Hidden History: Honoring Hispanic Heritage
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Nearly one in five people who call Illinois home claim Hispanic heritage. But until three years ago, not one Hispanic person had ever run for statewide office on their own and won.
In 2016, Democrat Susana Mendoza, the Chicago City Clerk and a former House Representative, jumped into the race for a job nearly no one wanted: paying the bills for a state drowning in debt.
Now, Comptroller Mendoza has made a name for herself as a vocal fighter, and in the process, set an example for other Hispanic people to follow into politics and public service.
While sitting down for a quick lunch at a local Mexican restaurant in Springfield, Mendoza recalled her parents struggles when they immigrated to the U.S. and detailed how hard times galvanized her fiscal outlook.
“When my parents came here, they had nothing,” she said. “They provided enough for us so that we never went without, but I knew that they struggled every day. They lived paycheck to paycheck and in debt, but still paid their bills. But they had to learn to not pay a bill this month so they could pay a more important bill.”
She says that hardscrabble upbringing instilled values in her that helped get her elected in 2016 and made her more nimble and able to withstand a monetary crisis.
“You have to learn how to stretch the value of a dollar more so than you think is humanly possible,” she said.
“People would say, are you good with money? And I would say, I’m good with money, but I am even better when there is no money.”
Mendoza describes herself as an underdog, one who carries a chip on her shoulder after winning and losing her share of bruising elections.
“Do we get judged differently? Yes,” she said.
“It’s bad enough if you were a woman, and a woman of color, you’re going to have additional judgments or expectations to not actually succeed they put on you,” she said. “And you know that and you feel that, but you just don’t let it wear you down. You just break through it and keep getting stuff done.”
Between high stakes political battles and high profile financial fights,
she still finds time to connect with other Hispanic immigrants, like Nicholas Paz, who share a similar background and remind her of her roots.
Paz, the chef and owner of the Az-t-ca Mexican restaurant in Springfield, said Hispanic culture is “about family values, hard work and everything.”
Next month, Mendoza’s office is preparing to honor Paz and his work as an outstanding Hispanic member of the Springfield community.
“Serving is in our blood,” he said. “It’s in Hispanic blood. Serving is like what we do.”
His move here from Bolivia was an uphill climb. Paz said he ran out of gas in Kansas City and was stranded until a woman gave him twenty dollars to help him complete his journey to Springfield where he was planning to meet with family.
“Immigration is a process,” he explained. “It’s so hard to understand the background or what we had to do to get out of where we were at one point in our lives.”
“As a student, you cannot work, you cannot do a lot of things,” he said. “Immigration is not like you go to a line where, ‘Here is a green card’ or ‘Here is your permit.’ It’s a process, and people don’t understand that process. The right way takes years, and it takes money. One application is like $600 or $700.
“When you have nothing and you have to pay $500 every three months for insurance to have a car, and then you have $700 to fill out an application, which one do you do? Well, you go fill out the application because you want to do it the right way. But then you get pulled over and you get a $500 ticket because you don’t have insurance and you get in a hole.
“To get to the place where I am, you have to have so many things going right for you,” he said.
“We take the jobs that nobody else wants to do, you know? We like serving people to make their lives better.”
After eating lunch, Mendoza returned to the statehouse and visited her old seat in the House of Representatives, where Lombard Democrat Terra Costa Howard sits today.
Several new nameplates adorn the desks where lawmakers work during legislative session, but some familiar faces still roam the halls and secure the premises.
One of them, Sergeant-at-Arms Joe Dominguez, remembers Mendoza’s days in the House fondly, recounting her prominent role in the impeachment of former Governor Rod Blagojevich.
Mendoza credited Dominguez and his staff for keeping her and other legislative members safe and insulated from loud public protests or interruptions from outside influences.
“There was a time early on in my career where there was an issue with gun legislation,” Mendoza remembered, “and I was getting hate mail, where if you vote for this legislation, people are going to shoot you dead.”
“There was this concern that literally you could be like a sitting duck in this chamber if our Sergeant-at-Arms and our police officers aren’t super vigilant about who’s coming into the building,” she said. “Some of these issues get very heated, and some people do crazy things in moments like that. The role that they play allows us to leave any worry outside the door and just do our job in here.”
Dominguez takes his job seriously, and says he finds the repetitive, demanding work very rewarding.
“We do our best work when nobody sees it,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez plays traffic cop and security guard, protecting the premises while lawmakers do their work. It’s often a thankless job, one that is done almost entirely behind the scenes, but it’s one he loves to do.
“No matter how you feel about the votes or what have you, to allow the process to work properly, there is just something really good about putting it to bed every night and being able to do it again the next day,” he said.
“There are so many times when I think about family and I think about what we come from in our roots, and you just look at this. I remember the very first time I walked in here. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here. You look up at the Capitol, and you look up, and there’s just pride.”
His parents, like Mendoza’s, were immigrants — who parted with the things they held most dear: their families, their language, and their home country — all for a shot in a new land.
“This is what I think America represents, the people who are willing to die coming over to this country,” Mendoza said. “Not because they want to do it harm, but because they want a better life for themselves with their family.”
Or, as Paz put simply:
“The American dream,” he said. “That’s why they call it. It’s still here, and that’s what we all pursue.”
“We never thought for one second America was never great. You know? We always thought America is the place to be.”
While America is the place immigrants may want to be, it hasn’t always welcomed them with open arms.
Mendoza said when she was a little girl, a large white man overheard her father speaking to her in Spanish in a grocery store. The stranger approached her father and said, “Hey, this is America. Speak English!”
She remembers feeling frightened for a moment until her dad responded.
“This is America,” he said, “And in America, I can speak whatever language I want.”
Mendoza says that moment stuck with her, and in some ways, inspired her to speak out, even when she said other Hispanic people prefer to keep their heads down and work behind the scenes.
“We’re a hard working people that don’t typically speak up a lot,” she said. “While those are important facets of being polite, it’s also important to find your voice and stand up for things.”
“Our minds and words are really some of the most powerful tools that you could ever employ,” she said. “Our ability as human beings to help each other out and stand up for each other is a really powerful tool.”