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Uncertain future for Latin American Social Club

Dwindling membership at odds over club’s purpose

Couples dance at a party during the 2011 Fiesta Days celebration at the Latin American Social Club.
Couples dance at a party during the 2011 Fiesta Days celebration at the Latin American Social Club.

STERLING – The Latin American Social Club, an institution in Sterling for 60 years, is beset by internal conflicts that threaten its future.

Critics say LASC leaders have strayed far from the club’s mission of helping the Hispanic community and instead have pursued a personal agenda, which has led to a steep decline in membership.

Club Chairman Tony Ortiz says the club has a lot of “complainers” who aren’t willing to do the work needed to make it successful. A lack of help by members was one reason cited for the cancellation of this year’s traditional Sterling-Rock Falls Fiesta Days parade.

A sociologist at Northern Illinois University suggests that the squabbling could be a symptom of a bigger issue: The Latin American Social Club might have outlived its usefulness.

The club, founded in the early 1950s, was intended to give Hispanics a place to gather and socialize.

But Kirk Miller, chairman of the sociology department at NIU, said organizations that center on ethnicity may now be “somewhat dated.”

“It may be because there are more Hispanics, the importance of having a Hispanic [club] grows less and less,” Miller said.

Not enough participation

The Sterling-Rock Falls Falls Fiesta Days parade is an area tradition. The parade and accompanying festivities draw hundreds of people to downtown Sterling and Rock Falls to watch the spectacle.

This year, the parade was canceled, in part because of a construction project to rebuild the First Avenue Bridge. (The parade starts in one city and crosses the bridge to end in the other; the starting point alternates every year.)

In addition, the club’s chairman said, there wasn’t enough help and participation from members to organize all of the events in time.

Ortiz, 67, who took over as chairman 2 years ago, said the club has struggled to get people to pitch in. It has about 90 dues-paying members, but only 10 are considered active members, he said.

A person must be Hispanic or married to a Hispanic to be a member.

Prospective members must fill out an application, which is then read before the general assembly. If 99.9 percent are OK with the application, the person can join the club, Ortiz said.

Not everyone joins for the right reasons, he said.

“Most people join just to get a discount on the hall rental,” he said. “This club is like any other club, ... a small handful of people that are workers.”

He said he can depend on 12 members to help run activities.

“We got a lot of complainers,” Ortiz said. “We don’t need ideas; we need help. We’re not getting that kind of support. Therefore, this is what is happening. There’s only so many things we can do.”

During its peak membership, club members met monthly. That’s not the case anymore. Only the officers show up now, Ortiz said.

“Nobody comes to the meetings,” he said. “Nobody wants to help. Everybody wants to give us ideas on how to do things.”

Ortiz said he has sent out postcards to members, asking them to attend meetings.

“I don’t know what else I can do,” he said. “I posted up here in the hall that we have a meeting. [They] still don’t come.”

Miller said what has happened with the Latin American Social Club is not unique.

He noted a decline in participation in voluntary organizations in contemporary American society, saying the trend is “pretty widespread.”

Founder’s intent

When it was formed in the 1950s, the club was intended to “unite and promote the Hispanic cultures of the Sauk Valley community,” according to its bylaws.

At the time, Hispanics were a minority in the area.

Sixty years later, the number of Hispanics in Whiteside County has grown.

Census data from 2010 shows Sterling had the Sauk Valley’s biggest increase in Hispanics over the past 10 years. They now make up nearly a quarter of the city’s population, 24.2 percent, compared with 19.2 percent in 2000. The number jumped from 2,973 to 3,715.

That happened while the overall population of Whiteside County declined.

As more Hispanics have come to the area, they have integrated into society, Miller suggested.

“Rather than being a small minority that is relatively unusual, once the [Hispanic] community grows and becomes more integrated into an entire community as a whole, the [club’s] usefulness when it was a small group is not as compelling or not as required, really,” Miller said.

Other social factors also have contributed to a drop in involvement with clubs.

“People live more isolated lives,” Miller said. “This is kind of a withdrawal process that is characteristic of modern society. This is a loss in some respects.

“It is important to breathe new life in order to build a community.”

Unhappy with direction

Some former members are unhappy with the direction of the club, and they have criticized the operation that has twice been fined in recent months for liquor violations.

One of them is Carlos Chavira, 58, who was a member for 2 years after he joined about 5 or 6 years ago, he said.

Chavira said the club has strayed far from what its founding fathers intended.

In a letter to the editor published by Sauk Valley Media, he said the club should be helping Hispanics through the citizenship process.

“It is a shame that the officers of the Latin American Social Club are blind to the migration problems of Hispanics in this city,” Chavira wrote. “They focus more on their internal political problems that have plagued this club for years.”

According to a copy of the bylaws, dated March 2, 2008, the mission of the club is “to first serve the members of the Latin American Social Club, then to be of service to the Hispanic community and finally, the Sauk Valley community.”

The mission statement also says the club aims “to eliminate all obstacles that prevent the progress of the Hispanic community, collectively or individually.”

Chavira said he was prompted in part to write the letter because he is “sick and tired” of the way the club is operating.

“This club was founded for the purpose of helping the Hispanic community,” he said. “If you look back over the years, they have never done that.”

He said the club pays almost $19,000 a year in real estate taxes and $3,000 a month in mortgage payments, as well as utilities. With money from Bingo nights and Taco Mondays, Ortiz said the club is “staying above water” and paying its bills on time.

“We’re not struggling; but we’re not rich,” he said.

Ortiz said providing citizenship assistance is not part of its responsibility. The club has a tremendous overhead and can’t afford to provide such services, he said.

“We are on a limited income here,” he said. “We can only do so much. We’re not a legal service. We’re not the Mexican embassy.”

Instead, he said, the club provides other services.

“We lend our hall to people with benefits, disasters like Haiti,” he said. “When people die, we let [survivors] have the hall absolutely free. ... They don’t pay us nothing. Within our means, we try to be part of the community.

“But again, we are not a legal service. Some people suggest that we should be doing more. We don’t have a battery of lawyers to help people who enter the [country] illegally. We’re not that type of club.”

Chavira’s letter was published Aug. 28. A Sept. 4 posting on the club’s Facebook page read: “Response to editorial: We will never apologize for being American.”

Other contributing factors

Miller said an aging population also plagues many social groups. Younger people are less inclined to take part.

“I’m not sure that 20-somethings have the same eye toward ethnic identity,” he said.

Along similar lines, a surge of social media use means people feel connected in different ways, he said.

“If it’s mostly or purely social, aside from politics of race and legal issues, it’s not so surprising that it might be losing members, in part because of ability to interact with people and sit in your pajamas on the Internet in your living room.”

The future of the Latin American Social Club remains unclear. Next month, the club will hold elections, Ortiz said.

He said he would not run for another term.

“I had enough fun in 2 years,” he said. “It’s too time-consuming. It’s a stressful job. You can’t keep everybody happy. I can’t be devoting my time to being here all the time.”

Ortiz said he wishes “nothing but the best for the club.”

“The reason I am still here – I could have easily walked away – I love the club,” he said. “Despite what people say, I’m here for the reason that I love the club and don’t want it to go down. I just can’t do it anymore.”

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