sister city program helps recognize the heritage of many residents, and provides cultural benefits.
Rivera said the new regime under Turner has been just as enthusiastic.
“I’m a huge advocate and supporter of the sister city program,” Turner said.
The partnership has led to numerous visits from officials on both sides of the border. Visits from the governor of Zacatecas, to the temporary exchanging of police officers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, students, judges and municipal bands.
Those meetings involving officials, which include a visit from city officials in early July to Woodstock, are part of developing the priorities of the program year-to-year, Sager said.
The program has included efforts to bring teachers to help teach local students, which local officials have been working with the state of Illinois to make happen, Sager said.
While this is still being developed, some benefits already are being had. Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 has the largest dual language program in Illinois, Sager said. This was something that the sister city program has helped evolve.
School districts in other cities in turn also have started developing dual language programs, he said.
“The list goes on and on [of the benefits],” Sager said.
Tourism is another aspect that officials such as Turner are hoping stem from this. He and Sager said they hope this acts as a step toward getting local residents to want to visit the state as well.
To that end, many city officials, Turner and Sager among them, are planning to visit Zacatecas in mid-September.
That trip will be a formal one to add a new city, Jerez, into the program’s fold, Turner said.
“We want people to better understand our neighbors and colleagues to the south,” Sager said. “They are truly important to our community and our economy. And it’s very important for us to know our neighbors.”