"Que es lo que mas le gusta de vivir en Kankakee?" Lorenia Lara asked the gathering of about 10 on the fourth floor of the Kankakee Public Library last Thursday night. "What do you like best about living here?"
"Kankakee has been good to me," Jose Martinez replied. Martinez, of Limestone, and one of the four owners of Martinez Tacos, immigrated from Mexico in his 20s, found a job and raised his family here. He picked up English and construction skills on the job, burrowing 25 feet under the ground in many local subdivisions to lay plumbing lines.
The next question — about difficulties living in Kankakee — garnered other responses.
"I came and it was cold and I was pregnant," recalled Angelica Martinez, of Kankakee. "I was closed in at home and couldn't work or do anything. If you're not used to that, it's really ugly."
The group, speaking in their native language, quickly began reminiscing as old friends do — about when Martinez Tacos in Kankakee was one of the first Hispanic restaurants or grocery stores in the area and how teenagers used to walk with their dates by the train depot.
The event was the first step in creating a Latino history exhibit at the Kankakee County Museum, tentatively scheduled to open next fall, in line with National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
This exhibit has been on the museum's mind for years, but there is so little data on this population in the county, it's been difficult to find research, said Katey Moore, curator at the museum.
Still, the Latino population is the fastest-growing demographic in the area, with many Mexican-Americans coming from the state of Guanajuato.
"We're supposed to serve the community and we need to widen our reach with the museum," Moore said.
That's why the museum has partnered with Fabiana Lopez, president of Kankakee County Hispanic Partnership who oversees Hispanic Outreach at the Kankakee Public Library. Lopez, along with other leaders in the Latino community, will hold a series of community events, similar to the one last Thursday.
They also will be conducting one-on-one interviews with some of the first Latino immigrants to the area, who often happen to be men and don't understand the need for this kind of project.
She tells them: "We are giving the opportunity to share our story in Kankakee," Lopez said. "Many ask, for what? You are sharing with your children your story."
And that story is very important, said Dr. Hermila Ramirez, of Momence. With 20 years of experience, she was one of the first bilingual teachers in the area, teaching both in the school districts and at Olivet Nazarene University, Governors State University and University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Now retired, Ramirez has a unique view on the Latino population in the area: For years, she taught the children whose parents were part of the seasonal workers in Kankakee and Iroquois counties through the migrant program. The 300 plus kids who came through her classroom throughout the years were often the same, and often needed help learning what they were supposed to have learned the year before, but didn't because of how often their families were moving. She also had a stint directing that program.
"It's important to have the parents participate in local activities," Ramirez said. "The children need to see their parents as members of the community."
She said throughout her 46 years here, she's seen Latino families become increasingly integrated in the community, but there's still more that can be done.
"Make [immigrants] feel comfortable and the language will come next," Ramirez said. "It takes a long time, families that have moved so much. People have to trust teach other."