This area of west central Illinois is today enjoying some of the culture of west central Mexico, thanks to a large influx in recent years of immigrants from the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Monmouth College faculty member Heather Brady was among the first to study the Mexico-to-Monmouth connection. Last fall, a “Local Heroes” class, taught by MC faculty member Bridget Draxler, conducted additional research, meeting with several Mexican-Americans and other local residents who are working to bridge the gap between the two cultures.
One of the fruits of their labor is a digital exhibit that will be available online later this year at the website warrencountyvirtualmuseum.com. The virtual museum project is a “town-gown” project, assisted by a $10,000 grant awarded to the City of Monmouth by the Illinois Broadband Innovation Fund. The college partnered with the city in preparing the grant application, which was one of only 14 projects funded in the inaugural program.
Draxler collaborated with Monmouth’s director of community development, Paul Schuytema, to write the grant. It calls for a custom-developed web application that will deliver an online museum and exhibit experience to Warren County residents and visitors.
“This project will be an opportunity for students at Monmouth College to realize the goals of a liberal arts education, collaborating with the community to build something meaningful together,” said Draxler, who coordinates the college’s Communication Across the Curriculum program. “We hope that students will become more invested in the local community, feeling a part of not only Monmouth College, but also the City of Monmouth.”
Interrelated to the virtual museum project is an upcoming exhibit at Monmouth’s Buchanan Center for the Arts. Titled “From Jalisco to Illinois: Monmouth’s Latino Community,” the exhibit will open in April, featuring items collected by MC students as they reached out to individuals they referred to as “Local Heroes.”
“I wanted to do something for the community that had given me so much,” replied Monmouth resident Jaime Godina, when asked by the students about his role as a “Local Hero.”
“Jaime is an incredible role model,” said senior Tori Beaty of Lake in the Hills. “He struggled with the language barrier growing up, but now he’s a very active member of the community.”
Godina is one of Monmouth’s eight city councilmen, and he is also called upon regularly to help with translating. A graduate student at Western Illinois University, Godina volunteers his time in many areas, including the Monmouth College women’s soccer team.
During the MC class’s public presentation at the end of the semester, Beaty’s group also spoke about the culture in Jalisco. Native Americans in the state speak Wixaritari, and one of the elements of their Huichal culture is brightly-colored yarn paintings. As a community outreach, the group visited a second-grade class at Harding Elementary School, introducing the students to the unique art style, and they also met with local weavers.
“Our Jaliscan immigrants don’t speak Wixaritari,” explained Draxler. “The Huichols are a native group that hasn’t immigrated here. All of Monmouth’s immigrants are Spanish speakers.”
Beaty’s group also spoke about the Huichal culture’s religious beliefs and views on mythology, while another group focused on music.
“Mariachi was the key Jaliscan style,” said Kyle McEwen, a senior from Aledo. “We were able to obtain several musical items for the exhibit, including instruments and costumes.”
McEwen’s group consulted several community members, including 1961 Monmouth graduate Glenn Brooks, MC music lecturer Daniel Godsil and Mexican-born Luz Schick, who moved to nearby Galesburg in 2008. Schick made a documentary titled “The Boxcar People,” which tells the stories of Mexican-Americans in Galesburg. The title comes from the fact that many of them came to the area to work for the CB&Q railroad, and some even used boxcars for houses.
“I wanted to give our past dignity,” Schick told the students about her inspiration to create the documentary.
Another group had the tasty assignment of researching the Huichal culture’s choices in food. One of their mentors was Gus Munoz, who runs LaTapatia, a Mexican restaurant and grocery store.
“He was very humble,” said Morgan Enburg, a junior Spanish major from Moline. “He really wants the community to come together and be unified.”
The students reported that “coming together” is necessary not only for the Jaliscan culture and Monmouth’s long-time residents, but also for the various Latino cultures living in Monmouth.
“That’s the purpose of this course – to bridge the gap,” said Enburg..
The students also met with Victor Garcia, owner of Rossi’s, and with Elena Gillen, owner of La Pequenita, who “donated lots of items and was very excited to have their culture represented in an exhibit.”
Another mentor was Celia Campos, who teaches a dance class in Galesburg.
“From hearing about Celia’s life and all she has had to overcome, we believe she is truly a local hero,” said Cherraney Taylor, a junior psychology major from Chicago. “She’s overcome so much, and she wants nothing in return for all that she does for the community.”
This was a new type of project for some of the students,” said Draxler. “They had some ‘a-ha moments’ while working with their mentors, and they also had some ‘proud moments’ through their efforts to reach out to the local community and break through their comfort zones.”
She concluded, “We want the exhibit to showcase the similarities of the two cultures, to break down barriers and to correct misconceptions, while recognizing some of these local heroes like Luz and Jaime.”