By Michael Kleen
Soon after the election in April, Register Star reporter Isaac Guerrero asked in his blog, “When will Rockford Latinos exercise political power?” After all, he reasoned, the number of Latinos/Hispanics in Rockford grew nearly 58 percent between 2000 and 2010, while in the same period the non-Hispanic white population declined 9 percent. There are no fewer than two Spanish-language newspapers in Rockford, and Hispanics are opening new businesses at an encouraging rate.
In all fairness, there has been some political activity among Latinos in Rockford and Winnebago County in recent years, and not all on the Democratic side of the aisle. Of the four current officeholders of Hispanic descent who live in Winnebago County (Julio Salgado, John Guevara, John Cabello and Arnie Cabello) three were elected as Republicans.
Still, many local Hispanic candidates have found it difficult to obtain the financial and political support they need to get elected to public office. While many see Rockford’s Hispanics and Latinos as a minority group, I prefer to think of them as part of a silent majority that is largely shut out of the political process. It is a process in which candidates are frequently asked to step aside by their party or are passed over by big contributors because they are not in the correct social circles, live in the right neighborhoods or work for the right companies.
Earlier this summer, members of Rockford’s growing Hispanic community came together to form a new political action committee called Latinos for Political Progress. The core of this group consists of former candidates for local office, business owners and concerned citizens. It is a bipartisan group interested in opening doors for Latino candidates, as well as funding candidates (of all backgrounds) who want to promote the best interests of their community.
I am proud to be a part of this new organization because all people in Rockford and Winnebago County deserve to be represented in local government. It is time for Rockford’s Hispanics, like the rest of our city’s silent majority, to assert themselves and claim a seat at the table. As a transplant to the Rockford area, I know how difficult it is to enter local politics without my family name on the side of a building.
The strength of this group (and what appeals to me, in particular) is its self-determination. These individuals have come together to help Latinos achieve political representation in a variety of offices because they, too, have children in public schools, contribute to our economy, and want to live in safe neighborhoods. They have an interest in making sure we have a local government that represents our entire community, not just the wealthy and well-connected.
A community divided along geographic, racial, ethnic, class or linguistic lines can never be a genuine community. Its progress will always be sabotaged by division, suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. That is why those with political power have an interest in extending their hand (and their support) to newcomers on the political scene. It would be a mistake to continue practicing “politics as usual,” as if there wasn’t a social and demographic earthquake occurring right under their feet.
So, when will Rockford Latinos exercise political power? Important steps have been made, and little by little, we will see more Hispanic names on our ballots. This is encouraging, because it means an increasing number of Latinos and Hispanics have put down roots and have a stake in building a better society. With our help, groups like Latinos for Political Progress will make it easier for them to step up and serve the public, and that is good for the whole community.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education. He was the Republican candidate for Rockford mayor in the 2013 election. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the July 10-16, 2013, issue