Can Small-Town Oklahoma Be Saved by its Immigrants?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because immigration is spurring economic growth in many rural communities.
By Nick Fouriezos
When Soila Medina arrived in rural Texas County, Oklahoma, in the 1990s, the seventh-grader, daughter of two Mexican immigrants, looked around her classroom and saw hardly anybody who looked like her. That is no longer the case. The schools in Guymon, the county seat, are now 70 percent Hispanic and have expanded English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for their students, who at home speak some 27 different languages, from Armenian and Arabic to Burmese and Tagalog.
Mind you, this diversity isn’t in some urban center. Four and a half hours from the capital, Oklahoma City, the locals here have felt isolated for decades, often calling themselves the stepchildren of the Sooner State. However, the success of immigrants who have made the county their home since the ’90s has led to the revival of the community as a whole. Both the county unemployment rate and poverty rate were significantly lower than the state average at the height of the Great Recession in 2010, unlike the late ’90s, when 14.1 percent of the population was impoverished, hovering around the average in Oklahoma. As other rural small towns have hemorrhaged people and jobs, the population in Texas County surged by nearly a third from 1990 to 2015, now counting 21,489 residents, mostly led by the arrival of Latino families.
The same trend is spreading across the Midwest and South, where cities like Louisville, Nashville and Dayton have courted immigrants to combat losses from white flight.
That seismic cultural shift can be measured in other ways — say, the way Medina’s head turns on a constant swivel while pointing out the minority-owned businesses in Guymon. To the left, the first Hispanic-owned insurance company. To the right, Mora’s Market, which is growing so fast that it plans to add another building. A message in Spanish splashes across its white plaster wall: “Where your money turns into more,” Medina translates, roughly. There’s the downtown boutique, which sells dresses for quinceañeras in the evenings; here’s Pollo El Ranchero, known for the plaster chicken that greets families lunching after Sunday mass. A Filipino family owns the flower shop and the Mexican-Filipino fusion restaurant. One street boasts a Mexican bakery next to an Asian grocery, which is next to a Guatemalan market. Even the lone Wal-Mart has an entire section devoted to piñatas.
Guymon puts the lie to the notion that the needs of working-class Americans and newcomers must be at odds with each other. The minority boom in Texas County primarily came with the arrival in 1995 of the Seaboard Foods processing plant, the area’s largest employer. And in truth, the renaissance in this Oklahoma Panhandle community might not exist without its immigrant influx. The county added 1,400 Hispanic people from 2010 to 2013 alone, according to a census analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, while the non-Hispanic population fell by 113. “It’s a preview of what is happening to the rest of Oklahoma,” says Gene Perry, the think tank’s policy director.
The same trend is spreading across the Midwest and South, where cities like Louisville, Nashville and Dayton have courted immigrants to combat losses from white flight and the decline in manufacturing. “It’s a growing population, and it’s a largely citizen population, despite stereotypes,” Perry says. “They are going to be Oklahomans for the long-term, and we’re going to have to [invest] to make it a state … where they can be our future workforce, our future everything.”
Among Guymon’s recent additions: a gleaming new city hall, a courthouse, an elementary school. The town is changing at breakneck speed, yet there’s no sign of alarm from white residents, who once were the majority. “It’s a trust thing. I have never heard any negative comments,” marvels Medina. “Not from the Chamber of Commerce or Main Street or the city.” Maybe those criticisms are found in the coffee shops, she suggests, where early rising retirees often gather to talk life and politics. “I wouldn’t know,” she says optimistically.
Every small town has “the coffee shop.” Here, it’s the Ambassador Inn, a budget hotel and restaurant owned by an Indian couple, where, on a recent Monday morning, a table of Guymon lifers gathered to grouse at each other good-humoredly. They are all white, all with ties to the local agriculture and oil industries.
