'Little Mexico' comes to rural life; that can be good

March 2006

By Sylvia L. Lovely

All of us are attracted at time both negatively and positively to those people and things that are different than us, which was why everybody in my high school driver's ed class looked forward with particular relish to the end of class excursion from my hometown of Springfield, Ohio, to nearby Yellow Springs.

Yellow Springs meant we'd see Antioch College. And Antioch College was where we could gawk at the hippies. This was in the late '60s, during the heyday of the Haight/Ashbury scene that had spread from San Francisco to all points on the map. And there on the Antioch campus quite a collection of the "alternative lifestyle" folks could be found.

It was a different world, as foreign as any country across the sea would be. Today, the world my kids populate is quite different. They think nothing of studying abroad and, in some circles, have come almost to expect it. A summer in France, or England, or Ecuador? Sounds like an adventure! Bring it on! But when those worlds begin to intrude on our own shores, we often remain wary of what is new or different from us perhaps, in a strange kind of way, more so than we used to be, and in a more insidious way.

The immigration debate has heated up, although it actually has been going on for quite some time in the quieter circles of small and mid-sized towns, particularly those in rural settings. It is only now that Congress has caught up and is engaging in law and policymaking in its wake.

Just two years ago at a National League of Cities seminar, I faced a roomful of mayors and council members who hijacked my intended topic and turned it into "What do we do about migrants?" The solutions people tossed out were all over the map from the hardnosed "Make 'em learn English and conform" to descriptions of celebrations and embracing what they had to offer the native population.

One thing is for sure. Many of the smaller places have done what smaller cities and towns where the rubber hits the road and there isn't time for lengthy debate often do. They come up with solutions. Some are better than others, but they make them without a lot of guidance from anywhere else.

The fact is that communities will increasingly face the demographic juggernaut that is new and different people. Those who embrace this with positive programming and open arms will likely do better than those who don't.

That the world is changing color is only part of the equation. The other part is how we live our own lives in a 21st Century that puts its own new face on things. Immigration, of course, is hardly new to this country. Our earliest settlers were immigrants. They came in wave after wave, settling in Little Ireland here and a Little Italy there and Chinatowns galore. There is a natural tendency, after all, to settle close to those who look like you, talk like you and come from the same cultural background.

The difference today is in how this immigrant population is dispersed. Rather than settling for the most part in larger cities, immigrants now go to all parts of the country to work everything from horse farms to fast food restaurants.

A prime example is Bowling Green, Ky., where even as far back as six years ago there were more than 20 foreign languages being spoken, indicative of the large number of immigrants who have settled in this university town and given it a cosmopolitan feel far greater than you would expect a city of about 50,000 tucked away in Southern Kentucky to have.

Because of this increased mobility, communities particularly those in rural areas that in the past were isolated from an influx of immigrants now often find large numbers of them moving in. And unlike Bowling Green, which has had an agency set up to assist refugees and immigrants since the early 1980s, in many places the fear of people of "difference" has grown.

Perhaps legislation will be enacted at the federal level that provides some order to this growing sense of unease, but ultimately the solutions will be found at the local level. Police departments from Everytown, U.S.A., will take the lead of communities like Lexington, Ky., and send their officers to Mexico or other Latin countries to learn more about their culture. More and more signs will be printed in dual languages and programs will be established to provide services.

Communities that successfully address their immigrant issues will be on a path to create a sustainable future. The issue is not hidden anymore. Within the boundaries set by every community, some degree of assimilation will occur. Productivity and better lives will result.

In the meantime, every community will grapple with what it means to be local and retain what is worth keeping while also seeing the increased impact of the global world upon people's everyday lives. I saw that impact firsthand recently while visiting Arthur Byrn, the mayor of Mayfield, Ky., a city with a population around 10,300. Arthur told me that a number of Mexican restaurants had opened up in his city, and he took me to one for lunch.

When we entered the restaurant, a young man came over immediately and began talking to Arthur in Spanish. To my surprise, the mayor replied haltingly in Spanish as well. Once we were seated, the young man again spoke in Spanish as he went over the specials of the day. And Arthur again would respond in Spanish, however tentatively.

"What was that all about?" I asked after they'd finished. Arthur said that he and his family visited the restaurant often, and the young man had taken it upon himself to ask the mayor if he would like to learn Spanish. Arthur took him up on it.

Throughout rural America, there are Little Mexicos springing up, along with other nationalities offering rich cultural offerings that all of us can appreciate and share. Upon reflection, what might seem like a small moment between the mayor and the young man isn't so small after all, because it shows how community life can be enhanced as we learn to appreciate each other's backgrounds and talents.

As the world grows more global, our work at the local level grows even more important. We can assimilate the best of each other and adapt to a world that is increasingly without borders. By building bridges of understanding, such change can only be a harbinger of good, not evil.

Sylvia Lovely, President of the NewCities Institute and executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, is the author of New Cities in America: The Little Blue Book of Big Ideas. She is a noted authority on community solutions and has been featured on CNN, CNBC, ABC Radio, and in the Miami Herald, Indianapolis Star and Cincinnati Enquirer. Lovely has been named one of Kentucky's Top Women of Influence and Appalachian Woman of the Year.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 09/14/2007