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In ‘itty-bitty Fairmont City’ library is heart of one of region’s largest Latino communities

Families gather at the Fairmont City libary to play, read books and take classes.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Norma (she is a domestic violence survivor, so we are withholiding her last name) says the library has changed her life for the better.

It's a common sight at the Fairmont City Library Center: Students discussing the grammar and syntax of English sentences in small groups.

On a recent night, the teacher wanted to know what another word for “per” is. The word got lost in translation. Some students suggested “for,” but in the sentence the teacher gave the correct answer is “each.” It was a confusing answer for one student who offered the Spanish word for “each” instead. It’s “cada.”

The class is just one of the night English language classes the library offers adult native Spanish speakers in the area who want to perfect their second language.

Fairmont City, less than 10 miles east of St. Louis, is the local community with the largest percentage of Latino residents. The total population of the village is about 2,500 people, according to the latest census records. Of those, more than 2,000 people about 80 percent are Latino, most tracing their roots to Mexico. That's up from the 2010 census, which counted the Latinos as making up 55 percent of the village's population. 

For many in the village, after 10 years in the community, the library is more than a place to borrow books.

After the library, a bank

Library director Katie Heaton believes that building trust is key to everything the library does.

“You commit to the community. You hire from the community to provide jobs. And you speak the language,” Heaton said. “That model has done so well for the library and reaching out to the people in Fairmont City and far beyond Fairmont City.”

Heaton says Spanish speakers from Waterloo and Centralia, Illinois, and even Ferguson, Missouri, seek services from the library and a more recent arrival, a bank. About three years ago the Bank of Edwardsville moved in next door to the library, which began to offer financial literacy classes.

In a 2016 census survey, about 64 percent of Fairmont City households lived on less than $45,000 a year. In addition to  credit union, there was no place for residents to bank locally before the Bank of Edwardsville arrived.

Robert Schwartz, a senior vice president at the bank, said the needs of the community and the influence of the library locally made adding a branch in Fairmont City a “no brainer.”

He said most residents never had a checking account and were paying high interest fees on loans because they didn’t have access to banking. Schwartz said there are now more than 700 active accounts at the bank and loan programs that help people who would otherwise not qualify for them.

“We’ve had a strong loan growth here which is important for a bank to have the loan growth,” Schwartz said. “But really our focus has been new accounts and trying to get people in. One of the key components [to doing that] has been to try to establish trust.”

Feeling equal

Village President Michael Suarez was born and raised in Fairmont City. He said the village operates like a family.

“Everybody takes care of each other and there is a sense of pride,” Suarez said.

Though Fairmont City has a large Latino population now, Suarez said that hasn’t always been the case. He named the Old American Zinc Plant as one draw for immigrants from Europe looking for work.

A map that indicates the location of the Old American Zinc Plant Superfund site in Fairmont City, Ill.
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap
The Old American Zinc Plant was a draw for European immigrants who came to Fairmont City.

Heaton added that agriculture and the town’s proximity to the old Route 66 also attracted residents. She traces her family's roots to French immigrants.

One Fairmont City resident, Norma, moved here from Guanajuato, Mexico, 15 years ago with her late husband.

“My family is here. We came with family and start a new life here,” she said.

Norma is a domestic violence survivor. St. Louis Public Radio is not disclosing her real name and the names of her three children, all under the age of 15, for that reason. She was eager to talk about the village library’s influence in her life and the lives of others.

“The library helped (us) out with clothing giveaways and coat giveaways and stuff like that,” Norma said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “It helped families succeed and be able to advance a little more along with the bank, who also helped (us) as well.”

Norma was one of the first people to qualify for a home loan at the local bank branch.

She said the library also helped her find pro bono lawyers when she was battling domestic violence and was a place where she could use Skype to attend meetings of the Immigration Project, which helps people find attorneys and legal advice.

“I feel secure. I feels at home. I feel welcome,” Norma said. “Here at the library, it’s all inclusive. There’s no discrimination. Like, everyone feels like they are the same. I feel like I'm equal to someone who was born and raised here.”

"Everybody deserves to live their dream"

Luis Lamas also feels at home at the library and in Fairmont City. The Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville student is the first person in his family to attend college. He studies mechanical engineering and wants to be a aerospace engineer for a company like Boeing. Lamas credits the close-knit community and youth programming at the library for fostering that dream.

“Honestly, as a kid, this (the library) is where I lived. In the mornings I’d wake up and come to the library, ate lunch, dinner here, did my homework here, then I’d go home once they closed. I was sad when they closed (for the day) because I wanted to stay here,” Lamas said. “They’ve really united people here and they’ve done so much for the community, that I really appreciate it.”

Heaton helped Lamas complete financial aid forms and scholarship applications to pay for school. Now a sophomore, Lamas started a rocket club at his university to share his love of the subject with others. He said his success in college has even inspired his father, who is studying to get his GED.

Heaton likes to say that the library is the thing nobody knew they needed until they had it.

“I think the back story was more about identifying a community that had no resources and then coming into that community and figuring out which answers to which questions they needed,” Heaton said.

Sometimes those questions are about college, homework and employment. Other times they are about bike repair and clothes.

“I think the most important thing about Fairmont City is that everybody deserves to live their dream and when you see a community that’s being held back for whatever reason and you know you can make a difference, there shouldn’t be anything preventing you from stepping in and making that difference,” Heaton said.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.