In a small Missouri town, an MU program aims to ease tensions among residents old and new. By Erik Potter // Photos by Nicholas Benner
The heart of Milan, Mo., is its square, and the center of the square is the Sullivan County Courthouse. Built in 1939, its three stories of buff bricks and Indiana limestone have stood witness to 76 years of change in the rural Midwest. In 1940, it looked out over a county populated by 17 African-Americans and 13,684 whites. Sixty-nine percent of workers earned a living in agriculture.
Today, Sullivan County is home to just 6,714 people. According to census figures, today just 9.2 percent of its population makes a living from farming. The city of Milan’s population, however, has remained remarkably stable. This is, in part, thanks to jobs provided by the sprawling Farmland facility, a meat processing plant owned by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork products. For slightly more than two decades, the plant, located just a stone’s throw outside the city limits, has employed workers to harvest “everything but the squeal” from as many as 10,000 pigs each day.
ecause local labor is in short supply, Farmland hires a lot of foreign workers — mostly Mexican nationals but also workers from elsewhere in Central and South America and even Africa. This influx of immigrant labor has radically altered Milan’s demographic profile. Latinos, for example, now make up 41 percent of the population.
The nation’s metropolitan areas have long traditions of receiving immigrants, but it’s a new experience for Milan and other rural Midwestern towns, says MU’s Stephen Jeanetta, associate extension professor in rural sociology. Jeanetta ticks off a laundry list of challenges: There are not enough interpreters in town, not enough rental housing, too many bad landlords. For immigrants who are undocumented, he says, accessing health care is difficult.
Jeanetta is currently a faculty fellow with the Cambio Center, an MU-based research and outreach organization that specializes in issues related to Latino immigration and changing communities. He and a number of his Cambio Center colleagues, with support from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, recently wrapped up work on the second of two four-year projects, begun in February 2011, to better understand the complex sociological forces underpinning the economic and social integration happening in Milan and two other rural Missouri towns. The goal, the researchers say, is to use what they learn to promote the “sustainability of agricultural and rural communities.” Key to making this happen, they add, is building bridges between long-time community members and new neighbors.
ilan’s third annual multicultural festival was half an hour old. The Truman State University choir had finished singing, and Milan’s own Cornerstone Church band was setting up on a simple, aluminum-sided stage. A small, stone-terraced amphitheater surrounded the stage, its grassy seating space a verdant end cap to the weathered buildings lining Third Street. The 2-year-old performance area, located on the southeast corner of Milan’s town square, was bright, fresh and humming with good feelings.
Soon the denim-clad church musicians were cranking out the electric sounds of modern worship, while dads in baseball caps and moms pushing strollers bobbed their heads. Over on the south and east sides of the square, food vendors fired up grills and fryers. On the west side, local families set out used clothing, books and knick-knacks for sale.
Organizers were expecting some 300 people to enjoy the festivities. They concede that those aren’t big numbers, even by local standards. But just having this festival, residents will tell you, is a sign of real progress.
Milan’s first wave of immigrants was mostly comprised of single men. The long-time residents eyed them warily. Incidents at the town’s five bars were frequent, as were calls to police. But gradually things began to quiet down, a development town officials attribute, at least in part, to more men with families gaining employment at the plant. Soon workers' wife and children were moving to town, as evinced by one of the festival’s marquee events, the Miss Multicultural Pageant.
The pageant is essentially a fundraising contest. Community members cast votes at one dollar each to determine the winner. In preparation for the pageant, a dozen or so middle school girls, both white and Latino, spent weeks canvassing the town in hopes of taking home the tiara. On this day, mothers, grandmothers and contestants’ younger siblings formed a camera-wielding phalanx around the stage. Fathers, grandfathers and older siblings found seats on the curb across the street. One by one, members of the Milan Wildcats football team, awkward with bashfulness, escorted the girls, each balanced precariously on high heels, on to the rostrum. The emcee — an enthusiastic local teacher — announced the girls’ interests, which ranged from sports and music, to chicken and sheep rearing.
