Looking for America in Chicago
by Herbert I. London
Recently I was asked to give a speech at the Midwest Conference Center in the Melrose Park section of Chicago. What I experienced, however, had little to do with the Midwest and a lot to do with Mexico.
Arriving in that area during the lunch hour, I searched for a place to eat. Since I am not favorably disposed to Mexican food, I searched for a luncheonette or diner where I might order a sandwich or salad. But I searched in vain. A twenty mile drive on Lake Street yielded nothing but taco and burrito establishments.
At long last I found a Burger King. I was relieved. Nevertheless, the employee behind the counter spoke Spanish exclusively. I asked for the Chicken Caesar Salad, but the counter employee looked at me quizzically. Finally, I simply pointed to the sign.
This was merely the beginning of my adventure. After delivering my speech, I wanted to get to Midway Airport to catch another flight. My host said all I had to do was take interstate 290 to Cicero. Unfortunately for me, he neglected to indicate whether I should be going east or west on 290. I guessed wrong.
After traveling in the wrong direction for about five miles I decided to ask for help at a gas station. As soon as I started to speak, I realized the attendant did not speak english. I went on to another gas station where I encountered the same problem, then another and another. After seven stops, I finally relented. In pidgeon spanish, I pleaded for assistance.
To my astonishment, none of these attendants ever heard of Midway. They insisted that I really wanted to go to O'Hare. I argued that there is another airport in Chicago despite their claims. After an hour of frustrating encounters I made it to Midway.
All through this experience I kept asking myself in what nation was I traveling. I am persuaded I was actually in Little Mexico, a colony of Big Mexico.
Although proponents of immigration contend diversity is a healthy consequence of the new immigration, it really doesn't exist. Diversity has dramatically declined among new immigrants. During the last decade - as my experience indicates - immigrants from Mexico account for more than 30 percent of the foreign born in the United States. Moreover, Mexicans accounted for about 43 percent of the growth in the nation's foreign born population.
In Illinois, for example, the Mexican population increased from roughly 275,000 in 1990 to 680,000 in 2003, almost all of these Mexicans are in the Chicago area. Surely many of these new immigrants play a significant role as employees in the hospitality industry, the restaurant business and heavy industry. But there are other implications that should be considered.
The most imposing issue is that a large, less diverse immigrant population living as an island within an urban area often hinders integration by fostering linguistic and spatial isolation. When one group dominates in a neighborhood such as Melrose Park, the chance of having immigrants Americanize is substantially reduced. Clearly ethnic groups prefer being with those who speak their language and share their cultural habits. But in the process, this nation is being balkanized in a manner the founders never predicted.
This condition is particularly pronounced when through inadvertence you are thrust into an immigrant community and cannot communicate. What I found particularly troubling is that many young people I addressed could not speak english. I would have guessed that bilingual programs in the public schools would have acquainted youngsters with the national language. I was wrong. There isn't any need to speak english in Melrose Park.
Despite my dislike of Mexican food, I don't share any animus towards Mexicans. What concerns me is that without any policy discussion or national plebiscite, this nation is undergoing a fundamental change. If one were to engage in a demographic extrapolation based on relative birthrates, several states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, will have a majority of Mexicans by 2050.
The questions that emerge from this condition are worthy of further analysis. Should the U.S. be a bilingual nation? What are the consequences of Balkanization? What does it mean to say we are "one nation, indivisible"?
Having returned from the Chicago area, I feel confident I have been to the future. For someone who loves America and admires its immigrant tradition, I have my doubts about present trends. I am not reticent to say, I prefer to live in the United States rather than Little Mexico. I suspect I am not alone in expressing this point of view.