April 1996, Volume 2, Number 2
The Latinization of Rural America
Newspapers report that more and more Mexican and Central American
immigrants are making their way from California, Texas, and Florida
to farm and nonfarm jobs in midwestern states. For example, Mexican
immigrant workers have been reported in Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa,
Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Utah, Georgia and
In some cases, legal immigrants who once commuted between homes in
west central Mexico and summer farm jobs in the midwest are deciding
to take nonfarm jobs and settle. In the 10 states that make up the
Midwest, the Hispanic population went from 1.3 million in 1980 to 1.9
million in 1992--about one million are in Illinois. In Minnesota, the
Hispanic population almost doubled from 32,123 in 1980 to 62,316 in
Latinos are younger than native-born residents--70 percent of
Hispanics in 1990 were under 35, versus 50 percent of non-Hispanics.
This means that many integration issues involve public services for
children, such as education.
Mexicans have been commuting for at least 40 years from the
northern Mexican state of Chihuahua to work in the beet fields of
southern Minnesota. An increasing number are deciding to settle in
the area, prompting e.g., the introduction of Spanish Mass and
raising issues such as bilingual education and public services.
Willmar, Minnesota, about 95 miles west of the Twin Cities, has
almost 20 percent Hispanics among its 5,000 Kindergarten-12 students,
and 19,000 residents. In March 1996, 13 Hispanic families sued the
school district for providing a "substandard education for Hispanic
A March 27, 1996 New York Times story about the economic boom that
is drawing US workers to Nebraska noted that the INS apprehended 704
mostly Mexican illegal aliens in Nebraska in 1995, double the number
of 1994. Most were employed in nonunion beef packing plants that have
opened in the state's interior in recent years.
The 1990 Census enumerated 36,969 Hispanics in Nebraska, making
them 2.3 percent of the population. There are expected to be 121,000
Hispanics in the state by 2010, and cities such as Lexington already
are 30 to 40 percent Hispanic.
Nebraska has had the nation's lowest unemployment rate for the
past three years, an average 2.3 percent in 1995, vs. 5.5 percent in
the US. The farm crises of the 1980s led about five percent of the
people in their 20s to leave the state--some 10,000 people. Today,
Nebraska is favored by telemarketing companies for its location and
the ability to hire employees without accents for jobs that pay $6 to
$7 per hour.
Rural Alabama is also attracting Latino immigrants. In northeast
Alabama, there were about 300 Hispanics in Blount County in the 1990
census, making them one percent of the population.
In 1995, 1600 or four percent of the 40,000 residents are
Hispanic. Some Hispanic workers have left the fields, where they
picked tomatoes, peaches and watermelons, to fill jobs in
construction and chicken processing.
Iowa is getting its first INS office at Des Moines airport in
1996, a response to "rising numbers of legal and illegal immigrants
in the state." There are currently seven states with no INS offices--
Iowa, South Dakota, South Carolina, Mississippi, New Hampshire, West
Virginia and Delaware.
Iowa has an estimated 39,000 Hispanic residents, including 3,000
illegal aliens, and criminal cases involving illegal immigrants have
been increasing at least 10 percent a year since 1986. Senator Tom
Harkin (D-IA) claims that one meat packing plant employs 500
unauthorized alien workers.
There are an estimated 5,000 Spanish speakers in Marshalltown,
Iowa, and a Spanish-language newspaper was launched in the town in
Some 3,000 Mexicans have moved from the small Jalisco town of
Cuautla to Renton, Washington since 1965, and 150 Washington
restaurants now have a Cuautlan connection.
Experts are closely watching the rise of Hispanic political power
in Harris County, Texas--where Hispanics are the fastest growing
ethnic group. Political scientists say that, as Hispanics spread out,
it will no longer be possible to predict the "Hispanic vote" based on
inner-city Hispanic neighborhoods.
An enclave of Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans and Hondurans in a rural
Catskills Mountain community in New York face unemployment and
probable relocation because of the closing the local chicken plant.
More than 250 workers, most of them Hispanic, work in the kosher
chicken plant owned by Omaha-based ConAgra.
There is no other work in this rural area, so most of the workers
plan to relocate, most to seek work in other towns. Many of the
families have children who have lived most of their lives in the
area, and do not want to return to their countries of origin.
Hispanic students make up 12 percent of the 775 students in the
school district. One sociologist says that because the district's
refuses to start a bilingual program, one third of the district's
Hispanics do not graduate from high school.
The spread of Latino immigrants across rural America has renewed
the debate over the meaning of terms such as integration and
assimilation. The Commission on Immigration Reform endorsed
"Americanization"-- immigrants accepting the core civic culture of
the US, and becoming naturalized US citizens.
A USC study defined integration as "adjustment, integration, and
advancement over time," and used five variables as
indicators--English proficiency, US citizenship, occupational
mobility, average personal income, and poverty rates. The study
tracked immigrants who arrived in the 1970s, and were counted in both
the 1980 and 1990 censuses.
One central finding of the study is that non-Latino immigrants who
arrived in the 1970s learned English and increased their incomes
faster than Latino immigrants. For example, among men 25 to 34 in
1980, the proportion of Asian men who "spoke English well" rose from
39 percent in 1980 to 53 percent in 1990, versus 13 to 21 percent
among Latino men. The percentage of Asian men with incomes below
poverty level fell from 17 to six percent, while for Latinos, the
poverty rate fell from 21 to 18 percent.
Joseph Berger, "As Plant Closing Looms, an Enclave Splinters," New
York Times, March 31, 1996. James Brooke, "With Plenty of Jobs,
Nebraska Works to Lure New Workers," New York Times, March 27, 1996.
Eddie Dominquez, "Hispanics Making Alabama Home," Associated Press,
March 27, 1996. Aurelio Rojas , "Boomtowns Count On Illegals," The
San Francisco Chronicle, March 20, 1996. Alan Bernstein, "Hispanic
candidates getting a boost at polls," Houston Chronicle, March 14,
1996. Jane Norman, " Grassley lands first INS office for Iowa," Des
Moines Register, March 12, 1996. Maureen M. Smith, "13 Hispanic
families sue over schools in Willmar," Star Tribune, March 8, 1996.
Neal Templin, "North of the Border," Wall Street Journal, March 4,
1996. Judith Blake, "Renton Restaurateurs," The Seattle Times,
February 21, 1996. Diego Ribadeneira, " Hispanics find warm welcome
in cold Midwest," Boston Globe, January 8, 1996.