How a Mexican immigrant became mayor in Illinois’ Trump country – The Denver Post

Jesus Garza’s palms were sweating as he pulled his stocky frame up behind the wheel of a green Jeep Gladiator to take his spot at the head of the 50th annual Broomcorn Festival parade.

In the 28 years since he left Mexico to work in a broom factory in this small central Illinois city, Garza always attended the local festival, but he never rode in the parade, let alone at the front as the town’s mayor.

His anxiety quickly gave way to joy. Residents jammed along Arcola’s brick streets cheered, clapped and shouted “Jesus!” and “Mr. Mayor!” as Garza gleefully chucked candy while choking back tears.

“I never expected that people would respond like that. That moves me, big time,” an emotional Garza said afterward as he stood in the auto repair shop he owns in town.

“From the day I got here, my dad’s friends, on the American side, they wanted to talk to me every day even though I didn’t speak any English. They invited me to be part of the community, to work on their cars,” he said. “To go from that to everyone cheering me today is just very special. I love this town.”

Garza’s rise from immigrant factory worker and car mechanic to mayor is a remarkable story, and his election in a predominantly white and conservative Midwestern town illustrates a level of disconnect between local attitudes on immigration and the national political narrative on the divisive issue.

Garza, 51, took office in May as a Mexican-American political novice in a city filled with supporters of former Republican President Donald Trump, a nativist politician well known for his vitriol toward immigrants, from allowing children to be separated from their parents at the southern border to broadly portraying Mexican immigrants as criminals.

In interviews along the parade route in September, Arcola voters time and again pledged allegiance to Trump’s tough-on-immigration rhetoric while also lavishing praise on Garza. Some had difficulty reconciling the two positions, as if it were OK to support a Mexican immigrant who had done well by their town, but it was a step too far to support policies that would allow others unknown to them to pursue similar American dreams.

Bill Anderson, a retired lumberyard worker, called Trump the “best president since Kennedy” and said his hard stance on immigration and insistence on building a border wall were “very strong.” But he also excitedly shouted and cheered for Garza from his curbside seat at the parade, pleading for the mayor to toss him one of his purple campaign hats with the slogan, “One community, one mission: Amazing Arcola.”

Anderson chuckled when he was asked why so many older, white conservative voters like himself embraced Trump’s anti-immigration policies but also voted for an immigrant to become the city’s first Latino mayor.

“Well, I’m not sure I can explain that without scratching my head,” said Anderson, 77. “Way down here in Arcola, you never would have thought of the idea of a Hispanic mayor. For many years, it never would have happened. But Jesus has proven he’s a go-getter, and I’m just tickled pink he got elected.”

‘Broomcorn capital of the world’

Marked by a large silver grain elevator that rises above the surrounding mature trees, modest homes and yawning farm fields, Arcola sits along Interstate 57, about 170 miles south of Chicago. Dubbed “Amazing Arcola,” the city of 2,927 people is known for its many quirks.

There are the statues of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy that honor the dolls’ creator, Arcola native John Gruelle; the world’s only Hippie Memorial, a 62-foot-long creation by artist and town nag Bob Moomaw; and the world famous Lawn Rangers, the “precision lawn mower drill team” that marches in parades with lawn mowers, cowboy hats and brooms.

The influence of Mexican immigrants in the city starts with Arcola’s reputation as the “Broomcorn Capital of the World,” a slogan that dates to the 1920s, when the region was one of the top producers of the sorghum crop used for the bristle in household brooms. That legacy is celebrated by thousands each fall at the Broomcorn Festival.

The city’s largest employer is the Libman Co., a broom manufacturer founded in Chicago in 1896 by Lithuanian immigrant William Libman. The family moved the company Downstate in 1931 to be closer to the broomcorn crop.

By the 1950s, the high cost of harvesting broomcorn, which varies wildly in height and had to be reaped by hand, drove production to Mexico, which brought Fidel Silva to town in 1963. Silva was trying to deliver Mexican broomcorn to a factory in Paxton, but ended up in Arcola instead.

“He got lost and showed up at our door and asked for a job,” said Andrew Libman, the company’s president and CEO, who represents the family’s fourth generation to run the manufacturer. “That was the beginning of the pipeline.”

Silva was from Cadereyta Jimenez, a city near Monterrey known as the “Broom Capital of Mexico.” Other workers followed, including Garza’s father, Joaquin, who immigrated to Arcola in 1971 to take a $1.60-an-hour job at Libman as a broom maker or “winder.”

Growing up, Garza said he didn’t really know his father, who helped support him, his mom and two brothers financially but returned to Mexico only once every three years. Garza considered his uncle Homero, a mechanic who taught him the craft, to be his father figure.

