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Racial, Ethnic Diversity Puts New Face on Middle America

Census: The Upper Midwest, and other once-homogeneous areas, find challenging changes.

March 31, 2001|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, the land spreads westward across Minnesota like a rumpled quilt. Around Fairibault, Owatonna, Marshall and beyond, the fields and farms have been tended by descendants of the German, French and Scandinavian immigrants who settled there more than 150 years ago.

Far from urban industrial centers like Chicago and Detroit, with their racial and ethnic divisions, these communities became the stuff of Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon, "where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

The 2000 census confirms that surprising change has come to the Upper Midwest, and to dozens of other sections of the United States that long basked in the homogeneous tranquillity of Middle America. New immigration patterns, tied in part to technological and economic changes, are creating pockets of racial and ethnic diversity all across the country--giving once-isolated areas a firsthand taste of the challenges and cultural richness of urban America.

Change doesn't come overnight in a country as large as the United States, which a map still shows is predominantly "white."

"Demographic transformations are trend lines, not turning points--except in rare cases," Kenneth Prewitt, director of the census during the Clinton administration and now a political scientist at the New School University in New York, told members of the Population Assn. of America here Friday.

Data from the 2000 census document the continuing growth of black and Latino predominance in major urban centers and immigration entry points.

The new data show that Latinos are continuing to change the demographics of Southern California, the Texas border region and South Florida and to spread beyond those areas. They also continue to leapfrog hundreds or thousands of miles to congregate in places like Chicago and Denver.

Similarly, African Americans continue to predominate in older northern cities, such as Detroit. Census data also show them continuing to move into metropolitan suburbs in response to changing work and housing opportunities.

The spread of light industry and high-tech firms, the decentralization of food processing, the ease of modern-day travel and communication all are encouraging a new kind of diversity. So is the tight labor market; even in small cities and towns, employers are turning to foreign and minority workers where once locals would have filled the need.

In Owatonna, Minn., Chiquita Processed Foods and the Viracon glass company have brought growing racial and ethnic diversity to a once-homogeneous area. Chiquita employs about 240 people canning local produce. Most are Latino, many earning little more than the minimum wage.

Viracon's plant in Owatonna is a major producer of automobile windshields and high-performance architectural glass. To keep its assembly lines humming, the firm has worked out an arrangement with a temporary employment firm to teach English to Latino immigrants and bring them into its better-paid work force of 1,600 people.

The result is to weave greater racial and ethnic diversity into the community's fabric.

Similarly, Marshall, population just over 20,000, might once have been the model for Keillor's Lake Wobegon. Lying on the western edge of the state--closer to South Dakota than Minneapolis--it has been the quiet seat of Lyon County and commercial center for descendants of the Northern European farmers who settled the surrounding prairie.

Today, all that is still much in evidence. Thanks to a tight labor market, however, and local meat and poultry processing plants, Marshall has also become home to a steady stream of immigrants from Somalia, as well as newcomers from Mexico and Southeast Asia.

"If Keillor's Minnesota ever existed, it is no more," said Anthony J. Amato, a professor of demographics and rural and regional studies at Southwestern State University in Marshall.

Many of Marshall's Somali families went there after earlier stops in Chicago or Southern California. The town has also seen an influx of Hmong from the Merced and Fresno areas, as well as Mexican workers from Texas and Mexico.

In recent years, instead of remaining isolated, these newcomers have taken jobs at supermarket checkout stands and elsewhere on Main Street.

The new residents have brought problems too. Like many rural areas in the nation's heartland, the white population of southwestern Minnesota has both declined in numbers and grown older. It has been hard-pressed to find the resources or the energy to meet all the newcomers' schooling and other needs.

Also, the newcomers lack the farms and other holdings that tied earlier immigrants to the community. They might move again if better opportunities arose. "They have not necessarily married themselves to Southwestern Minnesota. It is simply the best place for now," Amato said.

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