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Chicago Daily Herald

Hispanics Make An Impact Latino Leaders In The Suburbs Paving The Way For Future Generations

Teresa Mask

October 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Chicago Daily Herald. All rights reserved. 

Recognized for their contributions in art, activism and athletics, Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez and Chi Chi Rodriguez are among the many pioneers in the Hispanic culture.

Their work has inspired many and catapulted them to fame status throughout the world.

On a smaller, local scale, Hispanics here also are paving the way in various professions for generations to follow.

In the suburbs are many trailblazers, such as Elgin's Juan Figueroa, the first Hispanic elected to the city council, Geneva's Clem Mejia, the first Hispanic regional superintendent of education in Illinois, and the Arebalo family of Mundelein, who opened one of Lake County's first Hispanic grocery stores and restaurants.

Women are doing their part too.

Back in 1979, Elgin's Jo Ann Armenta was the first Hispanic woman hired by the Illinois State Police. And if Yolanda Campuzano wins her bid in next month's election, she'll be the first Hispanic to serve on the DuPage County Board.

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month - a four-week period spanning September and October - here are a few Hispanic professionals who are making a difference and using their culture to inspire others.

Education is key

Clem Mejia knows the power of cultural role models. Had he not had a Hispanic teacher in the junior high, he said, becoming an educator might never have crossed his mind.

He has spent his 30 years in the education arena particularly reaching out to Hispanic students, encouraging them to pursue a college education and not settle for the status quo.

In 1993, Mejia, a former social studies teacher, was appointed to finish the term of Doug Hoeft of Elgin, then the regional superintendent for education for Kane County. That appointment was historic - making Mejia the first Hispanic in the state ever to hold the position which, among other tasks, includes overseeing the professional development of teachers and providing support to the state superintendent.

"Sometimes I still have to pinch myself and say how did this little poor boy from El Paso, Texas, end up being the chief education officer of an educational service region?" Mejia asks.

"As I see what (former friends in Texas) are doing now and what I am doing now, the only difference is that I was able to complete my education," he said. "We say education opens the doors. And it certainly does. Certainly in my lifetime, if you didn't have the qualifications, people wouldn't be calling you up."

Born and raised in El Paso, Mejia, 55, has a family history typical of many Mexican-Americans his age.

His parents had no high school education, taught themselves English and then pushed their six children to excel academically.

That's the type of encouragement Mejia now gives to students in the Kane County education system. He often tells them they'll have to reach even higher than a bachelor's degree when they complete high school because of the competition for jobs.

He believes they are listening as he often gets progress reports. He said the greatest reward is running into former students who are working successfully. Recently he saw one who now is a medical doctor.

"I'm talking goose bumps, tears. The feeling that you get...This is what it's all about, having a former student coming up to you and just saying 'thank you,'" he explained. "That's our reward. And there is nothing better. No amount of plaques. No amount of accolades can match someone coming up to you and saying 'thank you.' "

And when that student happens to be Hispanic, the 'thank you' is even sweeter, he said.

It's not something he thinks about daily, but Mejia admits it's a source of pride to be the first person in his culture to hold the position.

"It means a little extra and if we said that it didn't, it would probably be a lie," Mejia said, adding that he hopes he's not the last Hispanic in the job.

But being at the helm hasn't made him immune to the struggles against racism experienced by other minorities. "When I look in the mirror in the mornings, I see this beautiful brown skin and still to this day experience the prejudices," he said. "This is 2002 and sometimes it happens. You go somewhere and you're ignored. Even in schools. When they find out who you are, the tune changes.

"We've come a long way, but we have an awful long way to go."

Remember who you are

Juan Figueroa remembers yelling, "We made history!" when he became the first Hispanic to be elected alderman in Elgin last year.

"That was the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me," said the 42-year-old Puerto Rico native.

But he's not content with being first. He's very interested in mobilizing a younger group of people to follow in his footsteps.

"I'm expecting to see more people running for office, not only council members," he said. "Now is the time for more Latinos to become more active and interested in politics."

Figueroa first was appointed to the city council in 1999 when members were looking for a Hispanic to help diversify the board. However, he said he received the most joy from winning the seat through the people's vote in 2001.

The victory has made him somewhat of a celebrity among Elgin's large Mexican and smaller Puerto Rican population. At church, the grocery store and on the street, people who recognize him yell 'Hey Juan' and wave frantically.

