Latinos Transform Northwest Arkansas, But Political Clout Elusive

Bookmark and Share
By:  Will Skowronski   Leonard Sparks  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 6, 2009; photos added Aug. 7, 2009; text updated Oct. 4, 2009

Photo by Leonard Sparks
Eddie Cantu and his wife, Becky, relocated to Springdale, Ark., 15 years ago, part of a wave of Latino migration to the region. (Photo by Leonard Sparks)

Eddie Cantu, a Christian pastor, never imagined running for office. Born to Mexican parents in Amarillo, Texas, he never thought he would call Springdale, Ark., home, either.

But 15 years ago, an Assembly of God missionary encouraged him and his wife, Becky, to relocate to northwest Arkansas and minister to the growing Latino population there.

“I thought, ‘How can that be? That’s Clinton country,' ” he said. “I could not fathom in my mind Latinos being in Arkansas.”

Yet Latinos have flooded Springdale, a southern city in the heights of the Ozark mountains in Washington County, since the early 1990s. They were drawn by an excess of  construction and chicken farming jobs, and by cheap housing and a small-town lifestyle.

The transformation’s scale is most striking in the schools.

In 1990, 7,600 white students made up 96 percent of the Springdale school population, and there were only 86 Latino students. By 2008, the Latino student population had climbed to 7,100, representing 41 percent of the student body.

The Springdale school board picked Cantu, 46, to fill a vacant seat last year. A win in the Sept. 15 election would have made him the first Latino elected to office in Springdale. A victory would also have stood as another marker of the demographic shift that made the South the fastest-growing region for Latino migration between the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

That trend, documented in a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center report, brought triple-digit increases in Latino population to Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Arkansas has experienced more than a seven-fold increase in less than 20 years. In northwest Arkansas, the base for large employers like Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, Benton and Washington counties saw their combined Latino population grow 18-fold from 1990 to 2007.

Data from 2007 shows Latinos accounting for 30 percent of the population in Springdale.  In Rogers, which sits just north of Springdale in Benton County, 26 percent of the population is Latino.

They have made their mark. Bright colors and Spanish-language signs adorn the many taquerias, bakeries and auto repair shops that have opened in recent years. Spanish newspapers can be found on many street corners, and Latino radio can be tuned in, along with country. And in Little Rock, the Mexican government opened a consulate in 2007.

Yet, as Cantu discovered on Election Day, Latino influence remains largely absent from one aspect of life: politics. Unofficial election results show he received just 56 votes out of a meager 167 votes cast for the district seat he sought.

"A lot of people said they would get out and vote, but there [weren't] many people that actually showed up," Cantu said. "I don't know what else I could have done except pick them up and give them a ride to the polling station."

Ada Aguilar, a Guatemalan immigrant, chased a seat in neighboring Rogers, where enthusiastic residents championed the benefits of having a board member who understood the language and culture of the region's growing body of Latino students and their parents. She fared worse than Cantu, garnering just 27 votes out of 140 ballots cast.

"People were ready for the change, and that's why I'm just baffled with the results," she said.

Aguilar moved to Rogers four years ago from Maryland, where she had lived since leaving Guatemala at 12 with her parents. She grew fond of the area during visits wit her brother, who lived in Rogers and worked for Wal-Mart. The one-time school social worker wanted a slower pace for herself and her children.

She now works in the ESL department of the Rogers school system and heads a Boys & Girls Club program that educates Latino parents about navigating the school system and becoming involved in their children's education.

"I can see a lot of lack of involvement on parents' behalf," Aguilar said. "I can see a lot of lack of interest."

Aguilar and Cantu's losses are at odds with demographic changes.

“I think the problem is that in Arkansas, the immigration came about 15 or 16 years ago, and those immigrants are not participating in any major way,” said Michel Leidermann, communications director for Arkansas’ state chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. 

“Their children, who are now in school and starting to graduate from our schools and going to colleges and universities, that’s a different story.”

