Immigration in Arkansas: harmony here, tension there

Arrival of large numbers of Hispanics changes face of U.S., two small towns

April 17, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DE QUEEN, Ark. - Whenever he leaves town to visit family, Pete Nunez has to stock up at La Estrella, the new grocery store off the courthouse square. The thick, handmade corn tortillas they sell there are so good, he says, even his relatives in Texas can't live without them.

A small town in the timber country near Arkansas' border with Oklahoma, De Queen seems an unlikely place to go for good Mexican food. For decades the town was virtually all white and largely isolated.

But by 1990, thanks to a shortage of native workers willing to take the notoriously awful jobs at the local chicken processing plant, Mexicans and Central Americans started to move in, a few men at first, then wives, children and extended families.

Now the town's population of 5,765 is 40 percent Hispanic - a rate higher than in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix or San Diego.

"They didn't come here to see how things would turn out," said Nunez, the minister of a Spanish-language Baptist church in town. "They came here to work, and they'll do things nobody else will do."

Hispanics now account for 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, their numbers are growing rapidly, and they are spreading out. The highest growth rates for Hispanic populations in the 1990s weren't along the border but in states not known as hotbeds of immigration - North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee all saw their Hispanic populations grow by more than 200 percent in the past decade.

In raw numbers, the trend is small, but because many of the new immigrants have been attracted to rural industries such as poultry processing and textiles, they have had tremendous impacts on small towns across the South and Midwest.

In some places, like De Queen, the change has gone relatively smoothly. Members of both the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities in town say they've had occasional problems over loud music and parties, but overall, the two cultures seem to be melding nicely, especially in the churches and schools.

Elsewhere, things have not gone so well. Three hours north in Rogers, Ark., anti-immigration groups started springing up in 1997, helping in 1998 to defeat the pro-immigration mayor, a 17-year incumbent, and to elect one who promised crackdowns on undocumented workers.

Shortly thereafter, the Immigration and Naturalization Service housed officers in the Rogers police department, leading to charges that local police - barred from immigration enforcement - were trying to catch illegals at traffic stops. Then, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund rolled into town and filed a class action lawsuit, which is still being litigated.

As the nation's Hispanic population spreads out, small towns and rural communities that have seen little change in decades will suddenly have to adjust to new faces in grocery stores, schools and churches. The story of these two towns in Arkansas, one headed for harmony and inclusion, the other for division and mistrust, shows that small things can make all the difference.

One Saturday afternoon, Faron Rogers, the pastor at First Baptist Church in De Queen, was in his office finishing up his sermon. A Hispanic family had bought the house across the street, and Rogers could look out his window to see some men hooking up a light on the roof and carrying a pool table out into the back yard.

"I figured they were just going to be playing some pool that night, but when I looked out again, there they were, shooting craps," Rogers said, grinning. "They were slapping some serious money down on that table."

Not everyone - certainly not every Baptist minister - is amused by that sort of thing. Loud music, big parties, drinking in public and slaughtering the occasional goat for a backyard barbecue have been major friction points in Arkansas towns dealing with immigrants.

De Queen has eight gas stations and 23 churches, a ratio that's fairly common in rural Arkansas. When Hispanics first started coming to De Queen in large numbers, members of Rogers' First Baptist congregation and others responded in the way that was natural for them: welcoming the newcomers into the church.

First Baptist members who didn't speak a lick of Spanish started teaching Sunday school to immigrant children, and they collected money to start a new mission with Spanish language services.

That's where Nunez came in. He had been a minister at a megachurch in Dallas, but he and his wife, a blond Texan named Matilda, moved to De Queen to help with the fledgling congregation.

Over the years, Nunez, who is equally well known at the Rotary Club and the third shift at the Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant, became an unofficial liaison between immigrants and natives.

"You can take these two cultures and blend them into a beautiful third culture, which is what I experienced in my family," he said.

Leaders in the Anglo community have also worked to improve relations because they have identified that as a matter of self-interest.

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