Latinx History in Unexpected Places

  • Tags: General
Published 09/17/2021
News story previous slide News story next slide

In April 1972, a young Mexican-American woman in Aurora, Illinois, made history. Twenty-eight-year-old Maria Margarita Decker won the election to the Kane County Board. She was likely the first Latinx person to be elected to prominent office in Illinois.

When we think of important events in American history, we rarely think of Latinx people. If we do, we tend to celebrate the accomplishments of Mexicans or Puerto Ricans living in big cities in California, New York, or Texas. However, Latinx Americans have lived, struggled, and thrived in unexpected places throughout the history of the United States. The tales of lesser-known, everyday Latinx trailblazers in surprising areas—suburbs and rural towns, isolated farms, and factory floors—are an essential part of American history. Without their stories, the history of the United States is incomplete.

Maria Margarita Decker’s historic election in suburban Kane County is a good example. Many have long believed that Cook County Commissioner Irene C. Hernández was the first Latino or Latina elected to county-level office in Illinois. Hernández’s personal story fits the pattern of a likely “first” in Latinx history: she lived in Chicago, the Midwest’s largest urban center, and was a respected public servant in the city’s Latinx community for many years. She was appointed Commissioner by Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1974 and won four subsequent elections. Today a Chicago middle school and park both bear her name.

Last year, though, I saw Decker’s name mentioned in a fifty-year-old Chicago Tribune article. I wondered if it was correct that a young Mexican American woman in a distant Chicago suburb had been elected two years before Hernández’s historic Cook County appointment. I decided to try to track Decker down. I got help from Kane County archivists, the former mayor of Aurora, a historian, and a tiny south Texas newspaper.

One day, my phone rang. It was Maria Decker.

She told me how she was born Maria Margarita Rodriguez in south Texas and moved to Aurora, Illinois as a young girl. Her father founded the Aurora Latin American Club, which is still in existence. Her mother helped new immigrants settle in the suburb.

Maria eventually married Stanley Decker, became a realtor, and found lots of work selling homes to Spanish-speaking newcomers. Soon she was well-known in Aurora’s Mexican community. When Maria ran for county board in 1972, she wasn’t sure she could win the votes of Aurora’s white residents. So, she ran for office as “Mary Margaret” Decker, rather than using her ethnically Mexican names. Decker’s strategic move followed the practice of generations of Latinx people who have Anglicized their names to counteract racism.

After winning the election, Decker called out the racial discrimination against candidates with Latinx last names like those of two other candidates that year: Martínez and Plata. The election results were “indicative of an ingrained prejudice,” Decker told local newspapers. “I, with an Anglicized name, won while Mr. Martínez and Mr. Plata lost,” she explained.

Decker kept speaking up on behalf of Aurora’s Latinx community. In 1973, she led a protest against a massive immigration raid at Aurora’s Hi-Lite 30 Theater. Immigration officials had roughed up dozens of local Latinx residents and arrested or deported eighty more. Decker led rallies in which hundreds of Latinx Aurorans showed up to demand justice, garnering media attention across Chicagoland.

Maria Decker’s story points to the long, untold history of Latinx activism in unexpected places such as suburbs. In the early 1970s, the Mexican population in Aurora and the rest of greater Chicago was beginning a decades-long boom. By the early 2000s, the Latinx population in suburban Chicago was larger than that of the city of Chicago. Today, most Latinxs in the Midwest’s largest metropolitan area live in the Chicago suburbs, not the city. Today, the Illinois county with the highest Latinx population percentage is Decker’s suburban Kane County, not Chicago’s Cook County.

I should know. Latinx students at Kane County’s Elgin Community College, where I teach history, make up a large and growing part of the student body. For several years, my students and I have used oral history to document the history of these suburban Latinx residents through the Chicagolandia Oral History Project.

Our dozens of oral histories have made clear that today, like in Decker’s time, Latinx voices still struggle to be heard. Latinx voters still battle to be fully represented in elected offices in Chicago’s suburbs and across the state. Despite the fact that Latinx residents of Illinois have had the largest population growth of any group, they are still sorely underrepresented at all levels of government.

As we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month this year, we should remember that unsung heroes like Maria Margarita Decker have made history in unexpected places across Illinois and our country. We should study forgotten accomplishments like Decker’s and use them to inspire our own quests for justice. We should recognize that, by knowing Latinx history, we better understand American history.

-Antonio Ramirez, associate professor of history and political science and creator of Chicagolandia: Oral Histories of Chicago’s Latinx Suburbs project