These Latina, Hispanic women are working toward more inclusive future in central Illinois

Natalie Pierre
State Journal-Register
Monica Zanetti, the owner of Wild Rose, works on a painting of La Catrina at her artisan boutique in downtown Springfield on Monday. La Catrina is one of the most recognizable symbols of The Day of the Dead celebrations. Wild Rose features the work of artists from central Illinois. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Before Monica Zanetti opened her artisan boutique in downtown Springfield across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, she would visit the city's Mexican restaurants in search of community. 

The first-generation Mexican American was raised in California’s Bay Area and spent summers throughout her childhood with family in the city of Zinapécuaro, in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

Her struggles to find people in Springfield she could connect with culturally were unfamiliar.

"We would go to the Mexican restaurants and I would talk to the waiters,” explained Zanetti, 49. “I’d be like, 'Is there a community?' And they would be like, 'Well, there's a church that speaks Spanish, but not really a lot of community events.’”

Zanetti is one of 3,582 people living in Springfield — about 3% of the population — who is of Hispanic or Latino descent, according to the 2020 U.S. Census

Initially, the limited connections kept her focused on her art.  She often used her paintings to share her culture and support her activism by incorporating pieces of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote, and pioneers such as former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in her work.

Still, she wanted to recreate some of the culture and sense of belonging of Mexico and California in central Illinois.

Opening Wild Rose Artisans in January 2020 has helped her do that.

This month — Hispanic Heritage Month — holds particularly special importance for her. From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the nationally recognized month provides an opportunity for communities throughout the United States to recognize the contributions and influence of Americans with Latin and Hispanic roots.

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For Zanetti, the month is about celebrating her Mexican culture while educating people in the Springfield community she has come to love, about what she learned growing up.

“I kept saying to my husband, ‘What am I going to do here? I stick out like a sore thumb,’” said Zanetti, reflecting on what it was like when her family first moved to the area five years ago after her husband started a new job in state government. “It was awful.

“He was just like, ‘Create it, Monica. Do what you do.’”

Finding community

The loneliness Zanetti experienced after moving to Springfield is something many people of Latin and Hispanic descent say they understand.

"We experienced a lot of micro-aggressions when we moved here — my son and I did,” said Elisabeth Jimenez Bandy, who like Zanetti, is a first-generation Mexican American who moved to central Illinois after spending most of her life living in California’s Bay Area. “It was hard. It was hard to hear stuff or to be asked questions all the time like, 'Is English your first language?’”

Living 30 minutes southeast of Springfield in the small village of Bulpitt, Bandy moved to the area seven years ago with her husband, Harry Bandy Jr., who grew up in the Christian County community.

It was not until 2019, when she joined the Hispanic Women of Springfield, that she found a group of people in central Illinois with a shared culture.

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Bandy, whose family roots are in Durango, Mexico, said meeting Zanetti two years ago at the group’s annual Hispanic Heritage Festival and Health Fair, provided her with an even deeper sense of connection.

"We really clicked and bonded,” explained Bandy, who grew up in San Francisco and now serves on the group's board. “I’m glad that there's someone who not only shares part of my upbringing, as far as where we lived but also my culture. That's really important to me."

Representation downtown

As the only Hispanic or Latino business owner in downtown Springfield outside of the restaurant industry, Zanetti highlights local art at her boutique. Much of it is inspired by her culture and upbringing. 

Monarch butterflies — symbolizing their migration to Mexico — are featured in work throughout Wild Rose Artisans. There also are mugs with Zanetti's artwork that include women, known as Adelitas who fought in the Mexican Revolution.

The boutique makes a point to showcase the work of other local Latino and Hispanic artists.

"Even if she didn't do any of the work that she does with the community in terms of connections and social justice, being a businesswoman downtown in Springfield who is Latina and has the work of other Latinos inside her store – and works to educate people about the culture – is really priceless,” said Veronica Espina, who was born in Rancagua, Chile, and makes jewelry that is sold at Wild Rose. “She's the first Latina woman in Springfield that has had that presence, that I know of. I’ve never had that experience before, and I've lived in Springfield since 1999."

Even though people of Latin or Hispanic descent represent 2.7% of Sangamon County’s population, former Downtown Springfield Inc. director Lisa Stott noted that Zanetti’s presence impacts people who visit the area.

