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Future Arrives to Diversify Small-Town USA

Ready or not, diversity is reshaping places across America unfamiliar with it. That’s creating connections—and collisions.


In 1999, St. Mary’s Church in Marshalltown, Iowa, had one Mass in Spanish and three in English. Today, the parish is 70 percent Hispanic and the church offers three Masses in Spanish.(Ralf-Finn Hestoft)

When an unexpected Midwestern monsoon hits, there’s nothing like waiting out the storm while sipping horchata and listening to some good mariachi. Welcome to Mexico Antiguo, a restaurant on Main Street in Marshalltown, Iowa.

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At Postville High School, 133 miles away, a photo on display in the hallway shows a group of elegant youths of obviously European descent: the graduating class of 1903. The cloud of white faces no longer resembles the students who stream out of the school at the end of the day. In Postville, Iowa, population 2,227, one-third of the residents are now Hispanic, and the school reflects the town’s diversity.

Along South Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., signs in Spanish jostle for attention with ads in English. One can almost see the hands of the Hispanic laborers who built this city’s stadium and buildings that now adorn its skyline. Charlotte’s Hispanic population has grown 153 percent over the past decade; across the state, Raleigh’s Hispanic population has grown 152 percent. No wonder the Dominican-American-owned supermarket chain Compare keeps opening franchises in both places.

In Arlington, Va., at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, blond, blue-eyed children speak perfect Spanish. They’re enrolled in a language-immersion program praised by J. Walter Tejada, the only Hispanic on the Arlington County Board of Supervisors.


Meanwhile, the next county over, Prince William, recovers from the economic crisis—exacerbated by a county ordinance that allowed officials to ask anyone they suspected to be undocumented for their papers. Many Hispanics took the bill’s passage as a cue to leave the county, straining the local economy.

By now, many Americans are familiar with the long-range projections that mark America’s transition into a world nation: By 2023, ethnic minorities will represent a majority of the under-18 population; by 2050, minorities will represent a majority of the entire population.

Over the past several decades, this powerful current has infused new energy and challenges alike into metropolitan areas that have long been magnets for immigration, including New York and Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix, Dallas and Denver. But increasingly, this tide of change is spilling over into places that previously had not been shaped by diversity. While almost 50 percent of U.S. Hispanics live in 10 large metropolitan areas, almost two-thirds of the past decade’s Hispanic population growth occurred outside of those areas.

This is bringing propulsive ethnic and racial change, with all of its opportunities and complications, to places not used to it. While there’s evidence that the recession has cooled the Hispanic demographic explosion in places like Charlotte, N.C., and Provo, Utah, as jobs have been lost in cyclical sectors such as construction, that is almost certainly more a pause than a reversal. The basic trend toward new faces in new places seems irreversible: From 2000 to 2010, Hispanics accounted for at least 40 percent of the population growth in half of the 50 states. It’s probably not a surprise that minorities represent a majority of the elementary and secondary school children in Miami-Dade County and Los Angeles, but now they constitute 30 percent in Lincoln, Neb.; 50 percent in Des Moines, Iowa;  and 53 percent in Salt Lake City. School-board and city-council members in areas unaccustomed to diversity are wrestling with the same questions about harmonizing the needs of different groups in neighborhoods and schools that have long perplexed their big-city counterparts.


“All of a sudden, at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, we started to get Latino students,” says MariaRosa Rangel, a senior administrator of Limited English Proficiency Family Outreach for Wake County School District in North Carolina. “The concern was, ‘How are we going to understand how to attend to them? How are we going to communicate with ... parents? How are we going to understand the cultural differences?’ ”

The opportunities for cultural collision are many: fear of the unknown (especially of other races and languages) or of losing community identity; individual and collective prejudice; political opportunism; economic worries; and, in many cases, the sheer shock of the new. Many long-term residents assume that whites and minorities are engaged in a zero-sum competition for jobs; others are anxious over minority use of social services, or wary of spending public money on students who are still learning English.

As more communities wrestle with these changes, it remains an open question whether they will produce a new harmony or a contentious cacophony. The one certainty is that demography will provide no respite: The growth and dispersion of the minority population will remain one of the defining characteristics of American life for decades.

This article appears in the May 12, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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