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When I first arrived in Little Rock on May 21 of last year, I knew precious little about the region and the state of Arkansas in general. I knew that Bill Clinton had been governor of this state before becoming the 42nd president of the United States, and that he had been born in Hope. And that was about it.
During the last 25 years, I have made many journalistic “pit stops” all over the Southwest, Northwest and Midwest. Everywhere I've lived and worked, I've encountered more or less the same stories from immigrants I interviewed: Something about how a relative or friend, back in the old country (be it Mexico or some other Central American or South American nation), had related to them how it was possible to earn a much better wage, and access a much higher standard of living, in some city in California, or Texas, or Oregon, or Kansas, or any of the other states traditionally associated with Latin American immigrants.
Their beliefs, based on information they'd gotten from people who'd never been to the U.S., were almost like fairytales: When they got to their destination in the southwest, they thought, they would encounter money growing on trees, sweet manna falling from the sky, and untold riches would shower them in no time at all. I interviewed them shortly after they had arrived, whether it was right on the border, in El Paso, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Pueblo, Colo., or in Stockton, Fresno, or some other town in the San Joaquin Valley in northern California.
The immigrants I interviewed in Little Rock did not come here directly. Most had first arrived in California, but some came here from Chicago, or Florida, and a few from as far away as New York. It was after months, or years, that they made their way to Little Rock. Like me, most of them had never heard of Little Rock — or Arkansas, for that matter — before arriving here. Unlike me, they came here fleeing from insidious gang violence, interracial strife, and disappearing or dead-end jobs.
All the Latin American immigrants I have interviewed here have told me that they are thankful they found Little Rock, since it has provided them with jobs that they can live on, and a peaceful, family-friendly lifestyle they most definitely did not find at their first destinations.
Many of them, especially the ones from Central American countries, are wary and do not volunteer information easily (many of them have been deported before by la migra, the border patrol and immigration authorities, and therefore do not trust strangers, even if they do speak Spanish). But once I got past their justified mistrust, I was able to glean that most of them are savvy about the way things work in the U.S., and do not cling to any misguided rags-to-riches, pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
One Central American man in his sixties, Walter Alvarez, summed it up best when he told me, about a week after my arrival in Little Rock, that while it might be true that the construction job he had at the moment was not very well paid, and that in some instances in the past he feels that he has been exploited, “Still, even so, my current economic situation is better than what it was in the past, and certainly much, much better than what it was in my native country. Look, let's be honest here: People often say that we, the undocumented Latin American immigrants, are exploited in this country. But we've been exploited all our lives, and the first ones that exploited us were our own countrymen, back in our native lands. That's why we elected to leave, because we had no future there, other than to starve to death. We have passed from being los de abajo [the ones at the bottom rung of society] and los olvidados [the forgotten ones] in our countries to being los invisibles [the invisible ones] in this country. But we like our invisibility. It keeps us out of harm's way and allows us to work and live in peace here. That's why many of us live in trailer parks, because they're invisible, and we like it that way.”
With time, I found that he was right. Many trailer parks in southwest Little Rock go virtually unnoticed, and are hardly visible from the street. Other undocumented immigrants from Mexico I met echoed this invisibility theme: They showed me how they can drive their vehicles from Southwest Little Rock to any other part of the city without ever getting on the freeway or taking any main roads or streets with heavy traffic. They reason that by using bystreets or side streets, and taking little-used routes to their destinations, they are much less likely to encounter (and/or be stopped by) police patrol cars, which for them would spell quite a bit a trouble, since most of them don't have a driver's license or car insurance.
During this past summer, I befriended a group of eight Nicaraguan families who reside in a trailer park in Southwest Little Rock and are next-door neighbors to each other. They told me that since they all lived within shouting distance of each other, they could help each other out, in myriad ways, at a moment's notice. These eight families take turns cooking their evening meals for each other, every single day of the week. They explained that authentic Nicaraguan cuisine is hard to come by in Little Rock, and so, after many disappointments at local restaurants — even at those that claim to serve real Nicaraguan food — they decided to all pitch in, buy their own ingredients, and start cooking, from scratch, their favorite dishes for each other.