"You want to be welcoming for everyone who comes to Springfield,” Stott said. “It's not just white people that visit Springfield. Where Monica is, right across from the Presidential Library and Museum, it's probably great when people walk by and see cultural heritage displayed in her window.”

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With the boutique’s bright red exterior, turquoise sign and mix of culture and art in the front window greeting passersby, Zanetti often meets people who want to learn more about the history behind her work and the culture of other artists who have pieces featured at Wild Rose.

"We have to have Monicas,” said Espina, who founded the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network and serves as the board’s president. “Not just because Monica is very unique in the sense that she's a businesswoman. But she's also an advocate. She understands issues of immigration. She understands what it means to live impoverished in the community, and part of her activism relates to that. She is very adept to participate and teach others about cultural programming that includes the Latino population. That's necessary in every city, and she fulfills that role very well.”

Celebrating culture

Earlier this month, on Sept. 16, the night after Hispanic Heritage Month began, Zanetti and Bandy met for dinner at Taqueria El Dorado on Springfield’s south side to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.

Even though Zanetti’s two teenage children have heard her explain the significance of the day — when the country celebrates its independence from Spain — on multiple occasions, she brought them along and continues to have conversations with them about the revolutionary Mexican War of Independence that spanned 11 years.

"I don't want them to lose their Latin identity,” said Zanetti, a graduate of San Diego State University who has done everything from helping organize the first Latin Grammy Awards in 2000 to hosting Latin artists like Fulanito and Tito Puente, Jr. who performed in Springfield this summer as part of the Levitt AMP Springfield Music Series.

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Like Zanetti, Bandy is also intentional about providing awareness and education to those around her throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.

In working part-time as an aqua aerobics and aqua arthritis instructor at Christian County YMCA in Taylorville, in a recent class, she played music from 10-time Grammy Award winner Linda Ronstadt’s 1989 album, Canciones De Mi Padre. The album features traditional Mexican Mariachi music, and surprised many in the class who did not know the country, rock and opera star is of Mexican descent.

"We just want to let people know that we're still Americans," Bandy said. "But we’re also are very proud of our culture.”

Significance of this month

With several countries — like Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile and Belize — celebrating their respective independence days during Hispanic Heritage Month, the time spanning from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 holds varied levels of emotions and significance. 

"The idea of the Hispanic Heritage Month is still new to people in the region,” Bandy said. “As commercialized as it may seem to us, it's still not well known.”

While some consider this time of year as deeply personal and meaningful, others also express frustration with the way many organizations, businesses and schools promote the month without taking time to look internally to see how they can be more inclusive of people with Hispanic and Latino roots.

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"The same way that there are those who go out and celebrate Cinco de Mayo and make it a day about drinking, that enthusiasm they have, I hope that those same people will come to find that they should have the same enthusiasm about learning about the importance of Hispanic Heritage Month and engaging in some of the events that are held to celebrate that,” said Aislinn Diaz, who is a first-generation Mexican American and a senior at the University of Illinois Springfield. “There's so much that can be learned from some of these events.”

A seat at the table

Earlier this year, the Memorial Medical Center Foundation appointed Zanetti to its board after seeing the impact she had providing information and connecting Hispanic and Latino people to resources related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"She was just working really hard to educate the community on what was taking place,” said Hansen Schmadeke, who is the executive director of the foundation. “The more I got to know her and the more I saw, she's just a doer and she cares so deeply for our community that I just knew it was somebody that I wanted to have on the foundation board.

“… I was looking for someone who could help guide us.”

As the Hispanic Women of Springfield prepare to host the 8th annual Hispanic Heritage Festival and Health Fair at the YMCA on Iles Avenue Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the event will showcase the diverse cultures present in central Illinois through traditional dances, lives music, food and exhibits of the countries where area residents have roots.

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COVID-19 vaccines, flu shots, cholesterol screens, blood pressure screens, HIV and Hepatitis C testing and dental screens will also be offered at the event through the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Just as she made it her mission to create a deeper sense of community for herself and others of Hispanic and Latino descent, Zanetti looks forward to using her seat at the table to increase her impact and the number of places locally where people can feel connected and included.

“I can be a voice for my community,” Zanetti  said, “just being there in the room.”

Contact Natalie Pierre at npierre@gannett.com or on Twitter @NataliePierre_