Hispanics spread to hinterlands

Census reveals that Hispanic surge extends well beyond the border, big cities, and Western farms.

Hispanics are putting down roots in America in unprecedented numbers - and not just in all the familiar places.

In almost every growing US county for which new census numbers are available, the rise in Hispanics has outstripped overall population growth - from the Aleutians to Nantucket Island, Mass., from Green Bay, Wis., to the rural Mississippi Delta.

Not since the European immigrant waves of a century ago - and perhaps not even then - has the United States seen such geographically dispersed in-migration.

This influx means that controversies over bilingual education and social services for noncitizens are spreading to some unlikely places. And unlike New York City and Los Angeles, the new centers of Hispanic migration have little experience dealing with them. The result: ethnic tensions and surprising opportunities in places like small-town Beardstown, Ill.

"It's happening everywhere," says Jeffrey Passel, a demographer with the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington. "It's bringing immigrants into places that haven't had experience with them and may not be equipped to handle the challenges."

Iowa looks fairly typical of the 41 states for which the US Census Bureau has already released local data. In all of Iowa's 99 counties, Hispanic population growth during the 1990s outpaced the overall population rise (or declined more slowly in counties that lost people). That Hispanic growth ranged from rural Clarke County (up 1,842 percent) to suburban Dallas County right outside Des Moines (up 1,112 percent).

In some cases, the influx of Hispanics meant the difference between growth and decline. Had Hispanics not settled in Iowa's rural Crawford County, its population would have shrunk by 7 percent instead of growing 1 percent.

Mississippi tells almost the same story. Hispanics' numbers either rose faster or declined slower than the overall population in all but one county. In Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Vermont, Hispanic growth topped overall growth in every county.

In fact, of the nearly 2,700 counties released by the Census Bureau so far, all but 137 (5 percent) registered the same phenomenon.

Such numbers can be misleading, demographers caution. First, the 1990 census significantly undercounted Hispanics, which means that some of the growth comes merely from the better count in 2000. Second, percentages look huge in regions that start from a tiny base.

For example: Nebraska's Dixon County on the Iowa border saw its Hispanic population grow a whopping 8,600 percent during the past decade. That may well set a national record. In actual numbers, however, it means only that Dixon's four Hispanics in 1990 grew to 348 in 2000.

"Everyone is getting excited about these very high rates of growth in these rural areas," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute, a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. But while Iowa added just under 50,000 Hispanics during the 1990s, Texas added 2.3 million. The critical mass of Hispanics still head for Texas and five other "immigrant melting pots" in California, New Mexico, Florida, New York, and New Jersey.

Nevertheless, these melting pots are slowly seeing their share of the immigrant flow contract as Hispanics move to a second tier of states, such as Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Arkansas, says Mr. Passel of the Urban Institute.

Even in Texas, where 1 in 3 people is Hispanic, growth has spread fairly evenly, says Steve Murdock, the state's demographer. Since 1990, only two additional Texas counties have become majority Hispanic.

The spread is changing America in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In New York City, Hispanics have replaced blacks as the largest minority. Chicago would not have posted its first population gain in 50 years without a huge Hispanic influx. In the tourist mecca of Hilton Head, S.C., a new Spanish-language magazine has appeared to serve the burgeoning service sector. This past December in Columbia, S.C., local Hispanics put on five festivals for the virgin of Guadalupe, compared with just one as recently as three years ago, says Michael Scardaville, director of the Latin American studies program at the University of South Carolina.

To be sure, Hispanics are a diverse bunch. South Carolina boasted a Spanish-speaking population primarily made up of Puerto Ricans and Cubans until the 1980s, when Mexicans and Central Americans began taking agriculture jobs in the state. In the Midwest, poultry-processing plants in Arkansas and beef-packing plants in Kansas have proved a huge draw.

Here in Beardstown, a local pork-processing plant has proved to be magnetic. The city's Hispanic population exploded 3,229 percent during the 1990s, revitalizing the decaying community on the banks of the Illinois River.

"It's just breathed new life into the community," says Mayor Mike Bonansinga. "They are people you would want to have in your town."

Some 30 percent of the plant's 1,950 workers are Hispanic. Officially, 1,000 of the town's 5,800 citizens are Hispanic. Many local officials believe the actual Spanish-speaking population is twice that. By one estimate, half of the Hispanics are here illegally.

Young Hispanic men began arriving here in the mid 1990s, lured by jobs that start at just under $10 an hour. Then they brought their wives and families, often directly from Mexico. Now they're buying homes.

A Mexican restaurant/grocery store has opened on the town square. Hispanics have started a soccer league. The local Roman Catholic Church now holds one of its three weekly masses in Spanish.

"Generally, it's been a good thing for Beardstown," says J.J. DeSollar, an insurance agent and president of the local chamber of commerce. But "it's an initial culture shock for both cultures."

Tensions climbed in 1996, when a Mexican killed an Anglo in a local bar over a woman. That prompted a cross-burning and the burning down of a Mexican restaurant in town. Afterwards, local ministers got Anglos and Hispanics talking to one another, and the situation has since calmed down.

A year and a half ago, at a local parade celebrating Mexico's independence day, one Hispanic man displayed the American flag upside down. That upset a few veterans and at least one city councilman. Last fall's parade occurred without incident.

"The tension has quieted down," says Police Chief Moe Genseal. But "you never know when something like that could happen."

Hispanics complain local police stop them more frequently than other drivers. No one on the police force speaks Spanish, so routine traffic stops can drag on while officers wait for a volunteer interpreter to show up.

"It's funny," says Rafael Trujillo, owner of the restaurant and grocery on the town square. "In this restaurant if there was a Mexican family eating here, the Americans are going to sit on this side and the Mexicans are going to sit on that side."

The local school system is also scrambling to educate the area's newcomers. One-fifth of its 1,360 students are enrolled in history, math, and science classes taught in Spanish while they work to improve their English. Of its 108 certified teachers, eight are bilingual, and the district is looking for more.

The district already has voter approval of a bond to build a $20 million middle school to accommodate the expected growth. "I think in time we'll fight the same battles that California fought," says Jim Lewis, school superintendent.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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