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Hispanic Growth Revives Okla. Town

March 13, 2001

HEAVENER, Okla. (AP) _ The boom in Oklahoma’s Hispanic population can be seen clearly in the two sides of this small town in the state’s eastern hills.

One moves to a salsa beat, the other complains about the noise. One side can’t speak English well, the other can’t understand Spanish.

``It’s Heavener, but it’s not the same Heavener I grew up in,″ said Police Chief Donald Richards. ``There may be 10 people walking down Main Street and there’ll be one Caucasian and nine Hispanics.″

Heavener has been dealing with the implications of the change since Hispanic immigration pushed into Oklahoma towns during the 1990s like one of the freight trains that rumble through here.

According to census figures released Monday, the number of Hispanics statewide grew from about 86,000 people in 1990 to more than 179,000 last year, an increase of 108 percent. Nationally, the Hispanic population jumped by 58 percent over the last decade.

LeFlore County, which includes Heavener, had an 11 percent overall population growth to some 48,000 people. Hispanic population increased fourfold to 1,849.

The chief’s phone rings nonstop, often with gripes about loud Latino music. Some in the Hispanic community complain of rent gouging, while local residents grouse about run-down looking rental homes packed with newcomers.

The boom has caused ``absolute chaos sometimes,″ the chief says. But if Heavener hadn’t become a Hispanic town, he suspects it would be a dying town.

``You could have shot a shotgun down Main Street and never hit a car all day,″ he says, recalling a decline that began in the 1980s. ``I’ll be honest. They’ve helped our community.″

Long-vacant downtown buildings now hold Hispanic churches, Mexican restaurants, the Mexican grocery and a bakery. Sales tax collections grew by almost 25 percent between 1994 and 2000.

Hispanics have come for a better life _ and for the chickens.

Poultry manufacturing so dominates this Oklahoma-Arkansas border region that feathers dance along the roadways. When the OK Foods’ chicken processing plant opened at the edge of town in 1991, it became a beacon to Mexicans willing to do work locals refused. An average worker earns $7.25 to $10.50 an hour.

``You’ve got your check you can depend on,″ explains Sotero Farias, whose wife, Alejandrina, also is among the 900 workers at the Heavener plant.

They left planting corn and beans in Mexico to give their children more opportunity. But like many immigrants here, they plan to go home when the kids are grown.

Chatter flows in Spanish over the dried beans and peppers in the Mexican market where they shop. Adela Solano’s cash register sings nonstop. The store is a meeting point for the Hispanic community.

Lisa Fabian, one of the district’s four bilingual instructors, says many of the Hispanic teens she tutors have been here for just a few weeks, and new students arrive all the time speaking only Spanish.

One Heavener school teacher walked into class a few years ago to discover 10 of her 15 students couldn’t speak English. The district, caught off guard, turned to federal grants to hire bilingual help.

Some of Fabian’s students now have lofty goals.

In her classroom, 15-year-old Juan Silva explains in English how he dreams of becoming a boxer, a lawyer or a doctor. Fabian encourages him. ``I like the sound of that _ Dr. Juan Silva.″

``The only thing I don’t like,″ the boy says, ``are the people who make fun of me.″

He and other teens say they’ve been called ``tamales″ and ``tacos″ and told, ``Go back to your own country.″

A lot of people ``don’t like them, don’t want them here,″ says Tish Livesay, a park ranger at nearby Lake Wister. ``It’s just an old country town. That’s what it is.″

Heavener has so few bilingual speakers that the courthouse and the emergency room regularly call on Fabian for translation help. For a time, she even interpreted her pastor’s rapid-fire sermons.

Other states also have registered triple-digit increases in the number of Hispanic residents during the 1990s: Iowa had a whopping 152.6 percent increase, Indiana shot up by 117 percent and Arkansas’ Hispanic population increased by 337 percent.

Richards thinks Heavener’s complexion has been altered for good.

``In my opinion, they’re here to stay. They’re going to become part of the community in the years to come and you’ll see council members with the names Hernandez and Gomez,″ he says. ``They’re integrating into our community and that’s the way it’s going to be.″


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