Doll tells a tale of demographic shifts
A fictional character leaves her Hispanic neighborhood for the Chicago suburbs - and stirs up fury in the real world.
CHICAGO — Poor Marisol. She moves to the suburbs, and the old barrio turns on her.
The focus of the controversy in Pilsen, Chicago's best-known Mexican neighborhood, isn't a person but a doll: an $84 addition to the coveted American Girl series, most of which come with their own book-length back story.
The central story line in Marisol's case is her family's move from urban Pilsen to suburban Des Plaines - a move that occurs in part because Pilsen "was no place for me to grow up," Marisol says her mother told her. "It was dangerous, and there was no place for me to play."
The exodus - and the dangerous comment, in particular - has set off a firestorm among some activists, angry at what they perceive as a slight to a diverse inner-city community.
Behind the emotionalism over a neighborhood's wounded pride, however, lies a deeper tale about the changing demographics of the Midwest, urban flight, and what makes a city thrive.
Across the upper Midwest, a growing number of minorities and second-generation immigrants are moving from inner-city neighborhoods to the suburbs. Some, like Marisol's fictional family, go for the same reason generations before them have done so: a bigger house, better schools - a picket-fence slice of the American dream.
But more often, Hispanics in Chicago leave because they must: Job creation is largely in the suburbs these days, and places like Cicero and Elgin often have lower housing costs than the quickly gentrifying Pilsen.
Pilsen, an area known for its artists and murals, with carnicerías and tortillerías on nearly every block, is in no danger of losing its Latino character soon: 89 percent of its population is Hispanic, according to the 2000 census.
But as more and more immigrants of all types move to the suburbs - many of them bypassing the city completely - they raise concerns that neighborhoods left behind could lose their ethnic character and bohemian charm.
"We're very concerned about people not being able to afford the homes here, and that Pilsen is going to lose its sense of identity if people continue to move out," says Juana Guzmán, vice president of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, located around the corner from Marisol's fictional home. "That's what makes Chicago such a great city - it's the flavor of the neighborhoods, their stories, the people, the art." Her biggest complaint with Marisol's story, Ms. Guzmán adds, is that it was a "lost opportunity" to portray a girl growing up in that urban environment.
But while the local alderman and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) are outraged, and a few have called for boycotts of the pricey but popular dolls, Marisol, in many ways, is simply a model of real-life change.
"The Latino demographic story right now is growth everywhere," says Rob Paral, a research fellow at Roosevelt University in Chicago. But in the 1980s and '90s, he says, the shift to the suburbs began, to the point to where a majority of Hispanics now live outside the city. Job growth, particularly in the service sector, attracted many Hispanics, while the rising cost of city living pushed others out.
While some Latinos do, of course, idealize the suburbs like so many other Americans, suburban shift is often "not entirely voluntary," Mr. Paral says. "A portion of Latinos are pushed [out to the suburbs], and that puts a whole different spin on it."
Des Plaines, where Marisol moves, saw its Hispanic population double between 1990 and 2000, from 7 percent to 14 percent. The changes have been even more dramatic in less affluent suburbs like Berwyn, to the southwest of Chicago, where the Hispanic population rose from 8 percent to 38 percent in the same period. Many more Latinos are moving even farther out, to far west suburbs like Aurora or Elgin.
"They come, then they get a new job and move to a new environment," explains José Enriquez, a worker at Supermercado Guzman who came to Pilsen from Mexico seven years ago.
Mr. Enriquez's brother lives in Blue Island, and another relative lives in Melrose Park. He's a little baffled at the controversy over Marisol. "If people want to move because it's dangerous, they can do that," he says. But Enriquez himself has no desire to follow Marisol - or his brother - any time soon. "For me, the suburbs are kind of boring," he says.
Meanwhile, housing costs in Pilsen are going up, particularly on the trendy, artsy eastern edge. "I can't afford to live there now," says Christina Gomez, a sociology professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who lived in Pilsen until she was 18.
Ms. Gomez isn't so outraged about the American Girl story - "people have to offer their children the best possible, and sometimes that means leaving the city" - but she wishes it had been more accurate as to the real reasons families leave. "Residents are moving out because they can't afford it," she says. "I think if the story were portrayed in a more complex way, the reaction would have been different."
Indeed, part of the anger over Marisol seems to stem not just from pride on the part of those who live and work in Pilsen - who stress the decrease in violence and street gangs in recent years - but from a desire to keep their community from being lumped in with other exit points for the classic American Dream. A story about a Latino girl, they say, should focus on the positives of a vibrant ethnic urban neighborhood - not on the notion that a predominantly white, more affluent, suburban neighborhood is automatically a better place.
"I think they wanted something different from the sweet lives [the dolls] normally have; they wanted something grittier," says Guzmán. "But they missed the mark of what it really means to grow up in the city of Chicago."
Even some of those who dismiss the activists' reaction as a tempest in a toy box note that it's the tenacity of these same activists that has helped neighborhoods like Pilsen retain their character.
The American Girl company, meanwhile, has been a bit bewildered by the whole thing. "We feel that a brief passage has really been taken out of context," says Stephanie Spanos, a spokeswoman for the company, echoing a written statement by Gary Soto, the well-known author of the book.
The central conflict in the story, Ms. Spanos notes, is that Marisol loves her neighborhood and hates to leave. An avid dancer, she's worried about not being able to pursue things like ballet folklórico in the suburbs.
"When people read this book in its entirety," says Spanos, "the picture the author has painted is a community that is warm, united, and close-knit.... I think what people are missing is that this is a fictional story."