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Meatpacking remakes rural U.S. towns in new immigration frontier
DODGE CITY, Kan. -- This is the home of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, of Boot Hill and the Long Branch Saloon, of cattle drives, buffalo hunters and the romance of the American West.
But that's the Dodge City of yesteryear.
Today, downtown has Mexican restaurants and stores more reminiscent of shops south of the border than Main Street Kansas. The city of 25,176 even has a new nickname: "Little Mexico."
Signs advertising "Envios a Mexico" -- retail outlets where workers send hard-earned wages back home to Mexico and other countries -- hang outside many Dodge City stores. Houses occasionally fly Mexican flags, whipped hard by the prairie winds.
Dodge City ... Cactus, Texas ... Fort Morgan, Colo. ... Postville, Iowa: For more than a hundred years, this region provided a bucolic idyll and a ready example of American life and values. Today, iconic farm towns struggle with a new economic model, one that requires a work force that is poor and overwhelmingly Hispanic.
It's not easy. The immigrants who have flooded these communities are stretching schools and law enforcement. Still, at a time when other rural towns are slowly dying, Dodge City and meatpacking towns like it boast thriving economies.
If they can get past the border, "we welcome them here with open arms," said Ford County Sheriff Dean Bush, Dodge City's modern-day counterpart to Wyatt Earp.
But many of his fellow citizens seem lost. Randy Ford and his wife, Betty, have lived in Dodge City for 35 years. They no longer attend the city's Independence Day events. They can't understand what the singers -- Spanish crooners singing Latin favorites -- are saying.
"We don't go anymore because we don't want to be Mexican," he said. "We want to be American."
In Washington, the debate over immigration sometimes seems to be a clash of extremes. But here, in the wide-open spaces where one-dimensional economies stoke small towns, there is plenty of room for ambivalence.
How it got this way
Just as the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad here in 1872 brought white settlers to populate the dusty towns and farms of a fledging country, the relocation and consolidation of the meatpacking industry has transformed these icons of the American West. The result: diverse, multicultural communities that challenge breadbasket notions of wheat fields, white fences and even whiter demographics.
The transformation of the nation's meatpacking industry began in 1960 when plants began moving out of cities in favor of their livestock sources in right-to-work states like Kansas. The first big slaughterhouse came to Emporia in the 1960s, followed by plants near Garden City and in Dodge City in the 1980s.
For Dodge City -- famed as the "Queen of the Cowtowns" during its cowboy heyday -- the advent of the slaughter plants seemed a natural fit. Locals have long recognized that the odor of manure here is the smell of money.
"They are a major hub of business and economic activity and a huge employer," said Ted Schroeder, agricultural economist at Kansas State University. "You can't go into those communities without sensing the presence and importance of those large economic facilities. Everything around there is either working with, complementing or part of that industry."
Eventually, mom-and-pop meatpackers were swallowed up by giants like Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co.
Their massive slaughter plants today routinely sit on the outskirts of rural towns. Huge feedlots stretching at times beyond the horizon now dot the wind-swept prairie where buffalo once grazed.
When the wind blows just so, the stench can be overpowering.
Arturo Ponce is a U.S. citizen now -- coordinator of the HIV/AIDS prevention program run by the United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries. But it wasn't so long ago that he lived in a dilapidated trailer, just down the street from the Cargill plant in Dodge City.
This, he recently told his 14-year-old son, was where your parents got their start in Kansas. Here, he said, we crowded with 13 other people, four families, into three bedrooms.
"The beef industry is hard work," he said. He would come home to the trailer after each shift drenched in sweat from trying to keep up with the production line. He and his brother-in-law each lost 25 pounds those first three months on the job.
Now, almost 20 years later, the same trailer remains crammed with meatpacking workers coming to and from their shifts.
"It is a cycle that continues to repeat itself," Ponce said. "It is the same story."
The same story: Decent wages are a magnet for poor immigrants. And the wages paid by the meatpackers are decent, though far from extravagant.
