Alfredo Guizarnotegui was opening the front door to the apartment building when a car door slammed shut, piercing the late-morning stillness. He pivoted and sized up a dark-haired woman as she hoisted grocery sacks in her arms, concluding from her purposefulness, utilitarian turtleneck and worn loafers that she was all he was searching for: a citizen.
"Hello," Guizarnotegui said in Spanish as he glided over to her car in what seemed like a single, fluid step, his clipboard in hand. "Are you registered to vote?"
"No," Edith Sosa said politely as she made her way to her apartment. "I'm not interested." Asked why not, she answered: "I just don't think it will make a difference. No one is going to help the Latinos, our communities. Not the Democrats. Not the Republicans. I just think voting is a waste of time."
Guizarnotegui thanked Sosa and walked away. "Unfortunately, a lot of our people think the same way," he said. Registering voters in this blue-collar Chicago suburb, he has discovered, is a little like talking about religion. Among the mostly Latino immigrants who live here, there are believers and there are heretics, but there are few agnostics.
"It all depends which door you knock on," he said.
The sticking point is not complacency. Virtually anyone here can rattle off the most pressing problems that confront Melrose Park: Immigration reform is needed to reunite families; the good-paying factory jobs that once lured immigrants to Chicago are migrating to Mexico and other points south; families need better health care, and the young need better access to financial aid to attend college.
The question that divides Melrose Park is not which party or candidate will address those needs, but whether either party will make any difference. When President Bush and John F. Kerry were asked about immigration during their debate Wednesday night, they talked principally about border security and a guest-worker program.
"Politicians have traditionally ignored the needs of immigrant communities such as Melrose Park," said Joel Sanchez, an organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which conducted a drive to register naturalized citizens in immigrant and working-class communities in the Chicago area.
"Everyone is fed up with the status quo, but it's inspired two opposite reactions," he said. "Some people are eager to engage the political system more than we ever have before to get some attention. And others think politics are utterly hopeless in improving their lives."
Guizarnotegui is among the former. At 23, he is unassuming, slightly built and idealistic, a Mexican immigrant who crossed the border illegally five years ago to join his mother and stepfather. He spent his summer working two jobs, one full time as a United Parcel Service deliveryman, the other part time at a bottling plant here. In September, he quit UPS to enroll at a community college. He wants to do something with computers.
He also wants to "see a revolution," which is why he volunteered to help the coalition's voter registration drive after work and on weekends.
"There are just too many people here in this country who go to work every day, pay their taxes, obey the law, and their families can't come here because of the immigration laws," he said.
"I was lucky," he said. "My grandfather was a U.S. citizen, so I should be a citizen in four years. But this is about citizenship, and citizenship doesn't just mean having the right papers."
On a gray Saturday afternoon, Guizarnotegui was turning from a yellow bungalow's front door after his third knock went unanswered when a barrel-chested man emerged, shirtless. Jose Rodriguez said he was registered to vote, but he was fuzzy on the details.
"When is it?" he asked.
"When is what?" Guizarnotegui answered.
"When is the vote?" Rodriguez repeated.
"November 2," Guizarnotegui said. "That's a Tuesday. We can count on your vote, then?"
"I'll be there," Rodriguez said.
Guizarnotegui was off to a slow start this weekend -- nearly three hours of going door to door yielded no new registrations -- but he was hardly discouraged. "Tomorrow," he said, climbing into his car, "will be better."
The sun returned just as he and another volunteer arrived at St. James Catholic Church, putting pamphlets on a folding table outside the chapel. Guizarnotegui approached the parishioners in the corridor one by one as they left.
"Are you registered to vote?" He could barely get the words out when Marguerita Nevarez eagerly took a step toward him.
"No, I'm not," she said, grabbing the hand of her daughter as the 4-year-old began to wander away. "What do I need to do?"
"Are you a citizen?" Guizarnotegui asked her.
"Yes," Nevarez answered. "I want to vote."
She is 32, the mother of three children, a receptionist in a dental office. She has been a citizen for 12 years but has never voted.
"I just feel this is a real important time," she said as she finished the registration form. "I'm not into politics, but I just feel that we really need to change direction in this country. Everybody is so focused on the war in Iraq. Well, what about the living?
"I don't have health care. What happens if someone in my family gets really sick? They need to speed up the immigration process. People work hard and obey the laws, and they can't be with their families? That's not right.
"And there needs to be financial aid for all these kids in our communities who want to go to [college] but don't qualify for aid just because they're Latino."
More than 8 million Hispanics are registered to vote nationwide. Here in Illinois, which voted for Al Gore in 2000, nearly 13 percent of the state's population are foreign-born.
Focusing on immigration reform, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights launched a campaign to register 15,000 new voters by mid-September. When registrations exceeded expectations, the coalition increased the goal to 25,000 and met it by the Oct. 5 deadline.
That, said Joshua W. Hoyt, the coalition's executive director, is largely the result of immigrants' frustration with the snail-like pace that immigration and other federal laws set for making legal aliens eligible for federal grants and loans for college. Existing "path to citizenship" laws require, on average, eight years before naturalized U.S. citizens from Mexico can have their relatives join them in the United States. For Filipino immigrants, it takes 22 years, on average.
Similarly, federal welfare laws prohibit legal aliens from receiving federal grants and loans for college, although Illinois is one of several states that permit legal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.
Fewer than one-third of the 76,000 Mexican immigrants who have moved to Illinois since 1980 have high school diplomas, according to Roosevelt University researchers here.
"People are furious," Hoyt said. "You have a community that is motivated to come out and vote in a way that it never has before."
In less than an hour at St. James, Guizarnotegui registered three new voters. He was pleased. "The Hispanic community is new at this," he said as he left the church. "But we're going to get where we need to go."