I also met Jose Salazar, a Guatemalan immigrant who works as a pastry chef in North Little Rock. “I've been living here in North Little Rock for about a year, and what brought me here was the fact that in West Los Angeles, Calif., where I lived and worked for 14 years, the economy went sour, many people started losing their jobs, and there was very little work for me. What I like best about this region is that the cost of living is lower, and therefore one's salary goes a long way, much more so than in California. On top of that, it is much more peaceful here.”
Perfecto Martinez, a Mexican immigrant and a carpenter, told me that his major pride in life was the fact he was able to earn a living here for him and his family (his wife Adela, and their three children: Karen, Lupita and Jose). “I came to Little Rock four months ago from Naples, Fla. I came over here because back in Florida there was no work for me anymore. After not being able to find work over there, I lost my house, my savings, everything I had. I had some cousins who were already here, and when I could no longer think of what to do in order to save myself and my family from homelessness in Florida, I decided to phone them. My cousins threw me a life raft, assuring me that I could find work in Little Rock. So now I'm starting all over again here in Little Rock. I'm starting from zero, but thanks to God, and to Little Rock, I have a job again, and therefore, I am able to provide for my family. I literally wake up every single day thanking the Lord that I found Little Rock.”
About three months after arriving here, I decided to move to a trailer park in Southwest Little Rock to better understand what it feels like to live in such a place. Now, I can report that I live in peace and harmony with all my neighbors there, the vast majority of whom are Latino immigrants. About the only thing I miss is quiet at night — there is noise from other trailers and traffic in and out of the park. I like to tell myself the noise helps lull me to sleep.
Thriving in Little Rock
Not all immigrants in Little Rock are undocumented or live in trailer parks, though they followed similar immigration patterns and paths to this region. And many of them are doing quite well, thank you very much. Take Ricardo Gomez and his cousins Rosendo and Rosalio Martinez.
Ricardo Gomez, who was born and raised in the Mexican state of Jalisco, arrived in the U.S. 18 years ago. He spent the first six years in California, and the last 12 in Little Rock. He says that he initially came here “because a compadre of mine called me while I was living and working in California, and invited me to come visit him. I ended up staying because la vida es mas bonita [life is more beautiful] here than in California. The cost of living is cheaper here, and salaries are better. Besides, here one lives more at ease mentally, because it is also a more peaceful place than California. I have nothing bad to say about this region, or this country, because it has given me a job with which I can sustain my family, and that to me is worth quite a lot.”
His cousin, Rosendo Martinez, also from Jalisco, arrived in the United States 11 years ago. The first four years he lived in California, and the last seven in Little Rock. He says this region, and this country in general, has been good to him and his family. “In fact, that's why we're here. I am very aware of the fact that the U.S., and Arkansas in particular, has received my family and I with open arms, and truth be told, we have improved our lot in life quite a bit.”
“When I first came to Little Rock, I was only here on vacation, since several friends and relatives that were already here had invited me to come and visit for a couple of weeks. But I ended up staying because I found the tranquility here very much to my liking. The truth is that for my children, who are all still quite young, life is much better here than in California, since the pace of life over there is quicker, and there were a lot of problems with gang violence.” Central Arkansas, he said, is a healthier place to raise a family.
Both Ricardo and Rosendo have bought houses in Little Rock and are here to stay.
Similarly, Rosendo's younger brother, Rosalio Martinez, together with his wife, Esperanza, and their two little daughters, followed more or less the same path to Little Rock. Rosalio (who is called “Chalio,” or simply “Chaly,” by most of his friends) and his young family live in a nice, spacious home they bought in Southwest Little Rock. He and his wife both hold down decent-paying full-time jobs, and they and their two young daughters, Cristal, 8, and Vanessa, 3, are thriving. Rosalio went to high school in Salinas, Calif., graduated, and then started working. “But during the '90s I started seeing that the gang problems, and violence in general, were just getting worse and worse. I was starting my family, and I didn't want that for my kids. So around 2002, I found out, somewhat by chance, that some of my relatives and acquaintances from back in my hometown in Mexico were living in and around Little Rock, and they were all saying that it was a peaceful place, and that the jobs were good, and that the cost of living was relatively low. I was looking for a place like that, where I could raise my kids feeling safe, so I decided to take a look for myself. And I haven't been disappointed. I like it here. It's family-friendly, the people are nice, courteous, friendly and very respectful. I think my future is definitely in Little Rock, as long as the jobs are here. That's why my wife and I bought a house and are planning to raise our kids here.”
