Thirty years ago, Devon Avenue was a bazaar of kosher delis, synagogues, and bagel shops. Today, businesses like Gitel’s Kosher Pastry Shop share the street with Bombay Video, Islamic Books & Things, Sona Chandi Boutique, and Taj Sari Palace. What hasn’t changed are the names of the local politicians. Devon Avenue is still represented by an all-Jewish cast: Alderman Berny Stone, Representative Lou Lang, Senator Ira Silverstein, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky.

But this year, the General Assembly is drawing a new legislative map, and Asian-Americans in West Rogers Park are clamoring to be placed in a single district. No Asian has ever served in Springfield, and community leaders are looking ahead to a time when one can. This Monday they plan to testify before a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Legislative Reapportionment in the Thompson Center.

“Many of us have gone to fund-raisers and we’ve gone to meetings, and we still don’t feel we’re in the door,” says Ann Kalayil, past president of the Indo-American Democratic Organization. “We are in the process of drawing maps ourselves. We want to be part of the hearings, we want to make noise, we want to call legislators.”

Asians make up 3 percent of Chicago’s population, and they don’t come close to being the majority of any community area. Asians are 26 percent of the population of Bridgeport, 23 percent of West Rogers Park. But an Urban League study several years ago estimated that Asians need to make up only 20 percent of a legislative district to have a shot at electing a candidate there. And it appears such a district will exist in 2002. Cindy Huebner, a spokesperson for senate minority leader Emil Jones, says that for the first time mapmakers are trying to unite the far north side’s Asians–now divided among six districts–into one district. “What the map people are doing is making every effort not to split up those Asian neighborhoods and communities,” she says. “They’re very sensitive to that.”

“The immediate goal,” says Kalayil, “is to be as strong as possible as a community so that we can have better leverage, better access.” She says most Asians believe “we don’t have the numbers yet” to run for office themselves, though if an Asian did step forward “we would encourage them.”

An obvious problem with running someone as the “Asian” candidate is that “Asian” covers everyone from Karachi to Manila–Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thais, Koreans, Filipinos. Asians don’t share a common language, religion, or culture, and ancient enmities divide them. But diverse as they are, they have issues in common, especially immigration and crime.

“Some people have said that anti-Asian violence is the one thing that will quickly unite us,” says Yvonne Lau, director of the Asian-American studies program at Loyola University. And because there was little Asian immigration until 1965, when the laws were liberalized, Asians are just reaching the point where the second generation is maturing–the children who instead of looking back to the homeland want to make it big here. They think of themselves as Asian-Americans, not just Chinese or Koreans, Lau says, so “the pan-Asian appeal is a much easier sale.”

Tuyet Le, executive director of the Asian American Institute, which is working to win political power for Asians, came here from Vietnam when she was three. That makes her part of the “1.5 generation” of Asians who were born overseas but raised in the U.S. “I think a lot of people do want to assimilate and become Americans,” says Le. “It’s not so much that Asians want to be American, but that an American can be an Asian.”

Le believes new legislative districts that keep Asian communities intact won’t violate court rulings against drawing lines according to race, since they won’t be creating Asian majorities. Rather, she says, Asian neighborhoods are “communities of interest” that belong in a single district, an argument the courts have accepted.

Out in the suburbs, ethnic identity may be less important than it is in Chicago’s wards. In 1994 Juventino “Ben” Fajardo, a Filipino immigrant, became Glendale Heights’s village president, the first Asian-American municipal head in Illinois history. Fajardo was elected a trustee by running on a ticket with a candidate for village president who was bidding for the village’s small Filipino vote, and when the new president died Fajardo was named to succeed him. He ran for the office in 1994, relying on Filipinos to raise money and provide campaign volunteers while his platform emphasized public works and an end to the bickering on the village board. He won with 63 percent of the vote and was reelected two years later.

“One of the things I told people was that we cannot do it with our numbers,” says Fajardo. “We have to go beyond ourselves.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.