In 'itty-bitty Fairmont City' the library is the heart of the region's largest Latino community

It's a common sight at the Fairmont City Library Center: Students discussing the grammar and syntax of English sentences in small groups.

On a recent night, the teacher wanted to know what another word for “per” is. The word got lost in translation. Some students suggested “for,” but in the sentence the teacher gave the correct answer is “each.” It was a confusing answer for one student who offered the Spanish word for “each” instead. It’s “cada.”

The class is just one of the night English language classes the library offers adult native Spanish speakers in the area who want to perfect their second language.

Fairmont City, less than 10 miles east of St. Louis, is the local community with the largest percentage of Latino residents. The total population of the village is about 2,500 people, according to the latest census records. Of those, more than 2,000 people about 80 percent are Latino, most tracing their roots to Mexico. That's up from the 2010 census, which counted the Latinos as making up 55 percent of the village's population. 

For many in the village, after 10 years in the community, the library is more than a place to borrow books.

After the library, a bank

Library director Katie Heaton believes that building trust is key to everything the library does.

“You commit to the community. You hire from the community to provide jobs. And you speak the language,” Heaton said. “That model has done so well for the library and reaching out to the people in Fairmont City and far beyond Fairmont City.”

Heaton says Spanish speakers from Waterloo and Centralia, Illinois, and even Ferguson, Missouri, seek services from the library and a more recent arrival, a bank. About three years ago the Bank of Edwardsville moved in next door to the library, which began to offer financial literacy classes.

In a 2016 census survey, about 64 percent of Fairmont City households lived on less than $45,000 a year. In addition to  credit union, there was no place for residents to bank locally before the Bank of Edwardsville arrived.

Robert Schwartz, a senior vice president at the bank, said the needs of the community and the influence of the library locally made adding a branch in Fairmont City a “no brainer.”

He said most residents never had a checking account and were paying high interest fees on loans because they didn’t have access to banking. Schwartz said there are now more than 700 active accounts at the bank and loan programs that help people who would otherwise not qualify for them.

“We’ve had a strong loan growth here which is important for a bank to have the loan growth,” Schwartz said. “But really our focus has been new accounts and trying to get people in. One of the key components [to doing that] has been to try to establish trust.”

Feeling equal

Village President Michael Suarez was born and raised in Fairmont City. He said the village operates like a family.

“Everybody takes care of each other and there is a sense of pride,” Suarez said.

Though Fairmont City has a large Latino population now, Suarez said that hasn’t always been the case. He named the Old American Zinc Plant as one draw for immigrants from Europe looking for work.


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