Often mistaken for one another, Stephanie Mendoza and Rebeca Mendoza both have ready smiles and dark, wavy hair, but the most striking trait the two share is their determination to lift up Evanston’s burgeoning Latinx population and make sure all voices are heard.
Stephanie Mendoza serves as the Evanston City Clerk. Elected in April of 2021, she’s the city’s first Latina to hold the position. Rebeca Mendoza, who works as an international grants officer for Rotary International, is founder and president of Evanston Latinos, an advocacy group formed during the pandemic that continues to provide services to Spanish-speaking residents.
“Because Stephanie and I are most vocal, I think that’s why we get confused [for one another],” said Rebeca. “We are constantly advocating. We have the confidence, or maybe just the craziness, to go in and say, ‘Guys, you need to do a better job.’”
Community outreach is a way of life for the two friends, who met just before the pandemic in February 2020 at an opening for the Robert Crown library. Both had served on the District 65 school board and partnered with a range of local philanthropic organizations before teaming up on Evanston Latinos, with Rebeca at the helm and Stephanie working as a community liaison and later as a board member.
Rebeca and Stephanie recalled the great need during the early days of the pandemic, when the COVID crisis revealed holes in the safety net surrounding the city’s vulnerable populations. Evanston Latinx population not only distributed masks and cleaning supplies but also disseminated essential information on the transmission and treatment of the disease. They offered members educational courses in basic finance, technology and government resources and created a Facebook page to post instructional videos.
“One of the things that pains me, even though Evanston Latinos has been very successful, is how we had to start,” Rebeca Mendoza said. “I wish that we didn’t exist. I wish that we’d been seen and treated, and our needs taken care of just like every other community member here in Evanston.”
Stephanie Mendoza agrees that the Latinx population was largely invisible at that time.
“I think there’s this idea that literally 4,000 Latinos just came and dropped in during the pandemic, but that’s not the case,” she said. “A lot of us have been here for many years.”
According to 2020 Census data, 11.8% of Evanston’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latinx, but Rebeca contends that the number is much higher.
“We’re a hard group to count,” she said. “Everyone identifies differently, or there are the people who don’t want to be counted. I always go by the numbers at the schools.” ETHS enrollment records for this year show that 19.5% of the student body is Hispanic or Latinx, the highest percentage in the school’s history.
Stephanie Mendoza said she worries about the school children at every grade level and whether the responsibilities they bear at home could prove untenable. Born in California and raised in rural Tennessee by immigrant parents, she acted in her youth as her parents’ primary translator.
“It is a trauma, whether we want to admit it or not,” she said. “It is really difficult to be 5- or 6- or 10-years-old and to be technically the one who has to save your household.”
She believes more should be done to reach out to Spanish-speaking parents directly, translation services being made seamless, to remove the burden from young people.
“If we want to build a strong community, we have to build strong children and give them the opportunity to be children,” she said.
Together, both Mendoza women have spearheaded an array of programs designed to benefit local children as well as their families, creating bright spots on a sometimes bleak horizon. In partnership with the Music Institute of Chicago, Stephanie Mendoza recently organized free cello lessons for Evanston youths who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
With support from the Evanston Community Foundation, Rebeca Mendoza arranged Thursday evening “cafecitos” at the Robert Crown Community Center this summer, giving dozens of Spanish-speaking residents a chance to gather, listen to guest speakers and explore topics ranging from violence in the city to Evanston’s guaranteed income pilot program.
Both women helped to orchestrate dynamic storytelling sessions designed to showcase the unique experiences of Latino families, while promoting racial healing and harmony. Led by local artist Claudia Renteria, an Evanston Arts Council grant recipient, gatherings were held at St. Nicholas School in May and at Lee Street Beach over the summer.
Stephanie and Rebeca agree that the immigrant experience is never ideal, even in a city like Evanston, which many consider progressive. Rebeca Mendoza said her mom speaks and understands English but has an accent and is often treated disrespectfully by salesclerks and civil servants.
“People aren’t kind to people with accents, at least Spanish accents,” she said. Stephanie Mendoza said her father, who also speaks with an accent, is routinely required to show an ID card when picking up prescriptions from the drug store, whereas she is not.
The fixes are not easy, but the woman say an official language access policy for Evanston could be a good starting point. In recent years, cities across the country – including Minneapolis, Madison and Detroit – have adopted policies that strive to remove language barriers that could prevent citizens from accessing public services.
Evanston currently operates under a set of guidelines for helping non-English speaking residents, but no official policy is in place, and none is currently in the works, according to Jessica Mayo, community and employment engagement coordinator in the city manager’s office.
“There is this fear that having a language access policy puts more burden on an individual and now you can get in trouble for not providing services in a language,” said Stephanie Mendoza. “In reality, it’s about accountability. If we’re going to provide services to people, we want to be meaningful about the way we provide those services. We need to make sure we’re doing it in a language people understand.”
Rebeca Mendoza added, “My hope is that Evanston will start to see Latinos as part of the fabric of who this community is, not separate.”
United by their common mission, the two women offered a little parting advice for keeping their identities straight.
“I drive a mom-mobile,” quipped Stephanie Mendoza, who frequently has three school-aged children in tow. Rebeca Mendoza tools around town on an aqua-colored scooter. The look is glamorous, but the universe demands balance.
“I am shorter,” she admitted.
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September 6, 2022 at 10:16PM