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Hispanics Look for Political Gains

City's Latinos are concerned with the `gross malapportionment' of voting district boundaries. CHICAGO

FACED with the same problems of jobs, education, and housing that confront Chicagoans generally, the burgeoning Hispanic community wants its share of political power, too. But that hasn't come easily in the past, and Hispanics don't expect it to now.

Their immediate concern is what Juan Andrade calls the ``gross malapportionment'' of voting district boundaries. Mr. Andrade is president of the Midwest-Northeast Voter Registration Education Project (MNVREP), a nonpartisan organization that works in 17 states to register voters.

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Redrawing wards

MNVREP will register anyone, Andrade says, but it targets Hispanics because they are more underregistered and underrepresented than blacks or whites.

Chicago is divided into 50 wards, each of which elects an alderman for a four-year term to the City Council.

The council, to be chosen in April's general election, must redraw the ward boundaries by the end of the year to reflect the 1990 census data.

That process will change the racial compositions of some wards. And in a city that tends to vote along racial lines, that means some aldermen will lose their majority of support and risk being replaced in the 1995 election.

So what the aldermen will try to do, Andrade says, is redistrict in a way that all 50 incumbents can keep their jobs.

He notes that the council tried to lump all Hispanics into one district after the 1980 census, and had to be forced by a court to draw boundaries that created four predominantly Hispanic wards.

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Ten years ago, when 3 million people inhabited Chicago, each ward was supposed to contain 60,100 people. As the city's population shifted, some grew to 68,000; others shrank to 42,000. The latest census found that the city's total population declined to 2.8 million, so the wards will be redrawn to accommodate 55,600 residents.

But the population didn't decrease evenly across racial lines. The decline of several hundred thousand was shared by blacks, who are now 38.6 percent of the population, and whites, now 38 percent.

The Hispanic population, in contrast, grew by 29 percent during the 1980s. They now number 546,000, or 20 percent of Chicago residents.

Based on that proportion, Hispanics should have seven or eight alderman posts, rather than the current four they hold, Andrade says.

Once the boundaries are redrawn, it will still be 1995 before the next aldermanic election. ``We're going to have to live with this malapportionment for four more years?'' Andrade says. ``This is justice denied. We want justice now.'' A lawsuit seeks to force the city to hold special aldermanic elections as soon as redistricting occurs.

Meanwhile, the voting power of Chicago's Hispanics is expected to increase substantially in the near term.

Hispanic voter registration is up 43 percent since 1982, but the group is still only 8.3 percent of the city's 1.46 million registered voters because many are not citizens and because the Hispanic population here consists of large families with children too young to vote.

Under the immigration amnesty, 100,000 Hispanics in the city will become US citizens over the next several years, boosting that group's percentage of Chicago voters.

Public school education is a key issue for Hispanics, as it is for all of Chicago, which is in the early stages of an effort to reform what was once described as the worst school system in the United States.

``Definitely our population is being very dramatically affected by the lack of quality,'' says Helen Valdez, president of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum.

Nearly 40 percent of Hispanics drop out of school. Ms. Valdez says the rate has been ``horrendous for seven years.'' But she adds that today's dropouts seem to have even fewer skills, especially in reading, than those who dropped out of school several years ago.

``Even people who stay in school don't get minimum skills,'' Valdez says.

In Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, which is predominantly Mexican, 100 more classrooms are needed, she says. One school even uses hallways as makeshift classrooms.

Differences among groups

Carlos Tortolero, the museum's director, says that Hispanic is what others call the people who call themselves Latinos, the term he prefers.

Mr. Tortolero is sensitive about cultural differences among different Hispanic groups and the tendency of others to lump all Hispanics together. Not only does this blur cultural identity, but it could conceal important differences ranging from birth rates to work ethics.

For instance, Puerto Ricans, who are 36 percent of Hispanic voters in Chicago, have always been American and don't have to worry about immigration. Cubans, about 7 percent of Chicago Hispanic voters, have sometimes been welcomed as political refugees. For Mexicans, who are 46 percent of the city's Hispanic voters, immigration has never been easy.

So if a Puerto Rican alderman were to say that immigration isn't a problem, and the media quoted him as a Hispanic leader, that would neglect the Mexican point of view, Tortolero says.

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