Growing Pains: One small Illinois River town is at the forefront of a national demographic trend
It’s Sunday morning and there’s standing room only at St. Alexius Catholic Church in Beardstown. Young Mexican immigrant families overflow the pews, the aisles, the balcony and even the foyer. As the Rev. Gene Weitzel blesses communion bread and wine, a nun translates into Spanish. Between prayers, musicians strum an acoustic guitar and rattle a tambourine. There’s no organ music here.
At a time when shrinking congregations threaten the existence of many rural churches, attendance has doubled at St. Alexius since Weitzel became pastor 12 years ago. It’s a boom for which Weitzel claims no credit, and one for which he was completely unprepared.
The 74-year-old, white-haired Anglo pastor traces the surge in his congregation to the Excel Corp.’s 1987 purchase of a shuttered hog meatpacking plant. The company recruited workers from Mexico and transformed this Illinois River town of 5,766 people about 45 miles west of Springfield.
“They kind of trickled into town,” Weitzel recalls of the immigrants’ arrival. “I realized that we really had to get on the ball.” Beardstown is in the heart of Cass County, where a nearly 2,000 percent increase in the Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000 was the steepest rise in the state, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
Nationally and in Illinois, Hispanics were the fastest-growing minority population throughout the 1990s, with by far the largest share of immigrants coming from Mexico. Although most of this state’s Hispanics still call Chicago home, during the past decade they have increasingly moved to suburban and rural communities, drawn by manufacturing and agriculture-related jobs.
In addition to Beardstown, central Illinois has seen rising Hispanic populations in Decatur, home of the Archer Daniels Midland soybean-processing plant, and in Arcola, which counts two broom factories among its major employers. These rural immigrants, many of them young and raising children, are reinvigorating graying communities.
In Beardstown, Hispanics are buying homes and have opened businesses. Su Casa, a Mexican restaurant and grocery store, sells Mexican-brand tortillas, sodas and other items to the immigrants, while drawing Anglo customers.
“Before the population came, Beardstown was a small, dying town,” says Kevin Kleinschmidt, a grandson of German immigrants who has lived just outside Beardstown all his life. “Five, six years ago, you could go down to the square. It would be deserted. Now it’s bustling all day long.”
For Kleinschmidt, the arrival of Mexicans by the hundreds over the last decade has been good for business. His insurance agency has a growing Hispanic clientele, prompting him to enroll in a Spanish class at a community college.
Throughout the 1990s, economic restructuring inmajor rural industries, particularly in meatpacking,led to a wave of Hispanicmigration to small towns in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota,Nebraska and Illinois, according to a 1997 report by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb.
Along with prosperity, though, the influx has brought growing pains. The Hispanic school enrollment, for instance, climbed from 21 in the fall of 1995 to 274 last year. In the 1,300-student system, 20 percent need classes taught in Spanish until they become more proficient in English.
In response, the district has had to hire 16 teachers and aides. Further, a shortage of rental housing has spurred newcomers to crowd into single-family houses. This summer, the city cited a homeowner after discovering 22 people living in a single house.
Meanwhile, police officers and health care providers struggle to communicate with the new residents. “The language barrier is the toughest,” newly elected Beardstown Mayor Bob Walters says. “That’s the biggest problem we have in a small community not used to any minorities at all.”
Immigrants who have encounters with the police or must go to court are often assisted by Dominican nun Renee Lawless, a Jacksonville native who had spent 30 years in Peru. She was recruited by Beardstown’s St. Alexius parish about four years ago.
St. Alexius Catholic Church is often the first stop for newly arrived immigrants, many of whom come with few belongings. The church basement now houses a free “store” stocked with secondhand clothing, bedding and dishes.
Lawless spends much of her time doing social work, making home visits to Beardstown’s Hispanic newcomers and acting as an interpreter. On a recent afternoon, she knocked on the storm door of an old two-story house. Veronica Avila, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant, warmly greeted her in Spanish and ushered her into a tidy living room where lace and artificial flowers decorated the used furniture. Avila’s 16-month-old daughter slept soundly on the sofa.
“They had nothing here when they came,” says Sister Renee. The church procured the family’s used refrigerator, kitchen chairs, beds and bookshelves.
