ARCOLA, Ill. (WCIA) — Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 – October 15. It’s a time to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Central Illinois is filled with many of these stories. The small, rural town of Arcola isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a community of Hispanic heritage, but for more than 40-years, immigrants from Mexico have called Arcola home.
Now, they’re working on a project to share their roots with anyone who travels here for a visit. In America’s “broom town,” it’s not hard to get swept up into unique stories, if you know where to look.
“We’re just part of this town now. We feel part of this town.”
Herlinda Garza Kauffman is a volunteer at the town’s Walk Through Time Museum. She’s working on an exhibit to share her family’s heritage.
“My father came to Arcola in 1967. His friend, Fidel Silva, was already here, working in the broom factory making handmade brooms. The broomcorn was being imported from our hometown. My father was a broommaker by trade in Mexico, made handmade brooms. And, they were needed here because that art had been lost.”
Back then, only a handful of people worked at the Libman Factory making brooms. Now, the company employs hundreds. But, as more and more workers brought their skills from Mexico, getting settled in Central Illinois was an uphill battle, at first.
“I came here without speaking a word of English.”
Rolando Ambriz moved here in 1976, when he says things were very different.
“We weren’t quite welcome. When we first got here, we were walking down the street and people called us names, things like that.”
Manuel Barrientos came five years later.
“There used to be fights every day after school. They come from school and there were fights about it because they looked different.”
“Going to school was difficult. You have children who’ve never even seen a person from Mexico.”
It took time, but slowly, they changed hearts and minds.
“People started treating us different after they got know us and, I think, at this point, we’re all one big family.”
“We’re so integrated into our schools, our town, we’re just part of this town now. We feel part of this town.”
“Now, it’s like a whole one family. We got a lot of friends that are Hispanic, a lot of friends that are white.”
Today, leaders estimate close to half the community identifies as Hispanic. Many members of the next generation have left town and returned. But, no matter who comes or goes, Arcola will always be home to a unique culture bound in brooms and forged in America’s melting pot.
“Most of the people are afraid of what they don’t know. If they know our community better, they understand where we come from and how we’ve had success in this area.”
“It’s possible to have two cultures live in the same town, work together and be friends.”
Arcola is known as the Broom Corn Capital of the World. It’s a title celebrated every year. The Annual Broom Corn Festival still happens the weekend after Labor Day.
The Hispanic population in Arcola has grown so much, volunteers say it created a need they were called to respond to. The Mi Raza Center was established in 2004. It started as a resource and outreach organization for the local Hispanic population.
Nowadays, it helps people all over Central Illinois. Co-founder, Tim Flavin, says he sees several people a day.
“We want them to know that there’s a resource here. They’re not alone. We’ll help guide them through it. We’ll walk through with them with whatever process they have and help them with any issues they have or maybe improve their lives.”
Mi Raza has helped families find work, connect with healthcare services, understand the immigration process, get an education and much more. They say their partnership with the city has helped keep it up and running for so long.