A growing Hispanic population poses challenges
The burgeoning panhandle town of Guymon, OK now has a Hispanic majority, and many in town agree it’s the reason for their wealth of jobs and successful local businesses. But the transition from a traditionally white town to majority Hispanic wasn’t easy at first.
On the second floor of the old high school, Director of Title III and Migrant Services for Guymon Public Schools Julie Edenborough describes how the cluttered room we’re standing in will soon be the new migrant learning center.
“I’ve got book cases and 375 trade books coming in,” Edenborough said. “I’ve got study carols for that corner with laptop computers. And, I’m in the process of painting and fixing cracks.”
It’s Edenborough’s job to manage the needs of the students whose native tongue is not English but one of the 24 different languages or dialects spoken in Guymon classrooms. Such a staggering number of dialects in a relatively small school system is just one example of the strain that Guymon has felt under population growth. Sitting in her office across the hall she recalls how the demands put on the schools made some residents bristle.
“I remember at the time that there were some people who said that ‘those’ students would slow ours down. I was told to put my children in advance placement classes to get them away from ‘those’ children. So, there was very much an ‘us and them’ mentality.”
In 1994 when the City of Guymon agreed to partner with Seaboard Foods, allowing them to build a large pork processing plant in town, some locals expressed concern. Similar businesses followed, and Guymon’s Hispanic population has grown steadily ever since. The projection by the US Census that white children will no longer be a majority by 2023 long ago became a reality in Guymon, as Hispanic enrollment has gone from a minority to the overwhelming majority. Even with the addition of a new elementary school just five years ago, every seat in the school system is full.
“We are already at capacity,” Edenborough said. “A building we planned to tear down, that should probably be condemned, is still in use because our doors are overflowing.”
“We grew pretty fast. But I also look back and wonder if they hadn’t come, where we would be now?” Doug Melton is Superintendent of Guymon Public Schools. Even though he acknowledges the early tensions, he seems disinterested in questions about the legal status of his students or immigration reform in general.
“In Guymon we kind of do our own thing,” Melton said. “That stuff happens in Washington D.C. and Oklahoma City.”
Melton’s opinion isn’t an unusual one around town. Vicki Ayres-McCunne believes that much of the resistance to Guymon’s diversification is overblown. She says the national immigration debate and Oklahoma’s own immigration bill, HB 1804, feel worlds away.
“I think you do see a lot more people embracing it,” Ayres-McCune said. “And, I think that the outside world, for whatever reason, they think it’s been a hardship. But, really the people around Guymon and the panhandle region are welcoming, and have really embraced the different cultures.”
Jezebel Delgado was born in California, but moved to Southern Mexico with her family at the age of two and moved to Guymon as a teenager. Now in her late twenties, she works at a loan office while studying for her master’s degree.
“I just bought a house on Fourth Street, and everybody on that block is white. Well, my neighbor on my west side wasn’t too happy to see me, but my other neighbor accepted me, and that’s good. You know, I’m just going to do my best to make him feel comfortable, and I hope he’ll do the same.”
Delgado and other immigrants and Hispanics in town agree that while some of those old anxieties do still linger, they don’t just feel safe or tolerated in Guymon, they feel welcomed.