Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Young Hispanics reshaping Chicago

Nuevo Chicago: How young Hispanics are reshaping the region
BY KARA SPAK AND DAVE NEWBART, Chicago Sun-Times, February 19, 2010

The wedding dress. The cake. The church. The props for la hora loca.

Alex Bellorin is planning a Chicago wedding that is part American, part Venezuelan and part Chinese in honor of her groom, Calvin Wong.

Her wedding would be incomplete without la hora loca, the Venezuelan crazy hour, she said.

"For one full hour, they mix all these Venezuelan songs, and people bring out bags of funny glasses, funny hats, noisemakers and horns and just go crazy," she said.

Bellorin, a 25-year-old Spanish teacher at Huntley High School, was born in the United States, the daughter of Venezuelan immigrants. She graduated from Northern Illinois University and lives in Schaumburg.

"I would say I'm Venezuelan, but I was born here, in the U.S.," she said. "I do consider myself American, but the way I was brought up, the culture, I feel a close connection to [Venezuela]."

She's not alone. In high school cafeterias, college dorms, Loop offices and River North nightclubs, a new generation of Latinos is rising, pushing toward success and often seamlessly weaving together elements of their heritage into the mainstream culture.

Overwhelmingly U.S. born, bilingual and optimistic about the future -- though lagging in education levels and facing a stubborn teen pregnancy rate -- Latinos are the largest and youngest minority group in the United States, according to a recently released report.

A minority ethnic group has never before made up such a large share of the youngest Americans. More than two-thirds of this group claim Mexican ancestry, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's report, "Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America."

About 7.5 million people between the ages of 16 and 25 -- 18 percent of all young adults in the United States -- are Latino. More than 320,000 young adults in Illinois are Hispanic, the fifth-largest concentration in the country.

The growing number of Latino youth has big implications for the future, experts said.

"By 2050, we project the Hispanic population overall will make up 30 percent of the U.S. population,'' said Mark Lopez, the Pew Hispanic Center's associate director and report co-author. "There is going to be a huge impact, and it's largely driven by U.S.-born Hispanics.''

Indeed, the report notes that two-thirds of young Latinos in the United States are natives. Many are children of immigrants who came to the United States since 1965, considered the third "great wave'' of immigration in the country's history.

"It's our baby boom,'' said Allert Brown-Gort, associate director for Latino Studies at Notre Dame.

Brown-Gort, co-author of an earlier report called "The State of Latino Chicago,'' pointed to the Chicago Public Schools, where more than 40 percent of students are Hispanic.

"When these kids come to maturity it's going to change the game, and we are not sure how,'' Brown-Gort said. "Where are we going to find ourselves when the work force goes from one in eight Latinos to one in four or one in three? If we look at the educational outcomes we have today, it's a little worrisome.''

While the Pew national survey of 1,240 Latinos 16 to 25 years old found the group valued career achievement, hard work and education, Latinos in this age group are less likely to be enrolled in high school or college and more likely to become teen parents than any other demographic.

The education gap is worse for Latino men, a recent study by the American Council on Education found. While Hispanic women and other groups have increased their bachelor's degree attainment rate, the rate for males has remained stable at 10 percent, the lowest of any group.

DePaul sophomore Quintilliano Rios, 20, who emigrated from Mexico City when he was 9, says Latino men are less likely to start or finish college because of family pressure to work and gang activity.

Rios, who graduated with straight A's from Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park, said his mom would come home after a long shift in a factory and remind him to stay in school. Now that he is in college, he is often the only Latino man in his classes.

"Guys don't have a lot of education traditionally," he said. "Guys would just start working.''

Coupled with the fact that Hispanic women have the highest rate of teen pregnancy of any group, both males and females end up having trouble staying in school.

"There are many things that have gotten in the way,'' the Pew Hispanic Center's Lopez said. When the center asked why Hispanics left school, "the top reason is they need to support their families. Another reason is they can't afford to go to school.''

A lack of money was why Dalmina Arias, a senior at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville and daughter of Mexican immigrants, said her father was unable to finish college in Mexico. And it's why he now pushes her to do well in high school.

"He tells me to get good grades, and you'll get a scholarship and that means money," Arias, 17, said. "He always tells me the sky is the limit."

But as the first one in her family headed to college, she has spent hours wading through confusing paperwork to get into school and find a way to pay for it.

"I did the [federal financial aid form] by myself, I did the college applications by myself," she said. "It was really hard, and I felt really, really pressured."

Having to go it on their own is all too common, Notre Dame's Brown-Gort said.

"We have an awful lot of kids that are going to college, but they are the first in their families to do so,'' he said. "They don't have any experience in going to college, and a lot of them don't finish.''

Despite the bleak statistics, 89 percent of young Latinos reported in the 2009 National Survey of Latinos recognize an education is necessary to get ahead.

Eberto Mora, who has worked at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville for 13 years, said he has seen a sea change in the attitudes of Latino students, who now make up about 40 percent of the student body at his school.

Mora, an associate principal, said the numbers of Hispanic students continues to increase, but those seeking English as a Second Language classes are declining.

"They are being pushed from home" to succeed academically, he said. "Just because mom and dad didn't do it doesn't mean you can't. We are becoming more of an established community and not just an immigrant community."

At Farragut Career Academy in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, faculty pushed 17-year-old senior Angel Reyes to join Escalera, a program through the Instituto de Progreso Latino to guide young Latinos through the college process.

Reyes credits his family for keeping him on the college track, though they did not go.

"Ever since I was a little kid, they would tell me to go to school," he said.

Living with his grandfather, who is in his 60s and continues to work as a landscaper, is also motivating, he said.

"It makes me want to get ahead and go to college and make life easier for my kids," he said. "If [my grandfather] is still around, I would like to make it easier for him, not make him work."

Latinos who make it through college and into the professional world are finding that their bilingual skills and easy ability to move between two cultures are increasingly sought-after workplace assets. And young Latinos are optimistic that their lot is going to improve: About 95 percent say they are "very'' or "mostly'' satisfied with their lives, while 72 percent expect to be better off financially than their parents.

"We have a lot of opportunities out here, being Mexican and American," said Monica Rodriguez, an 18-year-old American-born senior at Dundee-Crown High School. "We speak Spanish and English. We should try our hardest to finish high school, go to college and become something."

Businesses are taking note of this growing customer base.

"What is going on is an uprising of Latinos," said Vanessa Quintana, 22, a marketing major at Columbia College who has interned for several businesses geared toward Hispanics. "The Latino marketing segment is going to be a huge niche market."

Spanish teacher Bellorin, who has followed in the steps of her professionally successful parents, knows she is helping all of her Huntley High School students get ahead by teaching them Spanish.

"I'm preparing these kids for a more global environment," she said. "It's exposing kids to these different cultures."

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