Rigoberto Chavez first came to Little Rock from his native Costa Rica 34 years ago. When he arrived, “I could count on the fingers of my two hands the number of Latinos who were living in Little Rock, and I would probably still have a few fingers left over,” said Chavez. “That has changed a great deal over the years, but I think the numbers really didn't start increasing sizably until about 15 years ago, around 1994 or 1995. That's when you really began to see Latinos arriving here in big quantities.” Chavez said he's seen isolated instances of discrimination, but less than in other states.
Chavez works as an administrative assistant and head winder at the Multi States Electric transformer repair shop. It operated a branch in Costa Rica, and he was asked to come to Little Rock directly from his native land under a student visa, to learn about the company. His one-year student visa got extended to two years. And then, 32 years ago, Chavez got married here to the girl of his dreams, became a legal resident, and decided to stay and live in Little Rock with the love of his life.
Besides all that, Chavez is an outstanding State Level 5 soccer referee (the highest level in Arkansas). He is a member of the Arkansas State Soccer Association's board of directors. He is also co-founder (together with Jose Vicente Cano) of the MexArk Adult Soccer League and directs a squad of refs for various high school and adult soccer leagues. Not too shabby for a man who started out life in the little mountain town of Zarcero, Costa Rica.
Cano, 61, an immigrant from Mexico City, said that when he first arrived in Little Rock 13 years ago, he lived in an apartment complex on Mara Lynn in West Little Rock, “and it was a rarity to hear Spanish being spoken on the street, in the stores, or anywhere on the west side of town. Wow! That sure has changed! But back then, whenever I would hear someone speaking Spanish in a store or anywhere else, I would rush over running to see if I could start talking with the Spanish speakers, because I so rarely got a chance to. Of course, even back then there was already a growing Latino community in Southwest Little Rock, but hardly any Hispanics on the west side.”
Years ago, Cano said, “most Latino immigrants in Little Rock were only here temporarily, and after a few months or a couple of years, they would move on, either back to their home country or to some place else in the U.S.” That has changed; nowadays many are electing to stay here permanently. Cano thinks it's important for the general public to know that “we, the Mexican immigrants, and Latino immigrants in general, are not criminals and have come here to work. The vast majority of us are hard-working, decent folk, who only seek an opportunity to work so we can better our station in life. We take enormous pride in paying our own way, in advancing in society … we are only pursuing our version of the American dream, which is almost identical to everyone else's version: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The only difference is that we want our cultural background to also be part of this dream.”
Andres Chao Ebergenyi, consul general of Mexico in Little Rock, said that when he first arrived in July 2006, he found a young, growing Mexican immigrant community, whose members, for the most part, had previously spent varying amounts of time in California, Illinois, Texas and Florida. “Mexican immigrants come to this region because of several factors: availability of jobs, the openness and welcoming nature of the Central Arkansas community toward Latinos in general, the relatively low cost of living.”
Chao said today there is more direct immigration from Mexico, most from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. About 70 percent of Arkansas's estimated 180,000 Mexican immigrants live in Northwest Arkansas; the rest are mostly in Little Rock, Texarkana, De Queen, Fort Smith and El Dorado.
Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso and an expert on border issues, immigration, and U.S.-Mexico affairs, says that places like Arkansas, Idaho, Wisconsin, the Carolinas and other regions in the U.S. not traditionally associated with immigration from Latin American countries, “are now areas to where Latino immigrants are flocking, in what is being called ‘second-wave' immigration.”
I like to refer to this immigration pattern I have found in Little Rock as rebound immigration, to denote the move from the first U.S. destination to a better one.
The next thing I plan to write: “Down and Out in Little Rock … and Loving Every Minute of It.”
Rafael Nunez worked for 14 years as a bilingual journalist covering the U.S.-Mexico border while living in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua (Mexico), before moving to Little Rock in May 2009.