One of the most remarkable aspects of the American dream is the striving to rise above the ordinary, to press the boundaries in search of something more.
Perhaps Jack Kerouac, author of the beatnik epic “On the Road,” best exemplifies this ethos with Sal, the main protagonist of the novel who was in search of that elusive it, the desire to reach out for something more. At the end of his road, Sal finally “found the magic land” among the “fellaheen people of the world” in Mexico.
Today, widespread and complex changes in the American landscape have made the end of Kerouac’s road the beginning. Imagine if Kerouac could have instead walked out into his American neighborhood to find the end of his road right at his doorstep. What if he had found the “fellaheen people” right next door — speaking Spanish, blaring mariachi and opening Mexican restaurants.
Although the Latino population remains relatively small here in the La Crosse area when compared to the traditional immigrant gateway areas in the United States, the population here continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. The U.S. Census shows that in the Latino population grew by 74 percent in Wisconsin, and in one census tract in nearby Trempealeau County, the Hispanic population grew 800 percent from 2000 to 2010.
The Hispanic population continues to grow in the entire United States beyond the traditional settlement areas of the big cities and into the interior of the country, including rural areas and small towns like ours. In many ways, the La Crosse area is typical to the changing urban and rural demographic of the United States that is increasingly becoming more Hispanic.
Change often brings with it uncertainty, often confounded with misinformation and contradictory messages. Demographic changes associated with the increase of Hispanic immigrants to the United States are no exception. Much of the scholarship on Hispanic immigration, and much of our discourse in mainstream American thought, characterizes Hispanic communities as having a lack of investment, relatively few well-paying jobs or industries that create well-paying jobs, and high rates of poverty.
Hispanic communities are further stereotyped as having a distinct “barrio culture” with prevailing conceptions of American life that are at odds with dominant U.S. cultural sensibilities. In some of my own sociological work with other colleagues in the field, however, Hispanic immigration actually is the opposite of how it’s portrayed in the media: They have revitalized the urban economies of many urban areas in the United States.
Additionally, my observations of the Hispanic community here in the La Crosse area in fact do counter these stereotypes. Although the Hispanic community here has higher rates of poverty typical of newly arriving immigrants, compared to Hispanics in other parts of the country, they fare much better. My preliminary research shows that Hispanics in the La Crosse area have relatively high rates of employment and access to industries that offer living wages and opportunities for improvement. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a developing “barrio culture” or oppositional subculture that challenges mainstream American values.
Based on my observations and interviews working with members of the community, Hispanics express the desire to work hard, maintain strong family values, assimilate into mainstream American society, and achieve success through education and improvement.
Although many Hispanics did not initially want to leave their homelands, external pressures beyond their control left them little choice. Now that they are here, as so many immigrant groups before them, they want to positively contribute to their new communities. One way they seem to do that, despite the stereotypes, is in their economic contributions to the local area communities in which they settle.
The direction of the La Crosse area Hispanic community looks promising. Their high employment rates translate into increased city revenue through taxes, fewer vacant residential housing and commercial spaces, and increased income within the community. In short, current and newly arriving Hispanics in our city and region add to the vitality and economic prosperity of our community. That is why two organizations recently opened in the area to offer support to the Hispanic community, including El Centro Latino and the Hispanic Community Center of Wisconsin.
The recent arrests of Hispanics in Sparta begin to create unnecessary distrust between authorities and community residents. Further, in my work with the Hispanic Community Center of Wisconsin, Hispanic residents of Monroe County complain that police, knowing where they live and work, frequently pull them over to check for valid driver’s licenses. Whether one thinks this is racial profiling or not is unimportant. Rather, these examples serve as the exact kind of obstacles Hispanics face when trying to assimilate into their new communities and positively contribute to its safety and economic well being.
As many Hispanics repeatedly express to us, “We just want to be good citizens and contribute to this community.” I believe that so long as Hispanics in our area are provided the opportunity, they will continue to positively contribute to our region and compliment the democratic project of a country that was and continues to be created through immigration.
The La Crosse area serves a great example of how this democratic experiment continues to unfold in the history of our country. It is up to us to decide how we, the La Crosse community, write that story. I unequivocally argue for our La Crosse community to support the Hispanic community, knowing that while they are making their lives better for themselves and their families, they will make our communities better and stronger as well. Together, let’s choose to be something more.