It is a story prefaced by their parents’ dreams of better jobs and better lives and a simpler life. Those transplants from  El Salvador, Mexico, California and Chicago  have faced uncertainty and struggled with hostility, language and cultural differences in northwest Arkansas. 

But their stories offer a view of how the South is undergoing the same demographic change that is transforming cities and towns across the country. The impact of that change will reverberate louder as more Latinos and their children become citizens and voters and eventually begin seeking seats at the table of political power.

A quiet, rapid change

Photo by Leonard Sparks
John Sampier Jr., the former mayor of Rogers, enlisted the help of a rapper to mediate cultural conflicts. (Photo by Leonard Sparks)

John Sampier Jr., Rogers’ former mayor, stumbled upon the migration on a soccer field in 1992. As the then-soccer coach walked toward the practice field, he assumed the young Latinos playing each other were from out of town.

“Such was my innocence, that I commented to a fellow coach, I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting. A couple of traveling teams here, I guess,’ ” Sampier said. “He said, ‘No, mayor. They live here.’ ”

More Latinos would come to Rogers as Benton County’s Latino population grew from less than 1,400 in 1990 to more than 28,000 in 2007. As the population grew, so did the questions from the county’s longtime residents, who were predominately white.

“People would come up like someone had landed here from another planet and say, ‘What are they like?’ ” Sampier said. “I said, ‘Well, it’s a strange thing. Here’s what I observed about them. They have a strong work ethic. The men are very involved in raising their families. They’re very religious. They don’t trust credit.’ And I said, ‘Does that sound familiar? That’s the way Ozark Hill people used to be. It’s us.’ ”

Some tensions broke out between Anglo and Latino students in Rogers, where 39 percent of the students are Latino. The town’s high school hired a Latino rapper named Al Lopez to restore peace. On Lopez’s first day, someone hung posters with “vicious” racial slurs in the school’s common areas, Sampier said. Lopez eventually formed a multicultural club, complete with singers and dancers. The group traveled to local schools in Rogers and “single-handedly brought both sides together,” Sampier said. 

Sampier enlisted Lopez to mediate cultural conflicts that would sometimes break out in Rogers’ neighborhoods When the city received complaints about Latinos slaughtering goats in their yards. Lopez would explain to residents that the practice is part of quinceanera, a celebration of Latino girls’ 15th birthdays.

Sampier believes the overall response in Rogers was welcoming.

“Without any roadmap, without any great knowledge on our part, we just kind of did what seemed like the neighborly thing to do,” Sampier said. “The outright racists and the closet bigots didn’t have anything to grab onto.”

Current Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said some longtime residents there also had to adjust to the city’s changing make-up. But like Rogers, he said, the transition has been relatively conflict-free.

“I think it’s just human nature that people are reluctant to change … especially when you’re talking about people that have grown up here like I did,” said Sprouse, who has lived in Springdale since 1965. “But I’m very proud of the way, from my perspective, that we have embraced this growth and this change and are trying to really do it right and engage those who have come here.”

Bumps along the way

Photo by Leonard Sparks
Sandra Grover says she feels like white people are minorities in her town. Latinos, she says, need to learn the language. (Photo by Leonard Sparks)

Sandra Grover sat at a table inside the airy café she owns on Emma Street in Sprindale’s historic business district. Her cheeks pinched by plastic oxygen tubes, she lit a cigarette despite warnings from the doctor treating her for chronic pulmonary disease. 

“This is the only smoking restaurant in the area,” she said. “I lost two customers, but I gained a lot of smoking customers.”

Very few of those customers are Latino, she said, even though the neighborhood just south of her restaurant is teeming with Latino residents.

Grover has owned the café since 1996 and lived in Sprindale since 1982. “I feel that the white person is a minority,” she said of the recent changes. 

“They think that we should speak their language instead of them learning to speak our language, and I don’t think that’s right,” she said of Latinos. “If they’re going to be here, they ought to speak the English language.”