The poverty rate in Dodge City plunged from 28 percent in 1980 to 14 percent in 2000. The poverty rate also was halved in Guymon, Okla., where there are an estimated 600,000 head of cattle on farms within 25 miles of the Seaboard Foods plant.
But no one is living high on the hog, or cow. Dodge City's per capita income of $15,538 in 2000 may be an improvement, but it still remains far below the $21,587 national average.
In Cactus, the average per capita income has increased, but only to $8,340. Many who work at the Swift plant in Cactus live in former military barracks or in dilapidated rental trailer homes where yards contain little more than dirt, weeds and rocks.
"A lot of people are working, but working at jobs that don't pay well," said Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropology professor and industry expert.
It's a hard life. In Cactus, the population is more than 90 percent Latino. There are no doctors or banks. Most plant workers deal only in cash, making them easy targets for theft. As much as 70 percent of offenses in town relate to alcohol use, especially on weekend nights when cars cruise up and down the main drag for hours.
Dodge City grapples with drug trafficking as narcotics flow in across the Mexican border through the Hispanic community. Gangs are a problem, too. But there is some equanimity in a town infamous for its lawless Wild West history.
"Dodge City has always been a pretty wild Western town," said Bush, the sheriff, "and there are days when it still lives up to its name."
Going to school
Alfredo Villegas was clearly frustrated as he struggled to read an English-language book in a small newcomer class in the Dodge City high school. Villegas, 15, has been in the U.S. for five months and his father works at Cargill.
"I don't know what I want to be," he said, in Spanish. "I may not even graduate."
Just as he struggles with his new language, the public schools are struggling with the new students who have come with families drawn to work in the meatpacking plants. Educators have found themselves grappling with language barriers, academic gaps and poverty.
School districts once troubled with aging and tax-resistant local populations and dwindling school enrollments suddenly had to deal with the crowded classrooms that came with young migrant families; Villegas' modern, sprawling school was built five years ago as enrollments boomed.
Dodge City school officials count 23 different languages spoken by immigrant families, though the town is overwhelmingly Latino.
About 44 percent of students in Dodge City have limited English proficiency, prompting the district to establish a "newcomer program" for immigrant students geared heavily toward language acquisition, and includes help from Spanish-speaking assistants.
Just a decade ago, about 70 percent of Dodge City students were English-speaking whites. Today, that statistic has flipped: about 70 percent of the 5,800 students who now attend Dodge City school are Hispanic, with non-Hispanic whites now comprising nearly 25 percent.
There has been some success. An analysis of high school graduation rates at meatpacking towns nationwide shows improvement between 1980 and 2000: up 9 percent in Dodge City; up 5 percent in Cactus; up 6 percent in Crete, Neb.
Still, graduation rates were below state averages. For example, the graduation rate of slightly over 17 percent in Cactus, Texas, was still well below the state average of nearly 76 percent or the national average of more than 80 percent.
In Postville, Iowa, visitors to Cora B. Darling elementary and middle school are greeted with a world map adorned with red-and-gold foil stars pasted on Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Israel, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico and other nations. Each designates the home country to some of the school's 370 students.
"The biggest population coming in right now are from Guatemala," Postville principal Charlotte Tammel said. "The challenge for us is finding teachers who speak all these languages."
Earlier this year, Dodge City teacher Debby Chipman gathered a small group of her second and third graders for an English lesson. Three of them speak Spanish, one boy speaks Vietnamese, the other boy speaks only Quiche, a Guatemalan dialect.
Even as the schools spread American culture to newcomers, the immigrants reciprocate, infusing their schools with their own cultures.
Everyone on the high school soccer roster in Liberal, Kan. -- players, coaches, trainers and managers -- is Hispanic, and during soccer season in the fall, the ambiance around a Liberal game takes aim at the American stereotype of sweater-clad soccer moms in SUVs.
Though Friday night football still matters in the heartland, soccer clearly has a home here. Shouts of "Aqui, aqui!" blend easily with "Here, here!"
On the high plains of northern Colorado, the latest wave of settlers to hit Morgan County has some worried that the character of its largest city -- Fort Morgan, with its neat lawns decorated with gnomes or holiday ornaments -- would be altered beyond recognition.
