Evanston increasing Hispanic resources

Betsy Mow

Twelve years ago, when Mario Tamayo first visited St. Nicholas Church, he felt the church didn’t understand his Hispanic culture. But today, St. Nicholas provides bilingual services and a Spanish-speaking priest.

The changing demographics of St. Nicholas Church, 806 Ridge Ave., mirror Evanston’s growing Hispanic population, which has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures. The 91 percent increase brings the city’s Hispanic population to 4,539 out of Evanston’s 74,239 residents, or about 6 percent.

As the nation’s Hispanic population steadily rises – Census figures show an increase of 58 percent to a total of 35.3 million people in the last decade – community leaders nationwide, including in Evanston, are faced with the need for more services for an immigrant population that often needs translation assistance.

“We don’t have any other place (in Evanston) where we can get together, but the church is the center of our lives,” said Tamayo, St. Nicholas’ representative for the Hispanic community. “The church works with leaders to educate Hispanics about the community.”

Like Tamayo, most Hispanics new to Evanston immigrate from Mexico to live near family. Those who attend St. Nicholas Church have access to bilingual services, adult English classes, volunteer translators and attorneys who provide legal assistance and information about organizations that provide translation assistance for Spanish-speakers.

“Translation is the biggest need for the Hispanic population, and the city needs to focus on this minority population the most,” said Aracely Canchola, Evanston’s Latino ombudsman.

The Hispanic Outreach Office, created in 1994 by Evanston City Council, operates Evanston’s Bilingual Service Providers Exchange, a committee of volunteers who provide and advertise translation assistance. Volunteers such as Speech junior Matt Amador work to connect Evanston’s non-profit organizations with the exchange’s translation services available through the Evanston Civic Center.

“The non-English speaking Hispanic population suffers,” Amador said. “(They) are not getting the message that services are available to them even if they don’t speak English.”

To help make connections with different populations in the community, the Evanston Police Department holds community picnics and maintains a clergy team of ministers from diverse congregations. St. Nicholas’ Father Robert Oldershaw uses his clergy team position to help the EPD host picnics to educate the Hispanic community about gangs and victim services. Spanish-speaking officers usually are on duty and are always available in emergency situations, said Lt. Chuck Wernick of EPD.

“We always have translators,” Wernick said.

Organizations wishing to serve the Hispanic community rarely overlook the opportunity to advertise with St. Nicholas Church, which has 250 Hispanic families as members. Canchola held an immigration workshop at the church in February and plans to hold a substance abuse seminar later this spring. The Youth Job Center, among other city non-profits, uses the church as a forum to advertise job opportunities to Hispanics.

“We’re working very carefully to bring (Hispanics) into the project through widespread recruiting and word of mouth,” said Ann Jennett, executive director of the Youth Job Center. “Most of the kids we work with are English-speaking, but many of the women and mothers have limited English.”

Evanston schools and libraries also offer bilingual programs, some made possible by state grants. This year, Washington and Orrington elementary schools in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 piloted a dual-language immersion program in which primary Spanish speakers focus on learning English and primary English speakers focus on learning Spanish. Dual-language immersion allows non-English speakers to stay in the classroom during the day instead of removing them for English tutoring. Out of the district’s approximately 7,000 students, 9 percent are Hispanic.

This year D65 received a Family Literacy grant through the secretary of state for $54,106 for a joint project between Evanston schools and libraries.

“The federally funded program is aimed at families where at least one parent doesn’t speak English, and most of these families are Hispanic,” said Sally Schwarzlose, South Branch Library manager.

Schwarlose said a demographic study showed most Hispanic residents live near the Main and South library branches. Therefore, the libraries offer a wide variety of Spanish books and audio materials. In addition, the South Branch offers weekly bilingual storytelling.

The combination of community outreach and a bilingual second generation make it easier to bring people together, said Sister Mary Lou Pleitner, CSJ, St. Nicholas’ secretary for 11 years. In the past decade, St. Nicholas has held adult English classes, bilingual services and events, and traditional Hispanic festivities such as the Easter Passion Play.

“Outreaches are for the total parish so that we come together in unity,” said Pleitner. “We see more and more Hispanic people attending English-speaking events, and vice-versa.”