This year I returned to Waukegan to visit my family and attend a conference in another part of Illinois. A year ago, I wrote how strange I found it to see Waukegan, my home town, a community whose demographics had shifted so much that the grocery stores had signs in Spanish. A year later, this was still the case, and according to an article in the New York Times magazine yesterday, Waukegan is one of the Illinois communities feeling so under threat by immigration that new laws are being considered which are aimed against illegal immigration. I find that ordanances requiring English heavy-handed and misguided, but I can see how the non-Hispanic population in Waukegan are beginning to feel like strangers in their own city. Kind of like how the Potawatami felt when those French traders and American settlers from the east moved into Waukegan.
Still, I want to say that the kids are all right. I went to my old Junior High School, Jack Benny Junior High, as part of the effort to revive the Benny song which hadn't been sung there during the 80s and 90s and so was forgotten. My best friend teaches there, and got me involved. Jack Benny now has a 79 per cent Hispanic student population, and the class I visited had two white kids, two black kids and everyone else was Hispanic. But let me tell you, all the kids were speaking fluent Waukegani English, even if they chatted with each other in Spanish before the bell. They were great. They'd worked hard on the Benny song. I was proud of them.
Later that week, my sister and I drove four hours from Rock Island back to Waukegan, and the billboards were all in English until we got to the Waukegani city line. Then it was 100 per cent Spanish billboards. "Well," my sister said. "We're home!"