Similar sentiments were gaining prominence when Sampier lost a reelection campaign in 1998. Rogers’ new mayor, Steve Womack, opened the Rogers Community Support Center to provide information on jobs and housing to immigrants. But he also publicly took a harder stand against illegal immigration.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization, sued the town in 2001, accusing its police department of stopping Latinos without cause and asking for immigration papers. The suit resulted in an agreement that included diversity training for Rogers' officers and the documenting of police stops.

Six years later Rogers joined Springdale and the sheriff’s offices for Benton and Washington counties in participating in the federal 287(g) program.

The program trains local and county law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws, and draws strong opposition from Latinos and immigrant advocates. About 66 police departments participate, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Andres Chao, Arkansas’ Mexican consul, traveled to Rogers two years ago to meet with Womack about profiling. Recently, he invited the Washington County sheriff’s department and the Rogers police chief on radio to discuss 287(g).

“These kinds of programs, in my view, they put the police department against the community,” Chao said. “If I know that if I go to the police when I know that I was a victim or witnessed a crime and he can catch, arrest and send me back, I don’t want to go to the police department.”

Springdale has taken a “moderate” approach with 287(g), Sprouse said.

“We really want to embrace anyone who wants to come to Springdale, but we do feel like they need to be here legally,” Sprouse said. “But we’re not going door to door, knocking on the door and asking, 'Are you legal?' ”

Institutions respond

Photo by Leonard Sparks
Jim Rollins has seen the demographics of the public school population shift dramatically in the last few decades. (Photo by Leonard Sparks)

Jim Rollins, who became Springdale’s schools superintendent in 1982, remembers when the town was “virtually an all-white school district.” This fall, he expects more than 8,000 students who are leaning English as a second language to enroll. A majority are Latino, but about 1,000 are from the Marshall Islands and speak Marshallese.

“The challenges to the school system have been enormous,” he said.

The district has responded with English-language classes and other immigrant-specific programs, like a two-week summer camp to improve English writing skills.

The effort has received a boost from the Toyota Family Literacy Program, which is giving $600,000 over three years to three Springdale elementary schools to help connect Latino parents to their children’s education.

Twenty-five families at each school took part in the program last school year. Parents receive English-language lessons and then sit with their children in the classroom to understand what’s expected of them.

“It doesn’t matter at all to me whether a child came from across the street or across the ocean,” he said. “When they get to our schools, they’re one thing, and that is they are our children.”

Springdale’s Latino residents have also gotten a boost from the Jones Family Center. On the eastern edge of Emma Street, the heart of Springdale’s historic business district, the center occupies a former truck terminal once owned by Jones Trucking Lines.

Bernice Jones, wife of the company’s founder, used part of her fortune to build the 220.000-square-foot center. In addition to a swimming pool and ice rink, the center hosts English-language and citizenship classes.

It also replicated a South Carolina program that teaches basic phrases to help immigrants navigate the health care system and points them to different health services in Springdale, said Kathryn Birkhead, the center’s director of diversity and inclusion.

“One of our chapters is on prenatal visits,” Birkhead said. “And that’s the opportunity to make sure people realize that even if they’re here without documents, because they’re giving birth to a U.S. citizen, they are Medicaid-eligible and can get pre-natal care. And they don’t have to stay in the shadows for that.”

Becoming citizens

Cesar Aguilar’s family “shipped” him from El Salvador to Arkansas in 1985, out of concern for the then-17-year-old’s safety in a country wracked by civil war. Aguilar did not like the area at first, and his English consisted of “one, two, three,” he said. But he stayed to witness the influx.

“Fifteen or 10 years ago, you could buy a three-bedroom house, [with] two-car garage, for $80,000,” he added. “You can’t do that in Los Angeles or Dallas, New York or Chicago.”

