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Chicago Tribune

Aguada Share Family Ties; Over Years, 2,500 Ex-Residents Have Moved To Suburb

By Colleen Mastony, Tribune staff reporter

August 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

Years ago in Aguada, Puerto Rico, word traveled among workers in the sugar cane fields, neighbors playing dominoes and friends drinking coffee about a place called Elgin, Illinois.

One person told another, who told another, until nearly everyone in Aguada knew, or somehow was related to, someone who was moving to the small factory town in the Midwest.

Today, there are nearly 2,500 people from Puerto Rico living in Elgin, and nearly every one of them can trace his or her roots to Aguada.

Personal connections have tied the two towns so tightly together that on Saturday, when Elgin hosts its 12th annual Puerto Rican Parade and Festival, the mayor of Aguada will attend as a guest of honor to acknowledge the city that so many of his townspeople have adopted over the years.

The relationship between the towns illustrates how a wave of immigration can be touched off as stories of jobs and prosperity pass through friends and neighbors.

"This is an extraordinarily common pattern," said Susan Gzesh, an immigration expert and director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago. "People settle through kinship networks. If you are committing to moving to a big, scary country, you follow relatives or neighbors who say it may be a good idea and who can find you a job. You need a couch to sleep on."

The pattern has played out across the country, with the Irish in Boston and the Chinese in San Francisco, and it continues as immigrants settle into the suburbs around Chicago.

They don't just move to another country. They move to a specific town, a specific neighborhood, even a specific housing complex. Friends bring more friends until the social fabric of a foreign town is rewoven in a new community.

In Aurora, most people in the Mexican community are from San Miguel Epejan. In Waukegan, there is a group from Tonatico, Mexico. In Woodstock, nearly everyone from Mexico is from Las Vueltas.

Though Aguada has lost sons and daughters to the mainland for years--to Dover, N.J., and Boston as well as Elgin--Mayor Miguel Ruiz isn't complaining. People who move away send money home, buy land and build retirement homes, he said. They come to Aguada on vacation and generally make his town much wealthier than it would be otherwise. "Things are booming here," he said.

The migration to Elgin, population 95,000, began in the early 1950s, long after Aguada's men began leaving for Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the Bronx or along Division Street in Chicago. But cities were known to be dangerous, and immigrants increasingly wanted someplace like their small town.

Aguada, a town of 42,000 on the west coast of Puerto Rico, is a three-hour drive from San Juan. It's a place of winding cobblestone streets and ornate churches. In the lush hills outside the town, many live simply.

"It is light years behind any town in the U.S.," said Gil Feliciano, 41, an Elgin city worker whose father came from Aguada in 1956. "They still have electricity issues. Water is going out all the time. When I was a kid, I hated going there. I used to take a bath in a huge drum with water they got from running streams. You dip a cup and wash it over you, and that water was cold. I used to think, `I can't wait to get back to Elgin.'"

How such migrations start baffles immigrants and experts. Elgin's Puerto Rican community, for example, still debates which Aguadan arrived first.

Facundo Negron was selling needles and thread from a basket in the hills around Aguada in the early 1950s when he decided to make his fortune on the mainland. A friend had told him about Elgin, so Negron headed there, found work in a foundry and sent for his wife, Patricia.

She claims the Negrons were the original Puerto Ricans in Elgin, becoming the only people there who spoke Spanish.

The Negrons saved for several years until they had enough money to buy a house on Ball Street, where they rented rooms for $10 a week, including meals. Negron's nephew, Celestino Acevedo, came to Elgin in the late 1950s. Two more nephews, Ruperto and Ovidio Acevedo, followed. Before long, nine of Negron's nephews had moved to Elgin, and had told their friends to come too.

In Aguada, "Everybody was talking about [Elgin]. They said coming here was a better life," Francisco Villanueva, 76, said. "Everybody got the fever."

Villanueva claims he arrived long before the Negrons. He said he remembers the date: April 20, 1952. A cousin had written him that there were jobs, and Villanueva borrowed money from an uncle for a $60 plane ticket.

"I came like every other guy did, looking for adventure," Villanueva said.

Whoever arrived first was not alone for long.

When a friend told Tadeo Jimenez that people were making money in Elgin, Jimenez thought it must be better than earning pennies in the plantation fields. He moved his family in 1957, finding work at the Milk Pail restaurant on Illinois Highway 25 in East Dundee.

Julio Lopez came in 1960, finding "job postings everywhere," and rooms to rent for $2 a week, his children recalled. Alejandro Serrano, from a town 60 miles from Aguada, got married in late 1952 and brought his bride straight to Elgin and bought her a watch made in the city.

By the 1960s, Puerto Rican families, many of whom had been neighbors in Aguada, were having progressive Christmas parties. Today, a person from Aguada can pass a relative on an Elgin street and not realize it.

"I don't even know who my family is around here," Feliciano said, only half-joking. "We'll both have the same last name, and we're both from same small barrio. But we don't know one another. My mother will say, `Oh, don't you know? This is your cousin so-and-so.'"

Many first generation immigrants from Aguada are returning to their hometown to retire. Representatives from an Aguada bank have come to Elgin to recruit customers, saying those who have accounts will have an easier time getting a loan for a retirement home there. A recent meeting drew 150 residents.

"People say, `Someday, I want to buy land there. Someday, I'm going back," Feliciano said.

But some say Elgin no longer seems so far from Puerto Rico. The Aguada mayor said he sees so many familiar faces that it's as though someone lifted a barrio of Aguada and dropped it in Illinois. When he walked in Elgin's parade last year, old friends yelled at him, "Hey, Miguelito!"

"When I get to Elgin, I feel like I'm at my brother's house," he said. "I get invited so many places I couldn't go to them all. It feels like family."

Sources: ESRI, Census, GDT

Chicago Tribune/Max Rust and Phil Geib

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