Mexican immigrant Juan Ochoa arrived without papers in the United States as a child, served in the Marines, was a social worker and successful businessman and now is entering politics to change the face of Cicero, a Chicago suburb where 87 percent of the residents are Latinos.
Ochoa, 42, is going up against what he calls "the powerful machine" of incumbent Town President Larry Dominick, who has governed for 7 years and is seeking a third term.
"I'm convinced of my ability to change and improve things," Ochoa said in an interview with Efe.
Ochoa referred to Cicero's "decades of bad government," since the years when it served as a refuge for mobster Al Capone, and he promised to put an end to the present situation of "nepotism, corruption and intimidation."
Eighty percent of the Latino residents of Cicero come from Mexico, and it is with them that Ochoa identifies because of his own past as an undocumented immigrant who arrived here at age 8 to rejoin his mother after a separation of more than five years.
"I came without documents, like millions of my countrymen have done, and that reality deepened my responsibility because I know the suffering that has occurred," he said.
"I know what it is to feel and think that your mom is not going to return from work because she could be taken by immigration (authorities)," he added.
Ochoa grew up in Chicago's Mexican Little Village/La Villita neighborhood.
"My mom gave me some plastic soldiers before coming to Chicago, and since age 5 I dreamed of being a soldier," said Ochoa, who enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school.
He had his baptism of fire during the 1990-1991 Gulf War against Iraq, and when he returned from overseas he worked as a volunteer in an organization that held citizenship workshops for immigrants.
"I did it while I was going through the process of regularizing my status, because despite my going through the Armed Forces and the war, I continued to be undocumented," he said.
The volunteer work "awakened my interest in social (work)," and after two years he connected himself with the Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce, where they used him to look for opportunities to provide municipal contracts to Hispanic businessmen.
He recalled that the organization's initial annual budget was $50,000, "which didn't even pay my salary," but over the course of 10 years that organization grew from 52 to 13,000 members and became the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with an annual budget of $2 million.
Ochoa made connections with organizations devoted to improving the situation of Latinos, and eventually he was named to head MPEA, owner operator of McCormick Place and Historic Navy Pier, Chicago's main tourist center with 8 million visitors annually.
He remained in that post until late May 2010, when he resigned to devote his company to public relations and begin an alliance with politicians, community leaders and federations of native Mexicans which introduced him to the contest for government control of Cicero.
The municipality, according to Ochoa, "has all the potential in the world" due to its strategic location - "literally in the middle of everything, and right next to Chicago, one of the most important cities in the world."
Yet, the lack of leadership in the Latino community results in the Cicero government not reflecting the reality of the massive presence of Mexicans.
"We're experiencing something that you don't see in other parts of the country. The only power base is held by the government. There are no businessmen, community groups or civic organizations with power. Everything is intended to control all aspects of the people," Ochoa said.
Cicero was governed by an Hispanic for 2 1/2 years, when Ramiro Gonzalez took over the town presidency in 2002 to complete the mandate of Betty Loren-Maltese, who had been jailed for corruption.
Gonzalez was defeated by Dominick in the 2005 election by just 150 votes.
The next election will be in February 2013, but Ochoa has already begun campaigning door to door.
All but 6,000 of the town's 27,000 registered voters are Latinos. EFE