Aguilar first stayed with a uncle in Siloam Springs, about 35 miles southwest of Rogers. He moved four months later to Rogers, finding a job de-boning chicken for a poultry company. Poor English skills made those first months  “very hard,” as he struggled to communicate. 

“It was like going to France, and you don’t speak French,” he said. “If I didn’t have my uncle here, I don’t know how I would have survived.” 

Aguilar more than survived, however. He married and had two sons. His extended family in Arkansas now includes three brothers, two sisters and his mother.

He eventually became director of the Rogers Community Support Center. The center organized English-language and Spanish classes, and started an international festival. It also created a bilingual guide to town resources and services for new arrivals.

“I would see people walking around like chickens with their heads cut off,” said Aguilar, who is now assistant director for Rogers’ parks and recreation department. “Myself, it took me a long time to learn what’s going on in the community.”

Aguilar was also instrumental in helping form a soccer league for Latino men. As the Latino population grew, so did the number of teams, from eight in 1993 to as many as 62 in 2006. The league now includes several Anglo teams.

“That’s how I measure the community, the pulse – with how the leagues are growing,” he said. “We started growing to 10, 12, 14, 19, 24 teams.”

In 1998, Aguilar became a citizen, “an easy decision to make,” he said. “Being a citizen, I have every right that anybody else has,” he said. “When you’re in the shadows, you have no rights at all.”

Turning to activism

Margarita Solorzano, 50, left California for Arkansas in 1996 to find a better life for her and her daughters, Edma and Xochitl. A sister who drove for Lowell, Ark.-based trucking company J.B. Hunt recommended the area, promoting it as family oriented and flush with jobs.

The move was hard at first, Solorzano said. The first Latinos moving to the area stood out because they looked, spoke and dressed differently.

“From the standpoint of community, there was no one to talk to,” she said. “At school my daughters didn’t have any friends.”

Solorzano and 15 other women formed a support group to share their experiences and talk openly about their feelings. Most were Latinas who had moved to Arkansas about the same time.

“We all were going through the same issues,” Solorzano said. “This part of Arkansas did not have the infrastructure to support the needs of any diversity. When the Latinos started to come, people didn’t understand their needs or didn’t know how to provide services.”

The support group grew into the Latino Women’s Organization of Arkansas. The nonprofit began mentoring Latino girls and offering computer classes. It eventually expanded into voter registration drives.

“We registered very few people,” Solorzano said of the first registration drives. “I realized that there was a lot of people who were legal permanent residents and they qualified to be citizens, but they didn’t know the process, and there wasn’t a lot of support in the community.”

That realization led HWOA to begin collaborating with several groups to guide eligible immigrants through the naturalization process. The coalition includes Catholic Charities and the Jones Center.

The first naturalization ceremony took place in 2007 in the chapel of the Jones Center, with 60 people from 20 countries.

“It was the first time a federal judge came to preside over something here in Springdale,” said Solorzano, who became a citizen in 2000. “It was a huge accomplishment for the organization.”

The political question

Arkansas Democrats and Republicans both recognize the potential of the Latino vote, and leaders from both parties say they are eyeing Latinos as a source of candidates for public office.

They confront the fact that Latinos typically vote at a rate substantially below the rates for whites and blacks. A Pew Latino Center analysis of voting data in the 2008 election shows that 49.9 percent of eligible Latinos voted last year, up from 47.2 percent in 2004.

But last year’s rate still fell 16.2 percentage points below the rate for whites and 15.3 percentage points below the rate for blacks.

Diana Gonzales Worthen, a Springdale resident and one of the founding members of the Latino Women’s Organization of Arkansas, now belongs to the state Democratic Party’s Hispanic Caucus.

Four years ago, Worthen ran for state representative in Arkansas’ District 89, which encompasses eastern Washington County. She was one of four Latinos running for office that year, with current Garland County Justice of the Peace Jorge Garcia the only winner.

“It’s important that all entities’  voices are heard and that they’re present at the table,” Worthen said. “If you don’t have that deliberate voice that’s going to speak up on behalf of a particular population or a particular interest, then oftentimes it’s unheard.”

Democrats have become more active in registering Latino voters. Walter Hinojosa, another Democratic Hispanic Caucus member from northwest Arkansas, launched an eight-day drive last October in Benton County.

The drive netted 300 new voters, mostly through knocking on doors and setting up tables at stores frequented by  Latinos.

Hinojosa, former legislative and political director for the Texas AFL-CIO, was emboldened by the results, even though he also found many Latinos who are not citizens.

“I think there are thousands more out there who are eligible,” Hinojosa said. “That’s going to have a significant impact on Arkansas politics if we can get them registered.”

Arkansas’ Latinos have also drawn the attention of the state’s Republicans, who recently formed a chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. John Neves, recently retired from the Army Reserves and married to a Panamanian, is the chapter’s president.

Photo by William Skowronski
La Prensa is one of several Latino newspapers that publishes in Arkansas. (Photo by William Skowronski)

He believes the party did a poor job last year of engaging Latino voters through media and direct contact. Neves, who lived in Panama for three years, also believes he can be a “good bridge” to Arkansas Latinos. 

“I’ve got the right background, I’ve got some of the right experiences to step in and try to improve that relationship,” he said.

So far, Neves said, he has been visiting county committees around the state and discussing ways to get Latinos more involved. He is also looking to increase the party’s presence at community events. Neves manned a booth at Rogers' international festival. His wife and children also attended, each dressed in Panamanian clothing.

Other strategies include outreach through Arkansas’ handful of Latino newspapers and radio programs, and the  recruitment of Latino candidates to run as Republicans.

Neves acknowledges that the party has to address negative perceptions that Latinos have about Republicans, especially on immigration. According to last year’s American National Election Study, 61.4 percent of Latinos identify with the Democratic Party, compared to 23.4 percent who identified with Republicans.

“I think some people make immigration a large issue. It’s not the only issue that Latinos are looking at, and it’s not every Latino that’s looking at it,” he said. “But right now I do think Democrats have the upper hand in that conversation.” 

Democrats’ advantage nationally could be somewhat lessened in the more-conservative South. Responses from ANES show that identification with the Republican Party is higher – at 29.7 percent – for Latinos in the South. Southern Latinos were also more likely than Latinos in other regions to have voted for GOP presidential nominee John McCain last year.

The party’s emphasis on family values and its position on abortion make it particularly attractive to Latinos, Neves said. In the end, he said, Latinos are mainly concerned with bread-and-butter issues.

“They want the same things as Americans that everybody else does, and that’s a good job, a stable income [and] a  good place to raise their family,” he said.

Photo by Will Skowronski
This Mexican consulate opened in Little Rock in 2007. It issues visas, passports and IDs to Mexicans in Arkansas, western Tennessee and eastern Oklahoma. (Photo by William Skowronski)

New voters

Irma Garcia, 38, is one of the new voters both parties are after. In search of a better job and better schools, she moved from California to Springdale in 1995 with her four daughters. At first she worked at a paper factory, but felt like she did not have much of a future.

She met Solorzano, who encouraged her to apply for a work permit and driver’s license. “I felt like those things were impossible for for me, but I got them,” Garcia said.

Solorzano next encouraged Garcia to apply for citizenship for herself and her oldest daughter, who was born in Mexico. When Springdale hosted that first naturalization ceremony at the Jones Family Center, Garcia and daughter took the oath together.

“I think we accomplished a lot,” Garcia said.

Her new status as a citizen came just in time for the 2008 presidential election. The first time in the booth, Garcia said, was exciting, but nerve-racking.  She voted for Barack Obama because she believed he wanted to help people.

These experiences, Garcia said, have let her feel at home in Springdale. “I see a better future for my daughters,” she said. 

Comments that include potentially libelous statements or are personal attacks on others will be deleted from the site.