Minority groups fuel area's growth

News-DemocratFebruary 16, 2011 

Census numbers released Tuesday showed what some metro-east residents already knew: Minority groups fueled the area's growth this past decade.

Fairview Heights Alderman Speed Allen, the city's first black council member, said it was no surprise the census numbers showed an increase in minority populations.

Allen said he could see the population shift by the number of minority businesses that are interested in opening stores in Fairview Heights.

"There is a client base," Allen said, "and they want to work in a positive environment. They want this business climate."

Allen said such change is progress, and he wants to help minority businesses thrive in the city.

Here are some trends of minority growth:

* The black population grew by 30.5 percent to 82,302 in St. Clair County and now accounts for a third of its population. There was a 12.1 increase in Madison County, which has 21,235 black residents.

* The Hispanic population grew by 56.8 percent to 8,785 in St. Clair County and nearly doubled to 7,313 in Madison County.

* The Asian population rose to 3,276 residents in St. Clair, a 41 percent increase, and to 2,254 residents in Madison County, a 46 percent increase.

Mexican native Carlos Mariles said the census numbers underscore the changes he's witnessed in O'Fallon, where he has lived since serving at Scott Air Force Base.

The metro-east has grown more diverse since he arrived in the 1970s with his wife, Rosalinda, a Spanish teacher at University of Missouri St. Louis.

"We used to be so happy if we heard anyone speaking Spanish at the grocery store," Mariles said. The couple would quickly make friends with the Spanish-speakers, because they were so hard to come by.

The census shows O'Fallon has 982 Hispanic/Latino people, twice as many as counted in the 2000 census. The city's black population also grew 67.6 percent, to 4,404.

Mariles believes the growing diversity is attributable to interracial military families who come to the metro-east and stay.

Mariles helped start a Hispanic Club at Scott Air Force Base in 1976. The group had dinners where 60 or more people would make dishes from all over the world, representative of where they were from or had served with the military.

"We were getting to taste food from different countries," Mariles said. "Next thing we know, we're not just happy with Mexican food."

Still, Mariles was happy when La Jerezana Market opened in Belleville. Mariles and his wife no longer had to drive to Fairmont City or St. Louis for certain ingredients on their shopping lists.

Felix De Santiago, who opened the Mexican grocery store in 2008, said he hasn't noticed a change in the number of customers he has, per se, but said he now gets shoppers from all over the metro-east, from Fairview Heights to Smithton to Mascoutah.

De Santiago has lived in Belleville for about 17 years. He opened the market because he knew there was a demand: His Hispanic friends kept saying the area needed such a business.

The metro-east's Hispanic population in 2000 was concentrated in Fairmont City, which is still true. The city still boasts the highest number of Hispanic residents, at 1,882, but Granite City and Collinsville have almost as many.

Nereida Avendano, chairwoman of the Latino Roundtable of Southwestern Illinois, said she could not estimate how many immigrants, documented or not, might have been missed by the census.

"They don't really know why the government wants to have them counted," Avendano said. "We know that resources will be given to the towns (based on population), but ...they're not eligible for many of those resources."

Virginia Martinez, staff lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it's mostly about fear, even for legal immigrants who are in no danger of being deported.

"The whole anti-immigrant atmosphere in the country made them afraid to even want to answer the census," Martinez said.

Layla Suleiman Gonzalez, director of the Illinois Latino Family Commission, said their main challenge was combating that fear.

"When they know that being detained or stopped for any reason might lead to being deported, it's hard to trust that it won't go anywhere else," Suleiman Gonzalez said.

The legal defense fund conducted a census education campaign with ads placed in Spanish media. The Latino Roundtable reached out through its member organizations, as did the Catholic Diocese of Belleville. An effort was made to send out Spanish-speaking Census workers and to provide surveys in Spanish, Suleiman Gonzalez said.

The Rev. John Curry, of Conqueror's Christian Center in Belleville, said the diversity is good and inevitable.

"America is a melting pot, and people come from all over the world. It's not surprising that it's happening here," Curry said.

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