Census count of Latino community could recalibrate Peoria


Robin Sledge, a paid volunteer with PCCEO, puts Census leaflets on cars after posting yard signs around Friendship House, 800 NE Madison Ave. An accurate Census count is critical for Peoria to maintain its share of federal funding for programs and services. There is no citizenship question on the Census, and Andy Diaz, board member at Friendship House, said undocumented people should feel safe completing the questionnaire. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

When Rigo Diaz came to Peoria from Mexico 45 years ago, he discovered a very small Hispanic community here. It was rare to see another Hispanic family in the stores. Today, leaders in the Hispanic community believe Latinos account for up to 12% of the overall Peoria population, an increase from 6% in the last Census.

One significant key to Peoria’s future could be the Latino community.

While the Hispanic population in Peoria continues to grow, the city’s overall population is declining –– meaning it’s essential to get an accurate count for Census 2020 just to maintain Peoria’s fair share of federal dollars.

But fear of the Census questionnaire is pervasive.

“There is no citizenship question on the Census, so there should be no fear,” said Andy Diaz, Rigo’s son and a government account manager at Caterpillar Inc.

Andy Diaz, who is on the board of directors at Friendship House, said it’s important that everyone fill out the Census questionnaire, even people who are without legal status. He acknowledged it’s easy to see that fear and intimidation are being purposely stoked among immigrant communities.

One new member of Peoria’s growing Hispanic community is Christell Frausto Aboytes who moved here from the Chicago area three years ago and is ready and able to help people who want to open a business. She assists with navigating the system through layers of government paperwork.

Aboytes moved here because she wanted to start her own business, but prices in Chicago were unaffordable.

Here, she owns the Farmers Insurance Agency at 2600 N. Knoxville Ave., as well as a number of rental units and is remodeling the old Trefzger’s Bakery on Prospect Road to open a new store.

She is a member of the Peoria Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and hopes to attract to Peoria more Hispanic entrepreneurs and people aspiring to open their own businesses. She stresses Peoria is affordable and could successfully market itself to this growth sector.

Caterpillar Inc. attorney John Lamb worked with Cesar Vargas to form the Hispanic chamber several years ago. It is a 501(c) 6 not for profit.

“We need to reach out and communicate with the Hispanic community, socialize and support each other,” he said, noting that leadership development is one focus of the new chamber.

The organization was meeting on the first Monday of each month at different Mexican restaurants until the pandemic put a stop to that.

In the works was planning to host a Census 2020 information party in late April at Friendship House. That was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Aboytes said people are often intimidated walking into a government building like city hall or the federal or county courthouses, but they are comfortable at Friendship House.

“We need to reach out to people where they are comfortable,” she said. “This virus has put so many plans on hold.”

Both Aboytes and Diaz said a deadline extension is needed for communities to resume outreach programs to increase participation in the Census.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and Sen. Dick Durbin have been working to secure both a deadline extension and additional funding for Census outreach.

Diaz started Urban Acres and opened a Mercado outdoor market on Spring Street. He is equipping a commercial kitchen in his building at 614 Spring St. and is trying to get information from the city about starting an airbnb on the second floor.

He said the building is in a commercial district but he has waited for months to get information from the city.

“The Latino community has cash for starting businesses, but people can’t get a call back from the city. Four months ago I reached out for information for the hotel/motel tax but no response. Then I went to the city council for a response. ‘Crickets,’” he said, indicating he’s still waiting for information.

“We need a change in the city’s administration. We need to start taking a new direction in our city,” Diaz said.

“As places like New York and other large metropolitan areas are losing population because of COVID-19, Peoria needs to start recruiting businesses to locate here. That could come down to something as simple as answering a phone call.”

At Caterpillar, he understands that failing to respond to a phone call within 24 hours could cost him a sale.

Diaz recently announced he is running for mayor. To see his platform, go to Diaz4Mayor.com.

Chamber co-founder Lamb said, “This is not a bad time to live in a small city. We should not just be recruiting the Hispanic population but people looking for healthy cities that are embracing and welcoming and offer diversity.”

Robin Grantham, community development and engagement manager with PCCEO, is coordinating citywide Census work. She said the pandemic forced people to stop contact canvassing and focus on yard signs, door hangers and phone banking.

Peoria lost $540 million over the past decade due to an undercount in the 2010 Census. Grantham is determined not to allow that to happen again.

Go to www.census.gov for more information.

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