I’ve always been proud of being from Joliet, Ill. Before moving to Ann Arbor, I had never lived anywhere else. Like my parents, I was born and raised in Joliet. I grew up moving from neighborhood to neighborhood — but always within the city’s boundaries. From the St. Pat’s area to the Glenwood Manor subdivision, the diversity and beauty of my city make me proud to be from what others may believe is an irrelevant suburb of Chicago.
Situated 45 minutes southwest of the Windy City, Joliet is a socioeconomically and racially diverse area. Almost half of the population is white, while around one-third of the population is Hispanic and the remaining is predominantly Black. I would describe Joliet to be a middle-class mix of professionals and blue-collar, low-income workers, with a median household income slightly above the national median of $67,521. Growing up in this environment was very crucial in shaping my values, what I want in life and who I am. My love-hate relationship with Joliet has been a constant back-and-forth my entire life.
For part of elementary school, I attended St. Patrick’s Catholic School right down the street from my house. This was my first introduction to the different dynamics of Joliet, which I discovered is a relatively religious city with a Catholic presence. Since school was mainly white and my neighborhood mainly Hispanic, it seemed that white and Hispanic Catholics made up a majority of the city and that the church was important to the Joliet community and its people. What I knew of Joliet during this time existed within a bubble — a secluded white bubble that did not accurately represent the city. I was learning in a predominantly white school, a school that didn’t encompass the other ethnic communities. It wasn’t until middle school when I got a stronger sense of the diversity Joliet has to offer.
After leaving elementary school, I went to Hufford Junior High School, a public school only about four minutes away from my house. Hufford was a drastic change in environment compared to St. Pat’s. Now attending a majority Hispanic school, with almost a quarter of its students Black, and only about 13% of the student population being white, I was finally given a more diverse view of what my city actually looked like. Socioeconomically, too, 99% of the students came from low-income families. I was placed in a diverse environment of social and economic intersections, surrounded by many other Hispanic and Black students. Because I was surrounded by such a diverse group of students, Hufford was my first introduction to the systemic poverty Joliet faces, along with the subsequent stigmas surrounding my home.
Hufford was often referred to as the “ghetto” school by other students in middle schools only 15 minutes away. Despite only being preteens, my Hufford community was forced to deal with racist and classist stereotypes that inevitably affect young childrens’ perceptions of themselves. Other middle schoolers who still lived in Joliet were judging Hufford students for simply not being as wealthy, and thus not having the support, such as lower student-teacher ratios and higher teacher retention rates, that the non-Hufford students enjoyed. Going to Hufford kick-started my internalized shame over living in Joliet. I didn’t interact much with the students who said these things about my school and city, so it was only in high school that I began to truly battle with my love-hate relationship with Joliet.
The resurgence of white students into my life started at Joliet West High School, also only three minutes away from my home. Though my high school was still very diverse, most of my freshman year classes had a disproportionate amount of white students. Most of these students came from the middle school that was 15 minutes away: Troy Middle School.
Despite going to the same high school, students would (and still do, to this day) make sure that others knew they went to Troy, trying to distance themselves from Joliet as much as possible. Many of these students were also from the neighboring Shorewood, Ill., a village with a population that is over 75% white with a median household income almost $30,000 greater than the national median. Due to this, issues of race and class became an internalized problem for me. I didn’t want to be associated with Joliet — I didn’t want to be seen as poor or “ghetto.”
Many students shared this same perception and it seemed as if we collectively wanted to leave Joliet and never come back. Whenever I’m scrolling through Twitter, I always see people from back home wanting to escape the city, describing Joliet as being the worst place one could possibly live. I acknowledge that I have the privilege and opportunity to leave home and pursue higher education; to my surprise, leaving Joliet has made me appreciate it even more.