Cargill operates a slaughterhouse here, employing about 20 percent of the town's population and processing 4,300 head of cattle per day. Morgan County saw its Hispanic population double in the 1990s -- jumping to 8,473 by the 2000 U.S. Census.
More than a century before the meatpackers consolidated and Cargill Inc. set up shop in Morgan County, Germans who had settled the Volga region of Russia arrived here after Czar Alexander II took away their autonomy and made them subject to the military draft.
"It's been a German town for a long time, every morning at 5 o'clock, 5 or 6 o'clock, it's like a cuckoo clock, German ladies out sweeping their sidewalks," said longtime resident Perry Roberts. "And now they're (immigrants) not mowing their lawn, and so they're trying to pass laws to get people to keep up their lawns and not park their car on them."
In 2004, community leaders and businesses began work to establish a group called OneMorgan County to help newcomers learn about health care services, community resources and law enforcement -- and to ease fears among longtime residents.
Postville, Iowa, had long been a meatpacking town, but the old HyGrade slaughterhouse had been shuttered for seven years when New York butcher and entrepreneur Aaron Rubashkin bought it in 1987.
The city has been in transition ever since.
A stream of Hasidic Jews soon followed, providing the executive staff to run the operation and the rabbis needed to slaughter animals in accordance with strict kosher rules.
The first wave of workers required to augment the locals on the payroll were eastern Europeans, immigrants from Bosnia, Poland, Russia and former Soviet Republics who had initially spent time in bigger East Coast cities before moving to Iowa.
But in the last decade, Hispanics have become the majority. The result is that a town that barely covers two square miles is home to people from 24 nationalities speaking 17 languages. In 1990, Postville's population was 1,472; now, it is estimated at more than 2,500, nearly 33 percent foreign-born.
Last year, Councilman Jeff Reinhardt caused a stir by taking aim at two of the city's ethnic groups in a letter to the local newspaper. Without naming any group, his targets were clear.
"One group wants to isolate itself ... and wanting a different day for the Sabbath," he wrote. Another "sends money back to foreign countries and brings a lack of respect for our laws and culture, which contributes to unwed mothers, trash in the streets, unpaid bills, drugs, forgery and other crimes."
That's bigotry, cried local religious leaders -- but understandable, they said, in a time of wholesale change.
Here to stay
Shift change at the National Beef complex in Dodge City, and Martin Rosas and his crew are passing out flyers at the entrance, recruiting colleagues to join a union. A plant security officer sits in a nearby vehicle, with a camera.
Rosas, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers local, seeks a better deal for workers at the nonunion National Beef. "We can no longer witness this kind of treatment for our people," he said.
Rosas, 36, is himself a Mexican immigrant, and now a naturalized citizen. He has watched Dodge City grow more accepting of its Hispanic newcomers.
"We feel more welcome -- we feel at home now," he said.
And more willing to assert themselves.
In Cactus, Hispanics dominate politics. The town's population became predominantly Hispanic by the 1990s, and by the end of that decade, Hispanics began to be elected to the city council.
Now, all but one member is Hispanic.
"Without this plant I don't know what would happen," said Mayor Luis Aguilar, who slipped into the country illegally from Mexico 30 years ago, later became a U.S. citizen, and now owns the town's only grocery store, numerous rental properties and a 575-acre ranch.
Some immigrants come to the American prairie for the jobs, but end up staying for something else. Jose Flores, who calls himself a "Mexican hillbilly," never felt at home in Los Angeles. He was drawn to a meatpacking job in Dodge City because he wanted to raise his growing family in a small town.
When he arrived in 1987, the only Mexican-owned business in town was a secondhand store. Today the town brims with thriving Mexican shops; Flores owns a restaurant in nearby Spearville and a real estate office in Dodge City.
But Flores is most proud of his children. They've either gone on to their own successful careers or are in schools and colleges preparing for them.
"The packing house brought us here," Flores said. "But our families have surpassed that."