The Mexican American Community in Sterling

By Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - CommentarySterling, Illinois—As my wife and I passed through the small city of Sterling, I could not help but notice a section of the city with a fairly large Mexican community. Many of the small businesses located in this area have mostly Mexican American employees and customers. There is a large supermarket not far from one of the main highways, as well as various small food stores selling all kinds of food—canned and packaged—from Mexico. Fresh fruit and vegetable produce from Mexico were also available, and there were a number of Mexican restaurants owned and operated by Mexican American families who were born and raised in northwest Illinois and have called Sterling their home for years and decades. Spanish is as commonly used as English, and Mexican as well as American flags can be found side by side in the area. At a large restaurant, families gather to celebrate Mexican Independence Day with green, white and red bunting as well as Mexican flags. In keeping with Illinois corona virus regulations, there is social spacing, and the restaurant has a very brisk carry-out business.

Sterling has a total population of 15,000. It has been an industrial city for well over a century and a half, and today the best known manufactured items there are clippers and mechanical shavers made by the Wahl Corporation, and ball bearings from the Frantz Manufacturing Company. Out of this population 24 percent is Latino—mostly Mexican American. The Mexican Americans have been moving to Sterling since the 1940’s because of the manufacturing jobs and also because of the low rent and home mortgage rates. So many Mexican immigrants as well as Americans of Mexican descent moved to Sterling over the past decades seeking a better place to live and lower cost of living. With them they brought their entrepreneurial skills for setting up small businesses and giving life back to neighborhoods that had been abandoned by former Sterling residents when many of that city’s former factory jobs were lost to outsourcing.

The Mexican American residents brought with them their traditions and hard work ethic. They have been a part of the Sterling and Rock Falls areas for decades, and since the 1940’s, Mexican Americans held Fiesta Days in celebration of Mexican Independence Day. Because of the corona virus epidemic, public events, such as Fiesta Days, had been cancelled. This has not however stopped people from privately celebrating Mexican Independence Day at home with family and friends. Despite this epidemic, the celebration has been muted but not altogether halted. This day of independence and national sovereignty, like America’s independence day, is forever in the hearts of any and all Mexican Americans no matter where they may be; even in a small industrial city like Sterling nestled in America’s corn belt

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