Editor’s note: In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, Chambanamoms asked our Monticello correspondent Stefanie Santos McLeese to share her experience as a Latina in Champaign-Urbana.
By Stefanie Santos McLeese
When we moved our family here to the Champaign-Urbana area from Texas a little more than two years ago, I instantly fell in love. We call Monticello our home and its quaint, traditional Midwest, idyllic offerings are not lost on me. From the most authentic people you’d ever hope to meet and stellar schools, to quality Monticello Main Street events, a charming community theatre, iconic coffee shop, and everything in between, it’s basically perfection, at least for our little family.
The double-bonus is our proximity to Champaign-Urbana and all it has to offer. Being a north Texas girl who has a love affair with Austin (sorry, Dallas!), I was a little giddy when I recently heard panelists at the Visit Champaign Tourism Summit refer to Champaign-Urbana as a “mini-Austin” in terms of arts, culture and diversity, and I can see it … almost. There’s something this community is missing: Latino culture.
Most of Illinois’ Latino population is in Chicago. According to 2016 Census data, only 5.8% of Champaign County residents are Hispanic. For the first time in my life, I actually feel like a minority. But here’s the thing; I’m good with that. It’s an opportunity to share more about Latino culture, and it pushes me to learn more about myself and remember my own Mexican roots. My parents were both born in Mexico and I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, making me a Tejana, which is really just a very colloquial term for a woman born in Texas with parents from northern Mexico. (The most iconic Tejana of all time was the cross-over singer sensation, Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Sadly, she was just on her rise to fame in the U.S. when she was murdered by her manager. If you haven’t seen the Selena movie, do it!)
In the two years we’ve lived here, I’ve had several people ask me, “What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino?” Before moving to Illinois, no one had ever asked me that question. Let me ask you this: What’s the difference between Caucasian and white? A quick internet search reveals that while people often use the two terms somewhat interchangeably, they’re technically not. But here’s one difference everyone will understand: One is about culture, and one is not. The popular hashtag #basicwhitegirl wouldn’t have the same effect as #basiccaucasiangirl. The same concepts apply to Hispanic vs. Latino.
The U.S. government created the term ‘Hispanic’ during the 1970 Census to account for any person from a Spanish-speaking land, i.e., Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, South or Central America, Spain or any other Spanish-language place. Socially speaking – just as Caucasian and white are used interchangeably in many cases – Hispanic and Latino are also interchangeable. The difference is that self-described Latinos are probably people who more closely connect with their heritage vs. someone who calls themselves Hispanic, and is probably at least a second-generation American who is assimilated to white, mainstream culture.
Growing up in a very rural, small Texas town (I graduated high school with 18 people), away from the majority of my extended family in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, I felt a little more “white” than my cousins. They lovingly teased me by calling me a ‘coconut’ – brown on the outside, white on the inside. I didn’t speak as much Spanish as them, or listen to the same music, or watch telenovelas with my mom (we were All My Children fans at our house!). I didn’t understand all their Mexican culture references. We were simply further from it in many ways. So even growing up in north Texas, I’ve actually always had to work at connecting with my Latino heritage a little more than some.
Fast-forward to my mid-twenties when I married a #basicwhiteguy from Monticello who went to Dallas for grad school and came home with a Latina wife and three beautiful mixed-race children. My husband has always embraced the language and food, and can throw down some perfectly marinated, tender, juicy fajitas on the grill, a skill he perfected in Texas. Not to mention, he can handle some heat in his cuisine! (And I’m very close to getting him on the dance floor for a cumbia at the next family quinceanera!)
Now that this community is home, we’ve had to make a more proactive effort to find Latino culture. The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts does a phenomenal job of attracting global and diverse talent, many of which include Latino performers. (Our family is looking forward to catching Sonia De Los Santos in February – no relation, that I know of – and you should be, too!)
The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois regularly hosts Spanish story time. But beyond that? [Insert crickets chirping.] For this reason, I’ve personally launched a local group we’re calling Chambana Familias. The group is designed to bring together Latino families in the Champaign-Urbana-area – and anyone who simply craves Latino culture – with a primary focus on exposing our children to Latino traditions, music, cuisine, and the Spanish language. Through our Facebook group, we share events where there’s a chance to experience la cultura, relevant articles, recipes or anything else that feels right. We hope many more local parents will join our Facebook group during Hispanic Heritage Month and be a part of giving our children a richer Latino culture experience right here in Champaign-Urbana.
Stefanie Santos McLeese is a native Texan, an independent public relations advisor and the mother of three children (5, almost 4 and 2) who are her “toughest clients.” She met her Monticello-native husband playing rec league flag football in Dallas where they married and had their children before moving to Illinois in June 2015 for a wholesome, Midwest, child-rearing experience, and near retired, babysitting-in-laws who live seven minutes door-to-door.