Latino growth in Illinois and around the country has been met with feelings ranging from apathy to abhorrence. Discussions of economic matters usually evolve into a debate about U.S. hardship at the hands of undocumented Latinos. An uninformed segment of the general population has difficulty separating undocumented workers from those who are lawful residents and citizens. Between 1990 and 2003 Illinois was well on its way to suffering a net loss of jobs. Increases in employment attributable to Latinos in Illinois provided relief. In 2002 there were
40,000 Latino-owned businesses generating over $7.5 billion in revenues.6 The average age of the state’s Latinos plays an important part in growth of the workforce. The Latino population in Illinois is overwhelmingly young, with a little over half aged 25 years or less. By comparison, the average age for non-Latino Illinoisans is approximately 36 years.7
Illinois became the 21st U.S. state in 1818. Prior to that, Illinois was part of a territory known as French Louisiana. The Illinois territory was later lost to England after the French and Indian war, and it was subsequently reclaimed from the British. In 1803, the North American explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis began their expedition from Illinois with help from the Spanish Louisiana governor.8
The State of Illinois soon found itself participating in a war with Mexico. In January 1846, U.S. President James K. Polk sent troops to the Rio Grande, declaring that Mexico started the war with the Spot Resolution (naming a particular location where U.S. blood had been shed). President Abraham Lincoln opposed the war indicating it was uncalled for, unconstitutional, and deliberately begun by the United States.9
Illinois contributed a total of 6,123 men between June 1846 and January 1848 to the Mexican-American war. The United States defeated Mexico, and it rewarded itself with over 500,000 square miles of new territory, which forms a great deal of the current U.S. Southwest.10 Illinois troops participated in the battles of Buena Vista, Vera Cruz, and Cerro Gordo; they even participated in the march into Mexico City.11
During the 1890s, Illinois became a conglomerate in the agricultural and industrial fields. It was at the forefront in the production of wheat and corn, and second in livestock. Manufacturing, union stockyards, and meatpacking businesses also grew in cities like Joliet, Peoria, and Rockford, making Illinois the hub in the north central United States.12 Illinois had great appeal for those seeking employment.
In 1898, Illinois would again find itself embroiled in conflict with those whose mother tongue was Spanish. The Spanish-American War had begun. After years of U.S. tension with Spain because of the Spaniards’ rule over Cuba, the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Cuban waters became the cause for the U.S. declaration of war.13