Posted on November 23, 2005

Hispanic Heartland

Mark Houser, Tribune-Review (Pittsburgh), Nov. 20

LEXINGTON, Neb. — At halftime, when the announcer tells the crowd about a game the high school won by 15 touchdowns 100 years ago, it fits with the Friday night illusion that things haven’t changed much in this small town on the plains.

The few brown faces scattered throughout the stands barely hint at the enormous wave of immigrants that has turned Lexington, in just one decade, into the only place in Nebraska where Hispanics are the majority.

But some clues are hard to miss.

Crowned homecoming queen this fall was Cruz Cabrera, whose Guatemalan mother clambered over a fence at Tijuana almost 20 years ago while seven months pregnant with Cruz’s older brother. The king was born and raised in Mexico. Last year’s king and queen were Hispanic, too.

“There’s talk that a white girl will never be homecoming queen again,” said Neal Randel, the school athletic director.

“Tradition is so important to people here, and I know it just eats away at people’s hearts that the things they held near and dear are never going to be the same again.”

Some 700,000 Latin Americans — 57 percent of all immigrants — came to the United States last year legally and illegally, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The Center for Immigration Studies, another Washington research group, pegs the number closer to 900,000.

As their numbers grow, more Hispanic immigrants are spreading out from California and Texas, moving to the heartland, to towns like Lexington, with little experience of diversity.

Will these new immigrants overcome language barriers and ethnic differences, as Italians, Germans, Poles and many others did a century ago? Or can the melting pot only hold so much?


Fifteen years ago, Lexington was mired in the farm crisis and bleeding population when a meatpacking plant opened in a vacated factory on the outskirts of town.

The new plant, now owned by Tyson Foods, offered jobs for people in town who wanted them. But like meatpacking plants throughout the Midwest, most workers here are Hispanic migrants, for whom the work is a step up from low-paying farm and construction jobs.

In 1990, the year the plant opened, 329 Hispanics lived in Lexington. Within a decade, more than 5,000 lived there, and the town suddenly was 51 percent Hispanic.

And they keep coming, lured by $10-an-hour wages, replacing those whose stamina succumbs to a disassembly line that slaughters 4,000 cattle every day.

Manager Mark Sarratt figures he brings in 20 to 25 new workers each week to replace those leaving. Over a year, that works out to more than 1,000 jobs, half the plant’s payroll.

About 80 percent of the plant’s employees are Hispanic. Sarratt said Tyson recruits legal Hispanic workers in the Southwest, but not outside the country.

When immigration agents scoured the plant’s payroll in 1999, nearly 200 workers quit rather than explain inconsistencies in their documentation. But the enforcement stirred up such an outcry — led by the Republican governor — that no further sweeps have been conducted.

As Hispanics poured in, Lexington’s population of non-Hispanics dropped from 6,300 to 4,900 during the last decade.

Most left for Omaha, Lincoln, or spur towns to the east or west along Interstate 80. Others moved nine miles south to Johnson Lake, once a tiny haven for summer cottages, now a burgeoning suburb.

“I can remember when every house on the street was for sale except ours and our neighbor’s,” said Barry McFarland, 29.

McFarland returned to his hometown after college to “prove the people here are just as good as everybody else.” Within four years, he was principal of Morton Elementary School, where last year 336 of 370 students were Hispanic.

The district preschool, in offices attached to the Tyson plant, has 140 children and is planning to add another classroom to accommodate long waiting list.

The huge influx of Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran children strains a district where only three teachers speak fluent Spanish. Thirty teaching assistants translate in the classrooms and at parent meetings.

Schools are packed, yet voters rejected tax levies to raise $10 million for expansion projects last year. Lexington is suing the state, claiming education funds don’t cover the costs of educating Spanish speakers.

Nebraska law permits school choice, so parents can move their children to another district without paying.

Marvin Peterson, a senior manager at the Tyson plant, pulled his 16-year-old son out last year. The young man aspires to be a college wrestler, and Peterson said changing demographics have taken a toll on the athletic department and the daily classroom pace at Lexington. So the boy drives 40 miles down the interstate to another district each day.

“I want to support Lexington. I live in Lexington. I’m a big Lexington supporter. But I’m also a parent . . . and I have to do what’s best for my kids, in my mind,” Peterson said.



Deanna Goodmundson, 64, is a self-described “adventuress” who lived in Honduras for five years. She learned Spanish there, a skill that comes in handy in her current job running the local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. But it is tiring her out.

“For people who still live in Lexington, it gets like it’s not their country anymore. . . It’s like a constant battle, and I think the Hispanics are winning,” Goodmundson said.

In a bunk in the next room, Francisco Martinez, 39, read the New Testament in Spanish, a bandage from a tuberculosis test that came back positive stuck to his arm.

In broken English, he said he wanted to make $3,000 at the meatpacking plant, then go back to his six children in Mexico. He claimed to be in the country legally, then asked if the reporter was a cop.

At least a quarter of the patients at Tri-County Hospital in Lexington don’t pay, and Medicaid has to step in to reimburse part of the costs, said administrator Calvin Hiner. That is eight times higher than the Medicaid rate of similar hospitals in Nebraska, he said.

One especially dismaying adjustment for Lexington is sports. The high school football and basketball teams, once competitive, are now perennial losers.

Exploding enrollment pushed the teams up to a tougher division, but most of the new kids don’t play anything but soccer. Playing for the “Minuteman” has limited appeal, considering volunteers of the same name now patrol the Mexican border for illegal aliens.

Things may be changing slowly. In September, the football team finally broke an 18-game losing streak.

Longtime fan Pam Samway cheered for the boys and said she isn’t concerned to see so few immigrants in the stands or on the field.

“We’ll acclimate ‘em to it,” she said. “This is America. They’re just new.”

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