For the Barraza family, life is conducted mostly in Spanish. The Elgin couple works together, cleaning newly built homes in the Aurora area, where they take orders from a Spanish-speaking supervisor. When they get home, they speak with their two school-age sons in Spanish.
It is a situation that is increasingly common, as Spanish becomes the primary language spoken in a growing number of homes across the metropolitan area, according to new census data that also provide new demographic details for some of the area’s largest cities for the first time since 2000.
Reflecting national trends, the numbers show 30 percent of the Chicago area’s population age 5 and older speaks a language other than English at home, up from 26.8 percent in 2000. In real numbers, that means there are now roughly a quarter of a million more people in the area who do not speak English at home.
In rapidly growing Will County, between 2000 and 2005 there was a nearly 50 percent increase in the proportion of those 5 years and older who speak something other than English at home, with 17.9 percent of that group now saying they do so. Among those speaking a language other than English, roughly 60 percent said Spanish was the language of choice.
Even in more-established Lake County, the percentage grew from 21.4 to 27.5 during the five-year period.
The report comes amid a heated debate on immigration policy that has fueled recent marches in Chicago and embroiled this year’s midterm congressional elections. The report shows immigrants—legal and illegal—make up a rising share of the population in virtually all states and the District of Columbia, growing to 12.4 percent last year, up from 11.1 percent in 2000.
With an influx of Spanish-language radio stations, cable channels and newspapers, marketers see a huge opportunity to tap into the fastest-growing segment of the population and one that accounts for virtually all of the area’s population gains. But the growth also presents communication challenges for schools, hospitals, employers and others.
But late last year, Bertha Barraza, 29, endured a situation that makes her say “learning English is vital” and will keep her in evening English classes until she becomes fluent. During a miscarriage, she was sent to a local hospital where Spanish was not spoken. A friend translated for her, but the situation left her feeling isolated.
Cook County still easily ranks first in the area for the proportion of residents who speak a language other than English at home, with a third saying they do. But it is the suburban counties where the growth—and new adjustments—are most evident.
In Elgin, for example, the Police Department has 27 officers in the 187-officer department who are fluent in Spanish, up from 15 in 2000. New officers must attend a three-day Spanish course.
Though Elgin has a more established Hispanic population, such growth is relatively new to places like Bolingbrook and Plainfield, where the new residents say they are seeking bigger homes, better schools and safer streets.
“We have 33 languages other than English spoken in our district,” said Russ Fletcher, a school and community relations specialist for Valley View Community School District 365U.
But for those who primarily speak Spanish, the adjustment to the suburbs is not always comfortable and some say they sometimes feel unwelcome.
When Silvia Cadenas nears her subdivision in Plainfield, she is quick to lower the volume on her car stereo, fearing her Colombian pop tunes will not be welcomed on Allyn Street as they were in her former neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
“I was really uncomfortable when I first came,” said Cadenas, who speaks mostly Spanish at home and arrived in the far southwest suburb three years ago.
The inside of her home remains firmly Mexicana. The living room is adorned with a life-size oil portrait of an Aztec warrior. Inside the master bedroom hangs a portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe.
“In a way, I am living a miracle,” Cadenas said. “I came from a village with no running water and electricity.”
Now, each of her three children has a television in their bedrooms.