“Dreams & Life on the Prairie” by Rebecca Hawkins-Valadez for The History of Latinos in McLean County, Illinois 1880 to the Present

[PHOTOS] Researcher unveils Latino history in Illinois dating back to 1880

“Who would have thought that we would get to a point in the history museum of McLean County — famous for its history of Lincoln — where you could walk into the courthouse that houses the museum and see Mexican flags?,” says Sal Valadez. “We’ve come a long, long way.”

Valadez has had a long career researching Latino history in the U.S. and has been volunteering  all of his time for the past year and a half as the lead researcher for the multi-year-long Latino History Project at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Ill., which has also recently launched the exhibition he served as consultat for, Fiesta! A Celebration of Mexican Popular Arts, scheduled to run through 2014.

“This is an emotional exercise — it validates our history, it just hasn’t been told,” says the Mexican-American who has also had a career in higher education and a specific interest in working with at risk, multi-cultural communities.

He says he is currently unemployed because he had to take off when his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“We took some time off and came back to Bloomington,” says Valadez whose last position was a multicultural outreach and retention specialist at Joliet Junior College. “I got her healthy, and I wanted to get back into a position where I was working with the community.”

Valadez, a veteran of the U.S. Army who got his BA and MA at University of Hawaii at Manoa in political science thanks to the GI Bill, says he originally started volunteering to feel useful as he searched for a job. Although he says he was one of the victims of the poor economy, the experience also gave him and his wife time to refocus and prioritize and do things that they are passionate about.

Because of his expertise in the Latino community, Valadez was asked if he could help out in the McLean County Museum’s oral history project discussing Latinos in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 70’s.

“I said absolutely I’m interested in volunteering, but I have to tell you, I suspect that there were Latinos here at the turn of the 20th century,” the 60-year-old history buff, who was born in Aguas Calientes, Mexico but grew up in Aurora, Ill, told the director of the Museum.

He also knew Bloomington was a railroad community, so he started doing more research.

“The first entry is in the 1880 Census, and it was a couple where the husband was born in Spain and the wife was born in Ireland,” he says. “We don’t know the exact date that people got here, but we know that it was at least 1880. It just blossomed from there.”

He further learned the U.S. wanted Mexican labor to build railroads.

“There was a need and exchange of labor and technology,” says Valadez adding that Latinos have always had a reputation for being hard workers for taking care of their families, which made them a highly sought-after group. “They were considered dedicated employees…and it continues now…The pioneers came here to work hard and to provide their kids with opportunities to go to school and go to college. I see this on a daily basis.”

Valadez suspects the story of Latinos in Bloomington, Ill. is similar to stories of those in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states and cities around the country.

“We feel very strongly about being U.S. citizens, but we also are very proud of our own heritage,” says Valadez, who grew up in a household where his mom and my dad spoke Spanish and stories about Mexico were shared. “We continue the holidays and traditions, and I grew up enthralled with the music of the Golden Age like Jorge Negrete and Trio los Panchos.”

He says he grew up learning about the music and history of his ancestors, and it has only helped him with understanding his identity.

“It is so important for people to understand who we are,” says Valadez. “Latinos have been awarded the most medals of honors than anyone in the country. We need people to know that we have been here a long time, and involved in serving our country since the Revolutionary War.”

And as his job search continues, Valadez is putting his knowledge to use and enjoying every minute.

“I’m committed to this,” he says. “This project is going to be going on for years and years… It’s the story of us.”

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