New U.S. census figures herald a future where Spanish is more likely to be heard inside classrooms and everything from politics to fashion and food will be executed with a Latin flair.
After a steady increase of Latinos in the area due to births and immigration, one out of every three children under 5 in Cook County now come from a Latino ethnic background, according to the recently released data.
In Chicago, more than 40 percent of children younger than 5 are Latino. In more than 30 suburbs including Carpentersville and Franklin Park, more than half of preschool-age children are Latino. In a few communities such as Cicero and Melrose Park, more than 80 percent are Latino.
What that means for the area depends on how well local schools and other community institutions can absorb one of the country's fastest-growing Latino populations, experts said.
School districts that have seen dramatic increases of Latino students during the last decade have sought to keep up with the population surge through dual-language programs and workshops for parents and teachers.
"Our goal is not to teach children English, per se," said Carol Crum, who oversees early childhood education in School District 130 in south suburban Cook County, a district where more than half of the student population is Latino. "That can be controversial. But it's about us building a strong language foundation and a pre-academic readiness for our children whatever their home language is."
In parts of Chicago and suburban communities where Latino enclaves have formed, the demand for such services often exceeds the capacity to supply them, studies show.
That has particularly been the case with early childhood education programs, which in Latino neighborhoods have seen longer waitlists as more young Latino families try to enroll their children in preschool.
A partial consequence: About 35 percent of Latino 4-year-olds in Illinois are enrolled in preschool, compared with 66 percent of white children and 54 percent of African-American children, according to a University of California at Berkeley report published last fall.
The enrollment gap for Latino children could result in poorer school performance later in life, potentially affecting high school dropout rates, college enrollment and, eventually, the quality of the Chicago area's workforce, researchers argue.
"We have a very young population, and I don't think early childhood services are necessarily keeping up," said Reyna Hernandez, a policy analyst for the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago. "If we think about what a large segment of the population they are, it's a huge disservice to the system as a whole."
At the El Hogar del Nino early childhood development center in Pilsen — where a classroom recently echoed with preschoolers singing a medley of English and Spanish folk songs — 102 families are waiting to get in, said Veronica Zapata, the center's communications director.
The bustling center, which receives government funding, hopes to convert two administrative offices into classrooms to accommodate more families, some arriving from Bridgeport and Little Village and waiting as long as six months to get into the center, Zapata said.
For those predominantly immigrant Latino parents whose children are enrolled, access to such services represents a golden opportunity.
"What I hope to provide my children with is power," said Eva Arguellas, a Pilsen resident on her way home from retrieving her two children, ages 5 and 3, from El Hogar. "I want them to have the power to enter into a good university. But we will take things step by step."
Demographers monitoring the growth of the Latino population nationwide say the community's increasing proportion relative to other groups is driven mostly by births, though immigration (legal and illegal) is also a factor. A decline in the white birthrate has helped accentuate the demographic shift, said Ken Johnson, a former Loyola University Chicago demographer who now works at the University of New Hampshire.
"It is not just that immigration is causing all of this … significant population rise among Hispanic children," Johnson said.
The number of white children is declining in 46 states, including Illinois, with the growth in Latinos helping keep the overall population stable, Johnson said.
"Any institution touched by children, whether maternity hospitals, schools, emergency responders or whatever, is going to feel this changing character of the U.S. first, and then it will flow upward as the years go on to eventually take effect on politics and other aspects of society," Johnson predicted.
That's been the case at NorthShore Highland Park Hospital, which serves families coming from nearby Highwood, where nearly 78 percent of the preschool-age children are Latino.
"We've been seeing an increase (in Hispanic births) in the last couple of years," said Kay Meyer, senior clinical nursing director at the Highland Park hospital, where a baby channel offers instructions on infant care in Spanish. "We feel very privileged meeting the needs of our Hispanic patients, which has helped us grow."
As more of those children venture into schools and eventually the workforce, a new bicultural Chicago area is forming, demographers say.
Che Cardona, who was born and raised in Chicago, said he hopes his daughter Sierra, 5, will pick up the Spanish from playmates and teachers in her preschool class that he has now nearly lost.
"I'm just hoping she'll be able to have a lot of open opportunities," said Cardona, 37, who lives in Bridgeport and wants enroll his daughter near there.
In Blue Island, Dora Lopez sat on her living room floor with her two children — Alejandro, 2, and Juan, 5 — and expressed a more pragmatic reason for wanting them to succeed.
"One day, when I'm an old lady, they can help me out," Lopez said, joking, as her boys practiced numbers and the alphabet with wooden blocks.
The board for this story has been closed because of excessive violations of the Tribune's comment policies. Details of those policies are described below.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun