Drawn to the South

Bookmark and Share

I have always looked toward the South with curiosity. I have been equally curious about why the idea of living and working somewhere between the Mason-Dixon Line and the Gulf of Mexico continues to sound appealing. Sure, I have sojourned briefly to Atlanta, Florida, Mississippi, New Orleans and North and South Carolina. But a three-day conference or a daytrip is hardly my definition of an "experience."

So I was excited after discovering a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center report about a huge wave of Latino migration to six southern states, including Arkansas. My initial reaction was, "Latinos in the South?" But as I began researching the topic, the migration made sense. The region was flush with jobs in the 1990s, opportunities also drew whites and blacks. The Latinos who came were not just recent arrivals from south of the border. Many have left established "gateway" states like California, Illinois and Texas.

We thought it would be interesting to report from an area experiencing relatively recent Latino migration, but not because we expected the state to exemplify the power of Latino political participation. We knew early on that Arkansas had a dearth of Latino voters and public officials. But we thought the state could exemplify how migration eventually leads to a permanent presence and then political participation.

For Latinos we talked to in northwest Arkansas, jobs were not the only reason they came. They also talked of being drawn to small-town life and of wanting quality schools for their children. Some also mentioned northwest Arkansas' physical beauty. I suspect those are some of the same reasons that drew whites and blacks.

I think that kinship between immigrant aspirations and those of American citizens gets lost this country's debate over immigration. Those same aspirations propelled the risky journey taken by the immigrants who landed at Ellis Island during the first half of the 20th century.

As with that tide of immigration, you can see how northwest Arkansas culture has been remade by the mass movement of Latinos to the state. The "way of life" now includes taquerias, super mercados and Mexican bakeries, and once-all-white neighborhoods are now filled with Latinos. And although Latino public officials are scarce right now -- and eligible voters a struggle to find -- it is only a matter of time before Latinos begin to mark their presence on town councils and the state legislature, and begin to affect local and state policies.

Ultimately, the process of migration, settlement, integration and participation is what transformed this country from those small independent settlements on the East Coast into America's many-flavored towns and cities. That process continues to make this country dynamic.

Post by: 
Leonard Sparks
Comments that include potentially libelous statements or are personal attacks on others will be deleted from the site.