In Northwest Arkansas, close to the state borders with Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, a cultural metamorphosis has been taking place over the last 30 years.
Nearly 40% of the residents in the small city of Springdale, once an overwhelmingly white city back in 1990, can trace their heritage to a Spanish-speaking country, according to recent census data.
That doesn’t just mean more people speaking Spanish. The transformation in similar municipalities has been enormous. Neighborhoods start to look different, the public-school systems adapt, and even the food in the grocery store will start to look different. Businesses may also see those locations as more viable given the swell of reliable and willing workers.
And that’s before you even begin to understand the difficulty of community integration.
The surge makes Springdale one of the most diverse small cities in the country and in the South, a region that is attracting Hispanics in greater numbers than anywhere else, according to a Pew Research study. Between 2010 and 2019, the Latino population in the South grew by 26% and accounted for just under 50% of all Latino population growth nationwide over the same time period.
Arkansas was one of 15 states where the Hispanic population made up more than half of all population growth in the state. Only Texas, Florida and Louisiana attracted more Hispanics in the South, the study noted.
Northwest Arkansas doesn’t typically come to mind when thinking about the most diverse regions of the country. But a combination of multinational corporations, food processors and educational institutions has produced a high demand for white- and blue-collar workers.
Margarita Solorzano, executive director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas, has had a front-row seat to this rapid cultural change. Reckon spoke with Solorzano about the role her organization has played in Springdale’s evolution.
Margarita, you moved to Arkansas in 1996 and started your organization in 1999. What did you see then that prompted you to do something for the Hispanic community?
That was when the population started to change. We noticed more people speaking Spanish in public places, which was kind of rare back then. When we heard someone speaking Spanish at the grocery store or the library, we tried to find that person because we had a deep need to connect to other people who share the language and culture. It was a way to avoid the isolation we felt. And, at that time, the Hispanic population was growing and the services were non-existent for people speaking other languages and from different cultures.
So we started meeting in different places — at the church or grocery store or library. And that’s when the organization started. Many of the women who started the organization were the first Latinos in their workplace and first Latinos some people had ever met.
That’s why the initial name was Hispanic Women’s Organization, but we provide services to everybody because our mission is to advance educational opportunities for Hispanic women and their families.
What was your priority back then?
We first started by promoting education, and today that is still one of the main goals of the organization. There was and still is a growing demand for bilingual professionals. We actively promote that. To date, we’ve given out 488 scholarships to help with education and we’re proud to say that many of our scholarship recipients are bilingual professionals and many now do the teaching, or are being hired as bilingual nurses, medical doctors, lawyers and engineers. Our scholarship doesn’t go to one specific school or career. It’s just to promote education beyond high school among the Latino community.
What has been the main difference between when you started the organization in 1999 and now?
When we started, it was all about language and acceptance. Because people in many towns around here were not familiar with people from other countries or people being a different color, speaking other languages. It was a challenge for us and for them.
As things began to change, the school systems have also changed to accommodate the needs of diverse populations. When I first moved here in 1996, we maybe had eight schools total in the city of Springdale, including elementary, middle school, junior and high school. Currently, I think there are 33 and many of them have ESL [English as a Second Language] classes and have created full departments for ESL.
We provide services to any age group, but the Hispanic population in Arkansas is relatively young, maybe from 25 to 45 (on average) so being bilingual is very important for their futures.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the increase in Hispanic population and the changes you’ve seen in recent years?
In the 1990 census, Springdale was 99.9% white and now it’s down to about 60%. That’s not because white people are leaving, but because Hispanic people saw the many job opportunities. And here we have some of the largest corporations in poultry and retail, which are Tyson and Walmart. Those companies attract a very diverse labor force. We also have JB Hunt and the University of Arkansas.
Now Springdale has become the most diverse city in the state and one of the most diverse in the South. And we’re not seeing just Hispanics, we have the largest population of Marshallese outside of the Marshall Islands.
These people have responded to the demand for labor, skilled and unskilled. With this growth, we also have changes in the infrastructure, especially Northwest Arkansas where it has become very diverse.
And so with that large influx of Hispanic people, how has your organization adapted to the challenge?
We are always adapting, but not just by providing services for Latinos, but working out how to better integrate into the community and how we can be more effective for the people in need and how we can help others adjust to the new reality of a large Hispanic community.
The city has grown quickly, and infrastructure has had to change, laws have changed, and education has changed. Services and resources are always limited, even for the local community so this can lead to strain for everyone.
You mentioned education was the bedrock of what you provide. What else do you offer the Hispanic community today?
We have three main programs. One is the scholarship fund that I mentioned and that promotes education or higher education. And then we have the GEM program, which is about guiding, empowering and mentoring Latinos. And this involves assisting people with other skills like computer literacy, or parenting classes and personal development workshops. And we have the RAD program, which is about reaching for the American dream, where we assist people in the process of obtaining citizenship.
We also have two main events. One is the Cinco De Mayo festival where we celebrate education culture and community. It’s our fundraiser for the scholarship fund. And we also have the annual conference where we discuss issues that are relevant to the community, not just for Latinos, but for all people in the community.
The last four years have been difficult for a lot of immigrants and people of color in this country. Did you see or sense fear when communities like yours were attacked and a general intolerance of people from other countries began to emerge?
It was a very difficult four years. The administration really created an atmosphere of mistrust in all communities and across the country because of the rhetoric that was being delivered. We feel sad and angry still. It was very divisive. Certainly, it was bad for minorities to be in the middle or the target of some of those comments by the President and his followers. But at the same time, and this is my personal feelings, I feel sorry for the people in the community that were lied to about immigrants. I feel sorry for those Republican Party supporters for choosing who they put in the presidential seat. That choice and the lies are going to have lasting effects, not just in regard to community relations, but in the perception of what the Republican Party is about and how it reacts to our community. We have a lot of work to do to repair that damage.