« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

A more colorful future awaits Nebraska


The 2010 Census recently revealed that the population of Grand Island, Nebraska's fourth-largest city, has increased by a whopping 13 percent over the past decade. This was exciting news in a state in which 69 of the 93 counties lost population since 2000, and a third of those counties lost more than 25 percent of their people.

Fueling Grand Island's growth was a surge in the Hispanic population, which was 72 percent higher than in 2000. Statewide, the rise in Latino numbers was 77 percent. Neither development was surprising: Hispanics lead employment in meatpacking, construction and lawn maintenance, and these days, they can be found in almost every job.

What wasn't unexpected, either, was the reaction from alarmists in Nebraska: We're getting overrun!  More Hispanics, they shriek, means more crime, more white unemployment, more hole-in-the-wall taco houses -- perhaps the end of the good life of which Nebraska so proudly boasts. For paranoid people who hold that view, I've got bad news: It's going to get worse. But if you value and enjoy diversity, life is just going to get a whole lot better.

Here in the United States, Hispanics tend to live longer than Anglos. A 2010 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the life expectancy of Hispanics in this country now surpasses that of Anglos by nearly 2.5 years. Hispanics, it seems, and especially the most recent Latin American immigrants, are less susceptible to stress than other Americans.

Latinos are also having more children than whites. According to National Vital Statistics Reports, the 2009 birth rate for non-Hispanic whites aged 15-44 was 11 per 1,000 women; for Hispanics, it was 20.6. Hispanics account for only about one in six Americans, but one in four U.S. children.

Despite this, there continues to be a trend of underestimating the number of Latinos in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center calculated that there are 1 million more Hispanics here than population estimates showed in April 2010.

The raw population numbers are nothing short of stunning. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the non-Hispanic population of Texas increased by roughly 1.5 million people, not an unimpressive number. But the Hispanic population grew by nearly twice that number. The same thing happened in Kansas, where the Anglo population grew by 50,000 but the Latino population more than doubled.

In the past decade, the percentage of non-Hispanic Texas whites under age 18 plunged from 42.6 to 33.8 percent; the percentage of Latinos in the same age group jumped from 40.5 to 48.3 percent. San Antonio, Texas, grew from 56 percent Hispanic in 2005 to 63 percent Hispanic in 2010. Elsewhere in the Midwest, Hispanic populations were up 103 percent in South Dakota, 85 percent in Oklahoma, 84 percent in Iowa and 80 percent in Missouri. Meanwhile, the Anglo population growth in those five states was in the single digits.

The escalation of the Hispanic population (as well as other non-white groups) means that the American palette will get even more vibrant in the future. Whites will likely become a minority in the United States around 2041 or 2042, according to the latest estimates. Only six years ago, the Census Bureau estimated that whites would remain a majority until 2050.

That's quite the opposite of what Josiah Strong envisioned 125 years ago. In 1885, Strong, a popular American Protestant clergyman and writer in his time, envisioned everlasting white supremacy in the Western Hemisphere. Anglo-Saxons in the United States, he wrote, "will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea. ..."

It will be interesting to see how white Americans deal with the new inevitabilities. Some will write nasty letters to local newspapers and spread stereotypes and myths, though it might be a better idea to simply embrace the change and begin learning more about the rest of the world and its incredibly diverse cultures.

And trust me, all those unpretentious "taco houses" -- like La Mexicana, La Cabana, El Tazumal and others in Grand Island -- offer excellent service and unique dishes. There you can find plates such as Pollo Michoacano, with its chorizo and poblano peppers, and an authentic Central American pupusa, with frijoles and curtido.

In my mind, that makes Nebraska's beef-and-potatoes good life even better.

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and editor in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].