Like many of the Mexican immigrants in this community, the Avila family first learned about the jobs at Beardstown’s Excel plant while working at a meatpacking plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.
Throughout the 1990s, economic restructuring in major rural industries, particularly in meatpacking, led to a wave of Hispanic migration to small towns in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois, according to a 1997 report by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. The workforce isn’t the only change. Oscar Mayer, the previous owner of Beardstown’s pork plant, employed unionized, predominantly white males; Excel is nonunion, and about one third of its 1,984 workers are Hispanic.
One year after arriving here, Veronica Avila is working evenings at Excel while her husband Juan works the day shift for a compact-disc manufacturer in Jacksonville. They live with their five young children in a rambling house that Juan is renovating.
The church helped establish their home, but what Avila most values is the cultural connection the church provides: “The church keeps us as a Hispanic group together,” with celebrations of feast days and holidays, she says in Spanish as Sister Renee translates. “It’s not easy to leave your homeland to come to a strange country with different customs.”
Just before kissing Sister Renee goodbye, though, Avila calls her “a bridge between the Hispanics and the Anglos.”
While St. Alexius was among the first to offer social services to the immigrants, other agencies and businesses have begun to reach out to the newcomers. And Mayor Walters says he hopes to involve more immigrants as community volunteers in such efforts as the new “adopt-a-block” cleanup program. The city hired its first Hispanic police officer this year, and the local newspaper just launched a Spanish-language edition.
Despite these strategies to draw the newcomers into the community, signs of ethnic tensions are not difficult to find. “The resentment is kind of subtle,” the Rev. Weitzel says. That resentment has surfaced in letters to the editor in the English edition of the Cass County Star-Gazette. Local residents contend, for example, that Hispanics don’t pay taxes. Weitzel countered in his own letter to the editor that immigrants pay income taxes and, even if they’re renters, the rent they’re paying goes toward property taxes.
Indeed, Weitzel has become an outspoken advocate for the Hispanic population. And his views don’t sit well with some of the other residents. “The whole town of Beardstown is bending over backwards” to help the immigrants assimilate, says Michelle Fryer, an Excel employee and the 20-year-old daughter of a Philippine immigrant. “He seems to have forgot whose home this is and why we feel so run over.
If you come to our country, you should learn our language.” Mayor Walters, too, accepts only so much change. Like Fryer, he has no plans to learn Spanish. “This is the language I speak. When in Rome, you do as the Romans do.”
Such tensions took an uglier turn in 1996, when a Mexican immigrant allegedly killed a white resident in the El Flamingo tavern and fled to his home country. The night after the shooting, a cross was left burning outside the bar. Six days after the shooting, arson destroyed the El Flamingo.
Locals blamed the murder on a love triangle — the victim was a friend of the ex-husband of the immigrant’s live-in girlfriend — not ethnic problems. In the wake of the incident, however, Hispanic and white residents formed an alliance to promote racial harmony. The group was the result of a meeting organized by church leaders where about 60 people gathered to discuss the tension. Beyond such visible flareups, the two communities remain segregated. A picnic last spring marking Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican military holiday, was one of the rare occasions when Hispanics and Anglos socialized.
Still, immigrants make up 11 percent of the country’s population, the largest share since the 1930s, the Census Bureau reported last month. And the struggle to make room for these newcomers is happening in small towns like Beardstown.
The Mexicans’ immigrant experience is similar to that of earlier Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants, says Ben Mueller, a University of Illinois Extension specialist in Champaign who runs a Spanish-language radio program for Hispanic immigrants. With time, Mexicans buy homes in their adopted communities, join churches and speak fluent English — in short, they become part of the middle class.
“Those things are happening,” Mueller says. “We just have to be a little more patient.” That message resonates in Beardstown. “It’s always them and us, is kind of the feeling amongst a lot of the people,” Mayor Walters says. “By interacting, we’ll overcome some of the differences. It’s not like they’re going to just disappear, because that’s just not going to happen.”
Lisa Kernek is a general assignment reporter at the Springfield State Journal-Register, where she has tracked census-related issues, including the Hispanic population boom in Beardstown.
Illinois Issues, September 2001