"I'm committed to not changing," he said. "Sometimes you get to that level and you forget who you are. When that happens, you can't accomplish what you need to."

But he does appreciate the support. "It means a lot for me, especially when you come (here) and have to learn the language and overcome many obstacles," he said. "Sometimes it's amazing to think that I would come here and seven years later, I'm a leader."

While he's a leader for all the people in Elgin, there are issues of importance specifically to Hispanics, he said, such as improving communication between the city and the Hispanic community, getting people more involved and helping to provide affordable housing.

"The thing I am most proud of is that I could become a voice for the community," he said. "Not only Hispanics, but all the community."

Follow your dreams

Josephine Arebalo remembers the day she and her late husband, Armando, went to ask for a loan for the grocery store.

At the time, the mother of three didn't have her high school equivalency diploma, and she was selling Avon products for a living.

But she had a dream, and she wanted to fill a cultural void. The goal was to sell groceries to other Mexicans living in the Mundelein area.

"He offered me a job at the bank," she remembers of the loan officer.

They weren't willing to shell out the $5,000 to the Arebalo family based on Josephine's pipe dream. "I don't know what steps my husband took, but soon after we got the money," she said.

That was in 1971, and the couple opened a 16-by-16 foot grocery store and called it El Barrio - the first Mexican grocery in town. Their three sons were their employees.

They sold produce and canned items geared toward cooking Mexican dishes. She said people came from throughout Lake County to get the items they normally would have had to go to Chicago to get.

Two years later they expanded and added a take-out restaurant, selling tacos, tostados and burritos. Three years would pass and the family added on again to create a bar. Business was good and they expanded several more times to 5,000 square feet.

Today, the building is a full-fledged restaurant and lounge at 1122 Diamond Lake Road. The most popular dish over the years - cheese enchiladas - remains a crowd favorite.

"It feels terrific, especially in this day and age," said Armando Arebalo Jr., manager of the El Barrio. "Restaurants around us have opened and closed."

It wasn't as easy as it sounds running a restaurant and being a minority, he said. "We have had problems. I don't want to get into it. But we've overcome," Arebalo said.

Today the majority of the customers are non-Hispanic. "I guess this is what they get at home," he said of the lack of Hispanics dining in the restaurant.

But the customers they have are loyal. These days Arebalo is helping a third-generation into high chairs.

Looking back, Josephine Arebalo said she's thrilled she never let go of her idea to own a business.

"It's possible for anybody who really wants to work hard," she said. "You have to be daring in life. And you have to be able to take risks."

Cultural pride

Cuban-born Ana Lucia Hernandez has lived in the United States since she was a young girl. She thought about becoming a lawyer but discovered education was her passion.

"Teaching is something I can do 24 hours a day," she said. "I just come alive."

Hernandez, who was hired 12 years ago, believes she is the first Hispanic faculty member at Harper College in Palatine. She is an associate professor and teaches Spanish. Previously she taught at Willows Academy in Des Plaines and Oakton Community College.

Hernandez, 39, said teaching Spanish these days is an interesting feat because of the growing Hispanic population in the suburbs.

While many of her students are white, she also teaches Hispanic students who may or may not have learned Spanish at home. She said it's a wonderful experience to watch non-natives and native Hispanics learn about Hispanic culture together.

Those cultural lessons are meant to educate and inspire, she said. She tries to find ways to tie the Hispanic culture to others such as the Irish Celtic music that has some roots in Galicia, Spain.

"We're all a melting pot and a mixing of races," she said.

And teaching is one way to illustrate that, she said. "It's a way to show my pride in who I am," Hernandez said.

And she wants her Hispanic, students, especially, to be proud of who they are. She pushes them to excel when they sometimes want to goof off, she said.

"Sometimes they want to be popular and to be in the in-crowd," she said. "They have to be something in life. I tell them that. And they need to be aware of what's going on in the world."

Besides her Spanish classes at Harper, Hernandez is making a difference in the community by teaching Spanish to police officers in Hoffman Estates. This is a trend occurring throughout the suburbs where police officers are learning "command Spanish" which will help them in situations such as traffic stops and filing police reports.

Hernandez believes it's crucial, especially in the Northwest suburbs, where the Hispanic population is booming and immigrants bring with them the knowledge of corrupt officers from their homeland.

"In (some Latin American countries) cops can shoot and then ask questions," she said.

