Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Kansas City Star Looks at Noel, Missouri

by Pa Rock
Citizen of the World

Reporter Donald Bradley wrote an excellent piece in last Saturday's Kansas City Star entitled "In Small-Town Missouri, a Collision of Cultures."  The focus of the piece was Noel, Missouri, which is not only well recognized in some quarters as "the Christmas City of the Ozarks," but also happens to be the place of my raising - my hometown.

I have written in this space before about the immense cultural changes that have occurred in Noel over the past couple of decades.  The town has two primary industries - tourism with many canoe camps putting thousands of tourists on the beautiful local rivers each summer, and a large poultry-processing plant owned and operated by Tyson's.  Beyond that, most locals who choose to remain in the area are often employed in the Wal-Mart home office and warehouses in Bentonville, Arkansas, just twenty-five miles south of Noel.

Around twenty years ago the Tyson plant began recruiting Hispanic workers from south Texas.  Inevitably some illegals came north in the mix.  Many of those immigrants whom I knew personally proved to be very hard workers who often did two shifts a day at the "chicken plant" in order to support themselves and their families.  Often they were able to send money back to relatives in Mexico and Central America.  These good folks eventually began buying houses, and some even started opening their own businesses.

The Hispanics gave Noel a different appearance, one with which not all of the locals were comfortable.  Bright colors went up on a few of the homes and businesses, conversations on the streets were occasionally conducted in Spanish and local Spanish language periodicals began appearing in public places, and loud mariachi music was heard coming from speakers of some automobiles.  For those who liked "real" Mexican food, it was readily available in several of the new cafes.

Many locals got behind the evolving community, and, predictably, others resisted the changes.  The local schools, for instance, passed up the opportunity to begin offering Spanish in the lower elementary grades - a time when learning a foreign language is much easier.  The immigrant children were expected to become bilingual, and the native locals were not.  (I always wondered who would be the foremen and line-leaders in the town's industries of the future.  It seems likely that those supervisory jobs would go to people who are fluent in both English and Spanish.)  But I digress.

About five or ten years ago, Africans became arriving in Noel to work in poultry industry.  The fact that these immigrants were black, and often Muslim, again challenged the tolerance of those who had lived in the community for generations.  But, as Mr. Bradley pointed out in his fine article, these new immigrants have also begun to work their way into the fabric of the community.  The old Harmon Hardware Store, a three-story stone building that was constructed on Main Street in 1898, anchored the town's business district for nearly a century.  Today that stately and historic old building is the "African Store."

There has been much change in my hometown over the past two decades, and some have learned to live with it while others have not.  Mr. Bradley mentioned one white youth whom he observed that yelled a racial slur and then hopped in a pickup truck and sped away.  He noted remarks by a few in the community that were more guarded than they were openly accepting.  But Donald Bradley also talked to Mayor James Carroll (an old childhood friend of mine) and some others who were focused of the positives of living in a multi-cultural community and who have been making efforts to get to know the newcomers on a more personal basis.

All-in-all the feature article on Noel in the Kansas City Star was a an insightful look at how a small community is adjusting to some major cultural changes, and it showed the ways in which the diverse cultures are struggling to come together.  I commend the writer on his care and diligence in exploring my hometown and presenting it to the public in an even-handed manner.

I have always been proud on Noel - and I still am!


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