Sponsored by the Milan Chamber of Commerce, the festival is an attempt to help forge a more unified community, recognition that treating the newcomers as “others” is bad for business. Street food offerings typically include hot dogs, hamburgers, tamales, gorditas and tacos. This year the town’s newest immigrant group, from Senegal, was given a slot on the secondary stage. They appeared just before a contest to determine who could eat the most jalapeños, and a turn on stage by a group of Filipino dancers.
A traditional dance by immigrants at the inaugural festival caught city administrator Jim Onello’s attention. He expected few people would care about it. But then he saw the crowd. “Everybody was quiet, and everyone was intent, watching the dance,” he says. “After the performances, they applauded.” A small moment, he admits, but one that led him to think that maybe, just maybe, a multicultural Milan “could work.”
Researchers such as MU’s Jeanetta think so, too. Surprisingly, though, they say it may be the immigrant community that is most difficult to bring on board. First the good news: A recent Cambio Center survey found that both immigrant and Anglo residents held positive views toward integration, this being defined as when individuals mix key features of “receiving community” culture with their own cultural practices.
Less welcome was the contradictory finding that, on a scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” the Latino newcomers, on average, “somewhat agreed” with cultural segregation, defined as when individuals maintain their culture of origin and do not mix with the receiving community’s culture. Non-immigrant community members, on the other hand, viewed cultural segregation "somewhat negatively." The survey also found that less than half of Latino respondents said Milan was a “friendly place” for newcomers. Sixty-two percent, on the other hand, said they found it, if not friendly, at least “accepting.”
During the course of Cambio’s interviews with each group, Jeanetta says researchers came to understand that the two groups of residents thought about community differently. For many immigrants, “community” was considered to be only their extended family and friends. For the receiving community, it was bound up in place. Given this mindset, the researchers say, a separatist strain in the immigrants’ thinking isn’t that surprising.
Because it is the most geographically remote of the communities Cambio studied, Jeanetta says it's probably not a coincidence that immigrants in Milan were also the most in favor of cultural separation.
In the wake of these findings, Jeanetta arranged to meet with a group of high school students and ask them for ideas about how officials might do better at building a friendlier city. Suggestions included development of multilingual welcome packets for newcomers, a bilingual website for city information, and an language center where adult Spanish speakers could learn English, and English speakers Spanish.
The website — a Facebook page — is already live. “I didn’t have the time or energy to do what [Cambio] did,” says Onello, the city administrator. “They were a godsend.”
rogress on other fronts includes a nearby subdivision that is under development, which will add 25 quality homes. Onello has begun to hold what he hopes will be tri-annual meetings after the Catholic church’s Spanish mass, to hear the concerns of the newcomers. He also wants to turn the multicultural festival into a two-day event.
When school superintendent Ben Yocom came on board in July 2014, he met with Alex Fuentes, an organizer with Rural Community Workers Alliance and a leader in the Latino community. “He told me I was the first person from the school to meet with him,” Yocom says. “That hit me pretty hard.”
Yocom has overhauled the district’s English Language Learner program so that it helps students based on their skill level rather than their age. The high school and middle school started a multicultural club. A Latino 4H club is in the works for next school year.
“We’re making inroads,” Onello says. “Cambio helped identify potential roadblocks to having a community as a whole.” The children of Milan are the best examples of one community. Per capita, the Milan school district is the most diverse in the state, and the students have responded well to a “positive-behavior” program started several years ago. The program stresses rewarding good behaviors rather than merely punishing bad ones.
“The students do tend to align themselves with their various cultures,” Yocom says. “But [different ethnicities] do sit together, socialize together.”
This dynamic is often on display during warm nights at the town-square amphitheater. Last summer, grant money funded a series of free movies which were attended by both the immigrant and receiving communities.
The parents mostly stayed separate. But not the kids, especially those too small to resist the allure of green grass and warm summer air. Together, they just played.