By:
September 16, 2021

A longtime Mafia stronghold and onetime destination for Eastern European immigrants, Cicero, Illinois, is now a Latino-majority town. More than 89% of residents are “Hispanic or Latino,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau, many of them first- and second-generation Chicagoans. Spanish is heard everywhere, supermarkets stock products from Latin America, and in the last two decades, Latinos have moved there seeking affordable housing.

But while their school attendance and home ownership numbers are high, Latinos are underrepresented in Cicero’s political life. Only two of the 10 local government leaders are Latino, and only one of those can vote on town issues.

That power imbalance has persisted because of opacity in decision-making and lack of news coverage, Irene Romulo said. At 30, she’s a founding editor of the new Cicero Independiente, a community-focused weekly that’s begun bringing the town’s politics into the open.

Romulo and two young partners, Ankur Singh and April Alonso, launched the paper over coffee at a local library in 2019. The first edition of Cicero Independiente came out that summer, and it’s been punching holes in the town’s political discourse ever since.

Their effort has grown to include college students and freelancers, all of them U.S.-born Latino or South Asian, and the paper has received some grants and fellowships. Weekly editions focus on one major topic at a time.

Published online, the Independiente also puts out a paper flyer containing the week’s main story in English and Spanish, because some readers prefer news in print. At first, the focus was basic information: explaining town ordinances, voting, COVID-19 restrictions, and other issues important to residents. But this summer the paper also started doing investigative pieces and exposés.

Different routes

Romulo has not followed a traditional journalism career path. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2012 and spent seven years as a community organizer in California and Chicago. In 2019 she came back to Cicero, where she’d lived since age 13 after her family moved there from Chicago.

Romulo’s grandparents were Mexican bracero guest workers who came to the U.S. for agricultural jobs and stayed. Her father had a blue-collar job in Chicago. “He was happy when I graduated from college,” she said. “He thought I was going to make a lot of money. He is proud of me now, because of the newspaper.”

Co-editor Singh, 27, met Romulo when Romulo was posting flyers around town about starting a local paper. An Indian American documentary filmmaker who studied journalism as a graduate student at Northwestern, he’d written about Cicero for his college paper and became fond of the town and its residents. Singh’s family saw a newspaper launch as quixotic, he said, but they approve of his working on a project he believes in.

The third editor, 27-year-old photojournalist Alonso, was born in Cicero, to second-generation immigrants from Mexico. One of her grandparents came to Chicago as a bracero to work in the railroad yards. Alonso had fled Cicero for big-city life, but a Chicago Reporter internship with former editor Fernando Diaz showed her the impact and importance of local news.

Putting out a newspaper is all-consuming. The grants and fellowships help, but the editors augment their income with part-time jobs. Romulo works half-time as a translator; Alonso does freelance photojournalism; Singh works full-time for a labor union in Chicago.

Deeper stories

Publishing complex investigative stories has raised the paper’s profile.

Romulo recently wrote a series, along with nonprofit news outlet Type Investigations, on Cicero school districts’ requirement that Latino students sign contracts identifying themselves as gang members. The investigation found that some school officials came up with flimsy evidence for gang affiliation and told parents their kids could not remain in school without signing the form. Parents weren’t told that such a record could impair a student’s future. In at least one case, the school district shared a contract with police, Romulo said.

For another story, freelancer Jesus Montero, a DePaul University graduate, procured Freedom of Information Act documents to investigate the town’s use of federal funds granted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The piece tracked how Cicero spent $1.07 million in CARES Act grants — money intended for COVID-19 prevention programs in town — on regular police salaries already in the town’s 2020 budget. The funds’ diversion happened right as Cicero was suffering one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Cook County.

Montero, who came to Cicero from a television internship in New York City, also works with MuckRock Foundation, the collaborative news- and records-gathering nonprofit, which has teamed with the Independiente on data analysis and other FOIA-enabled stories. (Disclosure: The author is director of development and news partnerships at MuckRock Foundation.)

After such coverage, Cicero town leaders took notice. Press releases attempted to rebut claims in the CARES Act story, and a recently enacted ordinance requires a special permit for putting out flyers and newspapers in town.

Teflon leadership

Local representation is now a major focus for the paper.

“A lot of barriers are put in place to prevent people from becoming civically engaged in this town,” Romulo said. Glad-handing practices, alleged nepotism and cronyism, and voter turnout are contributing factors. 90% of Cicero’s leaders are white, yet census data shows white residents account for just 6% of the population — and the Latino majority’s interests are disregarded in political decisions.

Cicero’s governing entity is called a board of trustees, and several of its white members have held their positions consecutively for the last decade. Instead of a mayor, the board has a president. The current president, Larry Dominick, has been in office since 2005 despite scandals and lawsuits. Two former female employees charged him with sexual misconduct; the town paid over $1 million in two out-of-court settlements. In 2013, when former Chicago official Juan Ochoa, an up-and-coming Latino politician, tried to challenge Dominick’s reelection, Dominick accused him of using gang members in his campaign. It was the last time a Latino candidate has vied for that job.

But low voter turnout may be the biggest obstacle. In the February 2021 town council election, fewer than 10% of voters — 2,987 out of the 34,270 registered — cast ballots, unanimously reinstating Dominick for a sixth term.

Leaders further cement their agendas by holding meetings during mid-morning, when most residents need to be at work, and by not publishing the full content of the ordinances they vote on, Singh said.

“It is hard to know what they are doing,” he said. “The community is not seeing the shady contracts they are giving. They take advantage of Cicero being an immigrant community that does not know how to engage their local leadership.”

Troubled past

In some respects, the Independiente’s success bodes well for times ahead. “You can see a change in the community with the newspaper being around,” Singh said. “People are more informed about what is happening.”

But Cicero’s history holds warning signs. Until a few years ago, this was a sundown town: Police chased Black residents who worked or ventured out after dark. The Black population remains under 3%. And some Latino residents attacked young Black residents during Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year. “We saw police cheering and not doing anything to (counter) vigilante violence against Blacks,” Singh said.

Chicago-based news outlets did cover the fracas — but their accounts only further convinced Independiente editors their newspaper is needed.

“Chicago and out-of-state media came in and just reported on the violence and the negative (events),” Romulo said, “but did not return to report on the causes and other issues.”

This story was updated to correct April Alonso’s age.

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Ana Arana is Director of Development and News Partnerships at MuckRock Foundation. An award-winning U.S. veteran investigative journalist, she is a former foreign correspondent who…
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