Four-fifths of Texas County voters in 2016 backed Donald Trump and his immigration-limiting platform, and the Ambassador Inn’s coffee crowd at times reflected the president’s rhetoric. One retired construction worker worries about cultural assimilation and gang violence — however, he quickly adds that it’s more of a problem in “big cities,” like Oklahoma City. A former land surveyor says teachers can’t keep up with all the students who don’t speak English. But his conclusion is that of the rest of the table: Immigration has “helped the economy. Because this was one dead chicken before.” Adds 44-year-old Chad Rice, the only diner willing to have his name published: “It doesn’t have to do with race; it has to do with your values.” Here, they don’t find their neighbors’ values lacking, even if they worry in the abstract.
That’s not to say rapid growth has come painlessly. The housing supply has struggled to keep up, and a 2014 study commissioned by the city showed a need for 119 new homes by 2018. Since then, a 30-home subdivision has been built, but those filled up “instantly.” “We’ve got it bad,” says Elvia Hernandez, who works for the private company that manages much of Guymon’s city services.
Some Hispanic residents worry about the fate of the Obama-era immigration policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which Trump has called on Congress to fix, but it’s not a concern at the tip of their tongues. Most fret about everyday issues: education — just 71 percent of Texas County residents earn a high school diploma, and college attendance lags behind statewide rates; health care — a quarter are uninsured; location — caught between Kansas and Texas, Oklahoma’s differences in state licensing laws complicate growth for small businesses in the Panhandle, as school quality is affected as well. “The teacher shortage is one of the most severe in the nation,” notes Joy Hofmeister, the state superintendent, citing the salaries teachers get as a key reason. “They can go to a neighboring state like Texas and start at $51,000. In Oklahoma, the starting pay is $31,600.”
While minorities are disproportionately affected by those statistics, there is some comfort in the fact that their obstacles are more rural than racial. It’s a burden felt historically by all those who live in this region nicknamed “Texlahoma,” where people have often complained about being ignored by their state capital, to the extent that they have threatened to form their own state a few times since the Great Depression.
Barefoot, in kimonos, two dozen mostly Latino kids grapple on mats in front of a poster that reads “Bueno Brazilian Jiu Jitsu” in bold letters. It’s an ode to the gym’s black-belt professor, Douglas Bueno, who visits monthly, but also to the Mexican heritage of Ruben Cruz, who started the practice in a Guymon garage with two friends nearly two years ago.
Born in El Paso but raised in Guymon after his father arrived as a concrete worker supporting the Seaboard plant, Cruz likes to say his is one of the founding Hispanic families of the area. “Because there was nobody,” the 31-year-old says. By day, he works as a personal banker; by night, he is here, teaching martial arts. Profits are scarce, but he’s proud of joining many in that first class of immigrants who are now investing back — 34 percent of Texas County businesses are minority-owned, compared to roughly 20 percent across Oklahoma.
The verdict on the changing faces of Texas County is far from settled. “Hispanics are not yet sitting at seats they should be, leadership-wise,” says Medina, who notes that Guymon’s first Hispanic councilman was only recently elected. That sentiment is felt in the business community too, says Cruz: “There have been growing pains. They don’t want you to run stuff. Certain people are just stuck in their old ways.” A study by Roberto Gallardo, an assistant director at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, found that rural communities with more immigrants tend to perform better economically, and yet, polls and surveys have also shown rural residents to be more wary of immigration than urban dwellers. “There are definitely challenges of cultural clash, and backlash. We’ve seen it in our politics nationally already,” says Perry, of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Credit the economic success or the territorial oddities of the panhandle, but you don’t hear much about those national clashes in Texas County. “It’s not that we live in our own bubble, but we are isolated,” Medina says. “We have always been isolated, whether it’s funding, housing or road pavement.” Locals’ gripes aren’t so much with neighbors, or with Washington, but with Oklahoma City.
Guymon could use more attention from “downstate,” they say. And the rest of the country could learn a thing or two from paying attention to Guymon.