There is no denying that the demographics of Elkhart County have changed dramatically over the last 25 years, and that the county is more diverse than ever before. In 1990, 94 percent of the county’s population was white. Today, 1 out of every 4 county residents is a person of color.
Almost all of that increase is due to the dramatic rise in the area’s Hispanic population. The proportion of African-Americans living in Elkhart County has remained constant over the last couple of decades — around 5 percent. However, the number of Hispanics living here has increased tenfold in the last 25 years.
Since 2000 alone, the Latino population of the county has grown by nearly 80 percent, while the white population is unchanged. The shift has been particularly dramatic in Elkhart, which has added 4,500 Latino residents since 2000 and seen its white population drop by 14 percent.
The changing demographics of our county have changed almost every aspect of life in our community — schools, the workplace, neighborhoods and more.
In Elkhart County, like the rest of the United States, there are those who long for amnesty and those who long for illegal immigrants to be deported en masse. The debate on immigration reform rages here, as it does other places. While national politicians debate, we live in this community together and work at the issues on a local level.
The Elkhart Truth today is kicking off a three-part series — “Hispanics at Home?” — that examines whether Latinos who live here really do feel at home in Elkhart County. Yes, there are Hispanic grocery stores, a Spanish-speaking radio station and bilingual signs in government offices and businesses, but have Hispanics truly become integrated into our community?
The Truth staff, working in partnership with journalism students at Goshen College and our news partners at ABC57, spent months attempting to answer that question by talking to leaders in the Hispanic community, as well as immigrants, Latino business owners and educators, local officials and dozens of others to get a true picture of the place that Latinos have assumed in Elkhart County.
What we’ve found — and what readers will discover over the next three weeks — is that there is no clear-cut answer to the question of whether Latinos feel at home here. In many ways, Latinos have become an established and important part of the community and are slowly having more of an impact.
Still, many Hispanics in Elkhart County remain segregated from the non-Hispanic population. The ethnic grocery stores, the Spanish-speaking church services and a soccer league made up almost entirely of Latino players demonstrate that many Hispanics feel more comfortable interacting with those who speak the same language and have the same background.
Beyond that, Hispanics are clearly underrepresented in our local government and positions of leadership. Even though 15 percent of Elkhart County is Latino, there is only one Hispanic elected official among all the local school and municipal governing bodies, and none in county government. There also is a need to have more Hispanics involved in the local chambers of commerce and civic organizations.
As our series will point out, there is clearly a balancing act here. Latinos are proud of their culture and heritage, and have strong ties to both. At the same time, it’s vital that the county’s large Latino population be represented in all aspects of the community.
As one young woman who came here from Mexico as a child told us: “We are our own community, but at the same time, I think we want to be accepted into the broader community.”
Making that happen will take a proactive effort on the part of Latinos and non-Latinos alike. Key civic organizations and local governments need to reach out to that community and give Latinos reasons why they should be more involved. Likewise, Latinos should — without giving up the ties to their culture — look for opportunities to become more ingrained in the community.
The Truth hopes to play a role in that effort by telling the stories of some of the thousands of Hispanics who live here. Showcasing their successes and detailing their ongoing challenges in words, videos and photos should play a role in making sure that all Hispanics feel comfortable calling Elkhart County “home.”