By the early 1990s, Garza said his mother and two brothers had moved to Arcola on visas to work at Libman, but he wanted to stay in Mexico. Garza, however, would soon change his mind after his wife gave birth to their son and work became harder to find.

With visa in hand, the 23-year-old Garza made the 24-hour drive from Mexico in a gray Chevy conversion van, arriving in snow-covered Arcola in January 1993.

He got a $4.25-an-hour job at Libman packing brooms in boxes. But for someone used to working on cars in the open air in Mexico, the confined spaces and monotonous work of the factory floor weren’t appealing.

“I told my dad, ‘I don’t think I’m a factory guy,’” Garza recalled. “I told him I was going to go back to Mexico.”

Garza’s dad convinced a friend who owned a transmission shop to give his son a part-time job. Garza worked 16-hour days, four hours at the auto shop and a 12-hour overnight shift at Libman.

After six months, the shop’s owner, Jerry Beals, hired Garza full time and paid for him to take English classes and receive various mechanic certifications.

“Jerry spent a lot of money on me,” Garza said. “He believed in me.”

In 2000, Garza nervously traveled to Chicago to take the test to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Busy with work, Garza only gave himself the three-hour drive to prepare, but said he impressed the test’s administrator when he recited the original 13 U.S. colonies in the exact order they appeared in the study manual. He passed.

Five years later, Beals moved his shop out of town, and Garza started his own business in Arcola. He named it 3 J’s Transmission after his three children — Jesus Jr., Jessica and Jane. A fourth child, Jade, would come along later.

“It was too complicated to change it to 4 J’s,” Garza said with a laugh.

For the first seven years, Garza worked from 3 a.m. until 7 p.m. seven days a week. The shop moved from his house to a modest two-bay brick building before expanding into an old broom warehouse with room for 10 vehicle lifts.

His business is now one the largest repair shops in central Illinois, with 4,800 customers in the company database. Garza also owns an eight-unit apartment building and a rental house.

“Some people say they are hard workers, but Jesus is going all the time,” said Arcola City Administrator Bill Wagoner. “Cars are vital around here to get to work or to get groceries, and he’s floated people along or dug up a used part so they can afford to keep going. He’s done a lot to help a lot of people, and it shows by how much his business has grown.”

A blend of cultures

Arcola’s experience with immigration differs dramatically from the inflamed rhetoric Trump relied on to whip up support for his border wall.

Arcola’s Latino population has exploded since Garza arrived, in large part due to the growth of the Libman Co.

In 1990, 243 Latinos made up 9% of Arcola’s population. Recent census data shows that number likely is more than 1,000, or just under 40% of the city’s residents.

Over the same period, Libman grew from roughly 400 to 800 employees, nearly half of them Latinos, as the company diversified its product line and shifted to manufacturing more than 90% of its parts in Arcola.

“A lot of small towns are dying and don’t have the diversity,” Libman said. “And I think it’s great we’ve been able to grow our company nationally and internationally and bring that growth from all over the world to Arcola.”

That diversity was on full display during the Broomcorn Festival.

A mix of Latino and white high school students wandered past the festival’s many food stands, wearing “Purple Riders” football jerseys and cheerleading warmups. They laughed as Arcola Schools Superintendent Tom Mulligan participated in the celebrity broom sweeping contest that gave him 45 seconds to sweep broomcorn seeds through a maze and into a hole.

After getting over his second-place finish, Mulligan noted that Latinos make up 45% of the students in Arcola’s schools, many of them representing the third generation to live in town. He said the district has successfully recruited Spanish-speaking teachers and aides to communicate with students and parents for whom English is a second language.

While many Arcolans supported Trump, Mulligan said he never saw divisive rhetoric toward Latinos turn up in the schools.

“We just have such a blend of cultures here, and we’re all used to working together,” said Mulligan, who has run the district for eight years.

Wagoner, the city administrator who grew up in the town, said some immigrants have married locals, further enriching Arcola’s diversity.

“The first generation or two of Hispanics were pretty insular, but now they’re coaching Little League, they’re running our soccer program and their kids are playing high school football and basketball,” Wagoner said.

“I’m not gonna lie: We still have 5% racist redneck idiots in the area, and you’re never going to fix that,” he said. “But overall, it’s pretty much to the point where no even notices anymore. They’re just part of the community.”

It’s far different from the town Tomas Gonzalez immigrated to as a 3-year-old in 1972.

“When I first got here, it could be tough sometimes. I was one of the only Hispanics in class,” said Gonzalez, 52, who works as a manager at Libman. “My son is about to graduate, and he really enjoys it. There isn’t the bullying anymore. Everyone really gets along.”

