Emmanuel Patiño Gomez, second from right, facilitated one of the conversation circles at the Latino Summit last month. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, second from left, was one of the participants.                                                         RoundTable photo

The community organization Latino Resources convened Evanston’s first Latino Summit on Jan. 27 at Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center. About 90 people, representing School Districts 65 and 202, Oakton Community College, the City of Evanston and other organizations, turned out on a Wednesday night to listen. “Su Voz Cuenta” – “Your Voice Counts” – was the theme of the summit.

 Introductory speeches by District 65 Bilingual Parent Liason Margarita Matlis and Manuel Aleman urged members of the Latino community to make their voices heard.

Ms. Matlis, a longtime Latino advocate, said, “Today we have the opportunity to make us heard. To tell Evanston: ‘These are our problems, our needs.  We want to find solutions.’  Hoy tenemos la oportunidad de hacernos oír.  De decir a Evanston:  Estos son nuestros problemas y nuestras necesidades.  Queremos buscar soluciones.’ 

“The Latino community of Evanston has grown a lot. But not our voice. We have no voice. Quietly, we  work and work, with no time for anything.  Without getting ahead.  Is this what we want for our children? La comunidad latina de Evanston ha crecido mucho.  Pero no nuestra voz.  No tenemos voz.  Calladitos trabajando y trabajando, sin tiempo para nada. Sin progresar.  Es eso lo que queremos para nuestros hijos? 

“We have in Evanston one of the best school systems in the nation.  One of the wealthiest.  With incredible opportunities.  The children who graduate successfully from our schools will most likely be able to achieve any dream.  Even without papers. Tenemos en Evanston uno de los mejores sistemas escolares del país.  Uno de los más ricos.  Con increíble oportunidades.  Los niños que se gradúan con éxito en nuestras escuelas pueden conseguir casi cualquier sueño.  Aun sin papeles. 

“We allow the schools to decide for us.  And thus our children miss out on so many tremendous opportunities. 

“But why don’t we do something?  Well, because we don’t know English…   We feel embarrassed to go to the school when we have practically no education ourselves…  We don’t know what to say…  Who to talk to…  And here everything is so different. Dejamos que las escuelas decidan por nosotros.  Y nuestros hijos pierden tremendas oportunidades! 

“Y por qué no hacemos nada?  Bueno, no sabemos ingles… nos da pena ir a la escuela si no tenemos casi educación…no sabemos qué decir… con quien hablar…   Aquí todo es tan distinto.

“Our voices count. If we don’t say, if we don’t ask, if we don’t do… nothing happens, everything will continue the same. Nuestra voz cuenta!  Si no hablamos, si no preguntamos, si no hacemos, nada sucede, todo continuara igual.”

Dr. Elena Ansani Garcia, director of Latino Resources, asked the attendees to separate into small groups, or “conversation circles.” 

For nearly an hour these groups discussed education, racism and immigration, bringing up what they saw as challenges and in some cases proposing solutions. Some pointed out shortcomings in the Latino community, and groups highlighted some positive trends along with the challenges.

Cultural misunderstanding, lack of information and the language barrier were among the challenges to education identified by the groups. Latino students might not take challenging courses at Evanston Township High School because of lack of opportunity or lack of ability, or, in some cases, lack of interest. Undocumented students receive little or no help, some group members said. More outreach to families could help, they said.

Participants said in many aspects of their daily lives, both in the community and at the schools, they experienced racism and a lack of acceptance.

Locally, creating an office at each school district to help Latino youth and families, educating community leaders, and having a greater representation of Latinos within the community were some of the solutions identified as addressing racism.

Groups identified politics, taxes and Donald Trump as some of the biggest problems of immigration, as this country and many others wrestle with that issue. Advocacy, grassroots outreach, immigration clinics, demystifying the language and culture and “put your vote on the table” and “make politicians work” were some solutions proposed.

Many said they felt the summit was worthwhile for the Latino community, the Evanston community and the school communities.

“It was a very good idea, because we don’t have a lot of dealings with the Latino community,” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.

“This is what we should be doing,” said District 202 School Board member Anne Sills.

District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “Evanston has a vibrant and growing Latino community, and our Latino student enrollment is increasing steadily at ETHS. The Latino Summit was a wonderful, well-attended opportunity for our community to come together to recognize and honor the many contributions Latinos are making in Evanston. The Summit gave us a setting to engage in meaningful small-group conversations about the Latino experience here in Evanston – not only the opportunities but also the challenges facing Latino families living, working and attending school here. I felt that the Latino Summit was very worthwhile and a positive step forward for our community. As we build understanding, we build a stronger community and a positive future together.”

District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said, “We have been having very important meetings and discussions about student performance at D65 and remain focused on addressing our opportunity and achievement gaps. Hispanic and Latino student achievement remains a concern and a high priority. The convening of the Latino Summit is so important so that the community and we can work together to make a difference in the lives of our Hispanic and Latino students.”

John Price, assistant superintendent of schools for District 65, said, “The value for me in a summit like this is having the opportunity to hear directly from members of our community to better understand their experiences, in our schools and in the larger community.  The members of the group where I sat linked national politics and policy directly to their own daily lives and experiences in Evanston and our schools.  This was tremendously powerful.  I hope that the attendees were able to see the commitment of District 65 staff, and to see that we have staff that are able to engage in English or Spanish.  I was proud of the role that members of the D65 staff Izzy Nunez and Manuel Aleman played in the event.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...