For years, the center of Chicago’s large and fast-growing Hispanic community was 26th Street, a mile-and-a-half strip of ethnic grocers, restaurants, bookstores and boutiques in a neighborhood called Little Village.
But that is changing. In a trend being repeated across the United States, Latino immigrants are eschewing their historic urban enclaves and moving out to the suburbs—in some cases as soon as they enter the country. In the process, they’re both living out the American dream—and discovering its limits.
Two forces are driving the change, said Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
First, employment growth has been stronger outside urban centers than inside them. “Immigrant flow is a wage labor flow and it goes where there are jobs,” she said.
The second is aspirational: Like generations of immigrants before them, today’s newcomers are drawn to the suburbs by the promise of safer neighborhoods and good schools.
‘NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE’
More than 1.6 million Latinos, the majority of them of Mexican descent, call greater Chicago home. It is the third-largest Latino population and the second-largest Mexican community in the United States.
But more Latinos now live outside the city center than inside. While the metropolitan region’s Latino population has grown by 200,000 since 2000, fueled primarily by migration from Mexico, all the growth has taken place outside the city in towns like Aurora, Joilet and Elgin, where new commercial strips filled with ethic stores and restaurants have grown up.
The rise of violent gangs, who have divided Little Village into warring territories and drawn increased scrutiny from law enforcement—including the border patrol—have added urgency to the suburban flight.
“It’s not what it used to be,” said Richard De La Vega, inside the video store on 26th Street that he has operated since the mid-1980s. “People are afraid to come out.”
It’s tempting to see the rise of these suburban ethnic enclaves as signs of Latino assimilation. But Hispanics living in the suburbs often settle in clusters that leave them more segregated than their peers who remain behind in Chicago.
And the reception they received from their suburban neighbors hasn’t always been open-armed.
In Carpentersville, a suburb about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, the police have begun checking the immigration status of the people they arrest, joining a controversial trend by some local law enforcement officials around the United States.
Princeton University’s Tienda said that 570 anti-immigrant ordinances have been introduced in recent years in 32 states where large suburban clusters of Latinos have arisen.