Sandra Saldivar, who moved to Arcola in 1988 at the age of 7, said the city’s white residents have been very welcoming. She said she’s rarely heard disparaging remarks directed toward Mexican Americans.

“Arcola just isn’t that kind of town,” said Saldivar, 40. “When I graduated in 1999, I was the only Hispanic girl in my class. Now, my kids are in school and it’s almost 50-50 white and Hispanic. It’s awesome to see how much it’s grown.”

Immigration and small-town politics

Arcola voters have shown a willingness to separate their local experiences with immigration from how they believe the issue should be handled nationally, which helps explain the widespread support for both Trump and Garza.

It’s in part an acknowledgment of how prominent Garza has become as a business owner in town, with his family now running four generations deep in Arcola. His parents, both retired from Libman, still live in town, as do his four children and two grandchildren.

“I think a lot of the people here — and I’m not talking about Hispanics — have seen where Jesus started from and what he’s done,” Saldivar said. “They know he’s a smart man to start from zero and build that big transmission shop. They have faith in him.”

Before the Broomcorn Festival parade, Phil Anderson tended to his neatly manicured lawn and recalled how Garza first worked on his car 16 years ago. He proudly voted for him in April.

“Jesus is a hard worker,” said Anderson, 78, a Republican with a “J.B. Pritzker Sucks” sign planted in his front yard. “He started that business up from nothing, really improved the property down there and works on just about everybody’s car. I really like him.”

Anderson also noted that he has a two-bedroom house down the street that he rents exclusively to immigrants.

“The Mexicans we get in there, they take care of the place,” Anderson explained. “They put pictures on the wall, decorate it real nice and will paint it for you.”

Despite those positive personal experiences, Anderson said he’s a big fan of Trump’s crackdown on immigration. He is among the 66% of Arcola voters who voted for the Republican last year.

Anderson drew a distinction between Garza’s arrival in the early 1990s and the migrant crisis currently unfolding at the border that has led to a record number of illegal crossings. Like Trump, Anderson widely condemned today’s immigrants as having bad intentions.

“I don’t have a problem with all the Spanish coming up here, but they need to do it right,” Anderson said, referring to people of Latino descent. “When Jesus came, we had a good immigration process that worked. Now, everyone is just coming in unchecked.”

The Biden administration has ramped up border arrests and deportations to deter migration, but Republicans have contended it’s not enough.

Garza said he thinks Trump’s wall was a waste of money, called separating parents from their children at the border cruel, and said he didn’t like how the former president negatively portrayed immigrants.

But the mayor also said he tries not to voice his opinion on such thorny subjects by avoiding political discussions.

In fact, nearly two dozen voters interviewed said they had no idea if Garza leaned Republican or Democratic, and most said it wasn’t a factor when picking a nonpartisan mayor. That included Joshua Blackwell, a Republican who helped Garza with his campaign and until last year was the sheriff of Douglas County.

“I’m not sure where he would lean politically on the national front. That’s not a conversation we’ve ever had,” said Blackwell, 37, who now sells software to local governments. “We just talked about what needed to be done locally. That’s all I care about.”

For the record, Garza considers himself an independent voter, and at times a disaffected one. In 2008, he voted for Democrat Barack Obama, but he did not vote in 2012, saying that Obama didn’t deliver on his promises for change and Republican Mitt Romney didn’t instill much confidence.

In 2016, Garza looked past Trump’s frequent condemnation of immigrants to vote for him, citing his status as a political outsider and high-profile business owner. But last year, Garza said he again chose not to vote, pointing to Trump’s corruption and a lack of faith in now-President Joe Biden.

The mayor said some voters asked him about Trump when he campaigned door to door. His stock answer: He considers Trump to be a good business owner who handled the economy well, but says his strong-arm tactics and incessant tweeting got him into trouble.

Garza’s line also happened to be smart politics, because it offered something for Trump supporters and critics alike without getting too specific.

Larry Bushu, who wore one of Garza’s hats at the parade, confessed he had no idea where the mayor stood politically. A self-described independent voter who hasn’t backed a Democrat since Bill Clinton, Bushu said he likes Garza because he’s not flashy, helps frequently with community fundraisers and runs a good business.

Bushu said he reluctantly voted for Trump as the “lesser of two evils,” but said he agreed with his immigration policies, especially building the wall.

“There’s a difference between what’s happening on the border now and what happened here in Arcola,” said Bushu, 83, who served as an Arcola alderman in the 1980s. “These people came here knowing they were going to have jobs and integrated themselves within the community. It has been a wonderful experience, because they came here with a purpose and a plan.”