She's proud, she said, to be extending her teaching skills to help the greater community.

There to help people

When all the other Roman Catholic boys in his neighborhood were thinking about becoming priests, little Cipriano "Cip" Siete Sr. dreamed of wearing a gun and protecting Elgin residents.

On Feb. 17, 1958, the 27-year-old Elgin native reached his goal. He was sworn into Elgin's police force. That day he also made history, becoming Elgin's first Hispanic officer.

At the time, Siete, 71, didn't realize he'd be paving the way for others to follow. That didn't register.

But being on the force did.

"At the time I was just so proud to be an officer. I thought everybody in the world was looking at me," he said. "Back then people had more respect for officers than they do now."

He especially got respect from other Mexicans in town who sometimes turned to him when they were in trouble.

"I was there to help people," he said. "I know I helped my own people a lot from injustices."

Siete recalls having to step in on occasion when he thought other Mexicans were being unfairly treated by police officers in town. During his tenure on the police department, which lasted until 1981, he served on the major investigations division and eventually earned the rank of sergeant.

Thirty years would pass before another Hispanic would reach the rank of sergeant. Jose Morales, who is Puerto Rican, is now a police sergeant in Elgin.

There were good times and bad times on the force, Siete recalls, acknowledging that being a pioneer sometimes was difficult. "A lot of times people were waiting to see if I would make a mistake," he said.

His fondest memories, however, have to do with Elgin residents. He recalls saving a woman who was attempting suicide and getting a 'thank you' from her years later.

He remembers translating for Spanish-speakers in court because translators weren't required by law. And he remembers the time he help put out a fire at a Shell gas station and Fredrickson's furniture store.

In 1958, police officers also filled in on the fire department, so in a sense, he made history twice as there were no other Hispanic firefighters back then.

"We'd take our weapons off and put on helmets and coats and go," he said.

Still, being a police officer remains his first love.

Today he still carries a gun, as a he works as a uniformed security officer for the Kane County sheriff's department. He's stationed in the courthouse in St. Charles.

And he's still helping people, often doling out advice to upset women leaving divorce court or domestic court.

"I just tell them everything is going to be OK," he said.

Seeking political power

In the early 1990s, Glen Ellyn resident Leonard Sanchez sent a letter to then-President George Bush and invited him and his wife over for an enchilada dinner if they ever were in the area.

They never made it, but he did get a nice "thank you" postcard from Bush's staff.

Though Mexicans traditionally have been Democrats, Sanchez said he believed the party's views matched his family values.

And he wanted Bush to know.

Today he believes even more strongly in the Republican party and is more active and has a goal of convincing others - especially Hispanics - that, in his opinion, a vote for Republicans means a vote for a better life for them and their children.

He was the first Hispanic to become vice chair of the Milton Township Republican Central Committee in DuPage County, a position he still holds. The small township includes precincts in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton.

But he's not satisfied with that historic accomplishment. He wants others to follow. "I don't want to be the first and only one for a long time," he said. "We need more so we can move ahead."

Sanchez, 44, also serves as vice chair of the DuPage Republican Hispanic Assembly. Joel Campuzano, who is a first in his own right, serves as chair.

Sanchez said one of the roadblocks is getting the non-Hispanic old-guard Republicans to change the mindsets they developed in the 1970s. Back then they didn't have the Hispanic vote and accepted that. Even today, Sanchez said, they don't always understand the need to solicit the Hispanic vote.

"They need to become familiar with the way we think and the importance of winning a diverse vote," he said. "Sometimes they think that with Hispanics there is no political powerhouse there, but they just need to muster it.

"We're getting there. We're not there yet."

His goal is to help people - regardless of party affiliation - register to vote and to increase awareness about specific candidates in the precincts he covers.

He admits it's tough getting people to consider the other side. "It's like asking someone who is Catholic to become a Protestant," he said.

But he said one thing's for sure. "Hispanics, when they are invited to the party, they stay," he said.

He said he has been impressed by the amount of attention the president has given to Hispanic people, including addressing them in Spanish on Cinco de Mayo.

"It just doesn't get any better than this. President Bush is a great amigo to the Hispanic culture in the states," Sanchez said. "His presidency really is a milestone."

And he likes Bush so much he's offering him an invite, too. "The offer is still out there," he said. "If the current Bush wants to join me and my family for an enchilada dinner."

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