Going to a predominantly white and wealthy university has turned my Joliet-shame into pride. I came into the University of Michigan with remnants of hometown embarrassment. But after missing the diversity in my classrooms and seeing people who looked like me anywhere I went, I started to appreciate Joliet more and more. I missed its cultural richness and going to public schools where the majority of students’ financial status matched mine and the national average. At the University, many students are also from the Chicagoland area and are familiar with my hometown. Their perceptions, however, are often negative and reflect the existing stereotypes about home. Whenever I tell someone from the Chicagoland area that I’m from Joliet, I tense up and prepare for them not knowing where that is or having to watch them react as if I’d told them something very concerning. Their responses are usually along the lines of, “Oh… how is that?” and I’m forced to continue to engage in an awkward conversation, worried they’re going to think of me differently. Someone from the northern suburbs (which are typically wealthier and less diverse) even told me that their friend group has a running joke and a lot of “thoughts” about Joliet. In times like these, I genuinely never didn’t know how to respond. In high school and early freshman year, I would laugh along with the perpetrator to avoid association with the city. Now, however, I make sure to stand up against the disrespect of inappropriate comments about my hometown, and especially to those who have never lived there.
Attempting to steer away Joliet trash-talk conversations with other J-Town natives is more difficult. I have had the chance to move hours away from a place I’ve lived my entire life, something many people dream of doing. It can be easy for me to love Joliet because I don’t have to “deal” with the many problems that residents do. I have also had the privilege of living in a middle-class neighborhood with supportive family and friends. Considering 95% of students in Joliet’s public elementary and middle schools live in low-income housing, it is a common sentiment for many of these students to want to escape the physical aspect of poverty and the city they associate with their struggles.
Many misperceptions others have about Joliet, which may be due to the large number of students living in poverty, is that it is a gang-ridden and dangerous place. On social media, I often see many people genuinely believing they could get shot in Joliet, citing the disproportionate amount of negative news coverage they have seen about the city. Just because a city is economically and racially diverse, this does not make it dangerous. The city itself should not be thought of in a negative way either. Despite crime falling in Joliet, people continue to assume acts of crime are the city’s fault, often stereotyping entire sections of the city as “bad,” “ghetto” or “dangerous.”
The revival of these public sentiments occurred last weekend when over 200 people were the victims of a mass shooting that left two young adults dead, 12 injured and many others traumatized. This horrendous occurrence was an awful action against innocent people trying to have a fun Halloween. Yet almost immediately, social media began to be overrun with placing blame on Joliet and the East Side specifically (which is perceived to be more dangerous). Instead of trying to help the families of the victims, many people were talking down on Joliet once again. In a time when the city needs unity to heal from violence, both residents and nonresidents channel their energy into criticizing an entire population and area. The vast majority of people living in areas with higher rates of crime are victims and cannot be grouped together with the few people causing harm to my community.
Reflecting on my time at the University of Michigan and studying public policy has made me extremely passionate about returning home and trying to make a change. Leaving Joliet allowed me to grow and value how one’s hometown can provide opportunity and shape them as a person. Joliet has potential. Getting involved in the community through community organizing is a more effective way of changing Joliet rather than perceiving it as a lost cause.
Many believe that Joliet and its residents don’t have the ability to change its current condition. I completely disagree. Just in 2017, the Joliet Township High School District 204 won Advanced Placement District of the Year, through expanding the number of AP courses students can take and offering summer workshops for each class, thus providing important resources often unavailable to minority students and helping students raise their test scores. And politically, Joliet recently elected its first-ever Hispanic city-council member, showing through community organization that the system can change. The people of this city are strong and united. I genuinely believe that being from Joliet makes you a stronger person — in the best ways possible.
Whether it’s driving down Black Road (while blasting music of course) past the Joliet Central High School castle and surrounding cultural murals, stopping at Mr. Sub’s for some food or driving over the I-80 bridge (with your fingers crossed due to its old age), I know Joliet has character. I love returning home and always tell people how proud I am to be from Joliet. Yes, there are many social and economic problems that must be addressed, but through pride, unity and community action, Joliet can become even more wonderful than it already is.
***For anyone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or experiencing emotional distress due to acts of gun violence, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a toll-free emotional distress hotline with resources for local care and support. To receive counseling over text, the Crisis Text Line offers free 24/7 support. To support the families of the victims who passed due to the recent shooting in Joliet, you can donate below.
MiC Columnist Hugo Quintana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.