Running for mayor

In the last couple of years, Garza said he’s grown concerned about Arcola’s future, as some longtime businesses closed and the city struggled to maintain aging infrastructure. Days before April’s election, Arcola spent $328,000 to buy and tear down a block of neglected downtown storefronts that had partially collapsed.

Garza also lamented that Arcola’s increasing Latino influence had yet to show up in city government. So, when 18-year incumbent Mayor Larry Ferguson stepped aside, Garza decided to run.

He estimated that only about 20% of the city’s Latino residents are eligible to vote, and he’d need the support of long-standing white residents to win.

His brother Juan, a manager at Libman, arranged a meeting with family patriarch Robert Libman, who wrote Garza’s campaign a $2,500 check. Libman cited the success of Garza’s business and the fact his brothers’ work at the company as the reasons for his support.

William Blackwell, the head of a prominent farming family in town, chipped in $2,000. His son Joshua, the former sheriff, helped with the campaign paperwork.

Garza raised enough money to distribute 300 campaign signs. In a four-way race against three white candidates, the main competition came from veteran Alderman Mark Smith, whom the outgoing mayor endorsed.

“At the town forum, all of them were talking about how many degrees they had and making all kinds of promises. One of the candidates said he would fix all the streets in town in the first 100 days,” Garza said, shaking his head. “I said, ‘I’m not going to promise anything, other than to work hard from my heart.’ Everybody loved that.”

Garza defeated Smith, with 41% of the vote to his 35%.

As he watched the election results on TV, Garza said he cried thinking about how far he’d come since leaving Mexico. Soon after, he was beckoned to the park, where Latinos celebrated by driving cars and honking horns in an impromptu parade.

A few Sundays later, the Rev. Angel Sierra called Garza to the altar at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church so the congregation could pray for him as mayor.

“I loved it, and I cried,” Garza said. “I never thought I’d see everyone praying for me like that.”

In his first weeks as mayor, Garza mobilized a group of volunteers to renovate a park picnic shelter. On Labor Day, he and a fellow alderman replaced 43 long burned-out bulbs in the downtown’s old-fashioned streetlights. Garza is helping Saldivar with plans to open a family bakery downtown and is recruiting other businesses to help fill storefronts.

“He’s involving both Hispanic and white people, and that’s a good thing,” Saldivar said. “In order to get things done in Arcola, we need to do it as a team.”

Wagoner, the city administrator, said there also has been a learning curve. As mayor, Garza is also the liquor commissioner, and Wagoner said Garza had to suppress his eagerness to please when a raft of people previously denied liquor licenses came back around for another try.

Garza said he’s also learned that most gripes in town now find their way to him, and acknowledged he still tries to avoid confrontation.

At the Broomcorn Festival, some complained about a vendor flying Confederate flags. Wilmer Otto, who owns a historic building on Main Street, told Garza that chamber of commerce officials who signed off on the vendors didn’t want to impede on free speech by asking for the flags to be removed.

“It might be legal, but we have the right to tell them we don’t want offensive stuff,” Otto told the new mayor. “If it were Hustler magazine, would we allow that? No.” Garza stood silently and offered no response.

A few days after the event, the mayor said chamber officials asked the vendor not to fly the flags next year, and he agreed. But Garza said the whole episode left him uncomfortable.

“They always come looking for the mayor,” he said. “But I didn’t control that.”

Garza said the Broomcorn Festival parade has been his favorite moment as mayor. After winning the election with less than half the town voting for him, he didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response.

Garza slowly drove through the town, grinning widely beneath his neatly trimmed mustache. His only rookie mistake: He ran out of candy before the parade ended.

Bobby Lee drove behind him in his teal 1940 Chevy Special Deluxe business coupe. Lee, an 86-year-old Air Force veteran, voted for Garza and explained in detail how the mayor had put turn signals, dual exhaust, a new cylinder head and water pump in his classic car.

“He’s sociable, knows what he’s doing with his business, and the people working for him do a good job,” said Lee, a Republican VFW member who voted for Trump.

Lee said that in Arcola, Mexican immigrants often fill tough jobs at Libman and other businesses that most locals won’t take: “They get a job, pay taxes like everyone else, and it’s not a big deal.”

But like so many others in town, Lee simultaneously railed against what he described as freeloading immigrants streaming across the border, lauded Trump’s efforts to stop that and decried that “Biden lets ‘em all in.”

Asked why he felt so strongly about keeping immigrants out of the country when he voted one in as mayor, Lee let out a long sigh as he searched for an answer.

“I’m not into politics that much,” he said. “All I can say about Arcola is people here just get along.”

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