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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

Sterling Mayor changes the face of local government

Sterling Mayor Diana Merdian (fourth person from the left) listens to a presentation during city council meeting.
Maria Gardner Lara
Sterling Mayor Diana Merdian (fourth person from the left) listens to a presentation during city council meeting.

The Latino population is northern Illinois continues to grow and shape the region. More Latinos are entering politics and changing the face of local government. Among them is Sterling Mayor Diana Merdian.

She recalled going door to door last winter during her campaign for office.

“It's cold, it's snowing, it's still cold,” she said. “And it's like, just keep going to the next house, go the next house.”

She was elected in April in a three-way race after former mayor Skip Lee decided not to seek re-election. He held the position for 12 years.

The 39-year-old Merdian became the first Hispanic person and the second woman to serve as mayor in the city’s history. She said having Latino representation on the ballot and in government was a driver to run for the seat.

The city encompasses a growing Latino community.

“And to have a council that doesn't reflect that, it's kind of a disservice,” Merdian said. “So, that's why I wanted to kind of put my myself out there to help be the voice of people.”

According to the latest US Census, Latinos make up around 27 percent of Sterling’s population. That’s a seven percent increase from the previous count. In contrast, Whiteside County overall has seen a population decline.

Residents celebrate the Latino community and heritage with a series of festivities held in September. This year was the 70th anniversary of the Fiesta parade.

Latinos in leadership position in the cit ynow includes Alderman Joe Strabala-Bright and head of the police department Police Chief Alejandro Chavira. Merdian says Latinos represent 15 percent of city staff.

“I think it helps,” she said, “if you don't have that big of a divide between different populations -- when the people working in public service are reflective of the people that they're serving.”

Merdian was born and raised in the city as Diana Vasquez, the youngest of nine. Her mother's side is white American with long roots in the area, while her father’s family is of Mexican descent.

She said her father didn’t speak much Spanish in the household. He grew up in Texas at a time when maintaining the familial language was looked down upon.

“When he was going to school, it was kind of self-preservation and you don't speak Spanish,” Merdian said. “Otherwise, you would get in trouble and would get hit at school, from the teachers, and so he learned English very quickly.”

But she said as he was dying, he only spoke in Spanish.

“We knew it was hard for him because he wished that he could, speak Spanish well, but it was still there for him,” she said. “And so now I'm trying to learn more.” She said that’s partly to be able to speak fluently with her relatives.

She said her father’s family were migrant farmers. He moved to the area enticed by work at a mill, but eventually established a hair salon with Merdian’s mother. She said her 78-year-old mother still cuts hair, six days a week.

She said as a child she was attuned to the fact that her family earnings depended on the number of treatments and cuts they made.

The stinky smell associated with perms, for her father, she said, was a positive sign.

“He would always say, ‘Well, that's a smell of money’ because it was the most expensive thing you could have done to your hair in the 80s and 90s,” she said. “So, that's why it's like, well, it's going to be a good day.”

She said if her father was alive, he’d probably attend all the city council meetings.

In addition to presiding over the council’s proceedings, she leads in policy creation and is the city’s strongest advocate.

Being mayor is a part time position. Her full-time job is coordinator for the area’s Regional Office of Education. She helps families in need connect with services.

She said sometimes the two roles inform each other, especially as the city tackles housing challenges.

“I work with a lot of families that are living in rental units that aren't good quality, or people that are experiencing homelessness," she said.

She said understanding people’s lived experience motivates her to champion for affordable housing.

“And I know that some people are trying to make this make rentals and stuff profitable, but we need to realize that there are people that are living in these situations,” she said.

As mayor, she supports the economic development along the river and investment by large retail stores. She'ss contributing to state grants recognitions that will spotlight the city’s cultural and economic contribution to the region. Underlying her work, she strives for policy to be inclusive of all residents.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.
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