Maria Galindo and her brothers César and Arturo Vargas are first-generation Americans. Their father and grandfather first came from Mexico to the United States in the 1960s through the federal government’s bracero program, which allowed temporary guest workers into the country to work in the fields of the southwestern states. The entire family emigrated from Mexico in 1974.
“My father chose to move to Illinois, landing a factory job at Butternut Bakery, so he didn’t have to work the fields,” César explains. “Our family was part of a new wave of immigrants settling in Peoria.” They settled on the city’s south side, where Maria, César, Arturo and their four siblings grew up and attended school.
Today, César is an English as Second Language (ESL) teacher in Peoria Public Schools, helping the next generation of Spanish-speaking students achieve success in their education. Arturo, an artist, and his wife Carla opened Casa de Arte in Peoria’s Warehouse District last fall; while Maria is a teacher’s aide at the Valeska Hinton Center, pursing her degree in early childhood education while operating the Tianguis outdoor market in the summer. All are active in the Hispanic business community, but it was an outsider who helped them start up the Peoria Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (PHCC).
Enter John Lamb, attorney and global communicator for the Caterpillar Latino Connection, a resource group for Cat’s Latino employees. Lamb’s ties to the Hispanic community go back to his college days, when he spent a summer in Mexico doing missionary work. Upon graduating, he worked in Santiago, Chile for a few years before returning to his hometown of Nashville, where he served on the board of the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. After attending law school in Chicago, he joined Cat Financial supporting its Latin American subsidiaries, moving back to Santiago in 2012 before transferring to Peoria in 2016.
Soon after his arrival in Peoria, Lamb met with César Vargas to talk about the opportunities available to local Hispanic business owners. “He suggested Peoria could benefit from a Chamber to create resources and networking events for local Hispanic businesses,” César recalls. They also met with Cesar Suarez, economic development specialist for the City of Peoria, who agreed to lend his expertise to such a group. The newly-formed PHCC held its first meeting last October, inviting a range of local business owners and community leaders.
Meetings are held the first Monday of each month, with attendees eager to network and gain insights into how their peer businesses operate. It offers a sense of community many of them had longed for—which is often one reason they started their businesses in the first place. Arturo and Carla Vargas, for example, sought to fill what they saw as a void in Peoria.
“Before we opened Casa de Arte, there wasn’t a place where Latinos could get together, have a drink, see some cool art, and maybe even sing Spanish karaoke,” Arturo says, while emphasizing that the business is for anyone who wants a unique cultural experience. “When most people think of Mexican businesses, they think of restaurants,” he adds. “We wanted to show that there is more to our culture than just food.” Promoting this concept to the larger community is one of the PHCC’s primary objectives.
Christell Frausto Aboytes moved to Peoria three years ago hoping to start a business as a Farmers Insurance agent, which she did in July 2018. “This group gives a voice to the developing Hispanic population in Peoria. It’s an investment for the generations to come,” she explains. “There is tremendous buying power from the Hispanic community.”
Local business owners of any race or ethnicity are invited to attend the group’s meetings, where they can connect, collaborate and create diverse experiences for their customers. “I think the timing is right any time you have a group of people who want to organize and better themselves or their companies,” notes Peoria City Councilman Jim Montelongo. “Peoria will benefit from the PHCC because they will create more jobs, sales tax revenue and cultural experiences.”
As the founder and longtime owner of EngineeringPeople (formerly Advanced Cad/Cam Service Corporation) and member of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Montelongo knows this from experience. He, too, is lending his leadership and expertise to help establish the PHCC. “There is a large enough Hispanic population in the Peoria area where it makes sense to organize,” he explains.
“It’s important to build pride in one’s culture while at the same time appreciating the unique differences of another,” adds Suarez. “Diversity, inclusiveness and equity are important attributes for growing our local economy. The HPCC will serve that purpose for the Peoria region.”
An ongoing topic in their meetings is the difficulty of starting a business, from securing a loan to incorporation. “My biggest challenge was to simply take that risk, apply and face the process,” Aboytes explains. “Now that I’ve gone through it, I feel confident encouraging and guiding others through the process. A Chamber can bring people with different experiences together for the greater good.”
While Peoria’s Hispanic population is relatively small (6,764 or 5.83%, according to the latest Census estimates), its presence in the business community is on the rise. Lionel Sauceda, another PHCC organizer, is among those hoping to become entrepreneurs in the future. “We can help unify Hispanic businesses and offer opportunities to Peoria Latino residents, whether it’s through jobs, developing a new trade, or partnering with the City of Peoria,” he explains. “Additionally, we can provide Latino business owners opportunities to learn about city-wide projects, become approved contractors and bid for projects.”
Inclusivity is Key
The group does need to overcome some hurdles in order to formally establish the PHCC. “So far, the biggest challenge is knowing how to move beyond the basic need that we are satisfying—which is building relationships and creating dialogue,” Lamb says. “It’s a positive development that we have people with different ideas and skillsets coming together… We’re all focused on what we can to do build an institution where all are welcome.”
For guidance on building a successful and engaging Chamber, the fledgling organization initiated a dialogue with the Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which formed in 2008. The PHCC benefits from such relationships to see what is and isn’t working in other regions—and how they can replicate the successes. “We are energized and committed to the success of the organization,” Sauceda adds, “and we will leverage these resources to help launch the organization as quickly as possible.” Along with Lamb, Suarez, Montelongo, César Vargas and Aboytes, he will carry the vision forward as one of the group’s core leaders.
“We hope the PHCC will connect business owners with opportunities, resources and the networking they need to help their businesses flourish,” concludes César Vargas. “In just the first few meetings, participants have left feeling empowered. We are happy to bring this to Peoria's growing Latino community.” PM