February 13, 2011 | The Journal Gazette | Original Article

Ligonier 2nd majority-Hispanic town in state

– Perhaps no other story coming out of the 2000 census was more significant than the explosion of the nation’s Hispanic population, a movement that continues 10 years later.

In many Indiana towns, Hispanic increases of more than 100 percent were not uncommon in 2000. Fort Wayne saw a 154 percent increase in Hispanic residents through the 1990s.

While the rate has slowed, the numbers are no less significant. The city marked a 70 percent increase in Hispanics between 2000 and 2010, according to figures released last week.

The city’s 20,200 Hispanic head count sounds about right to G. Herb Hernandez, president of the Greater Fort Wayne Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

After years of being skeptical of the 2000 Hispanic total and because of a widely suspected undercount, Hernandez believes Fort Wayne’s Hispanic number is accurate, although some in the community, he said, think it is higher.

Statewide, the number of Hispanics nearly doubled in the last decade to 389,707. They now make up 6 percent of the population.

Yet few Indiana towns have experienced the resounding cultural change that Ligonier in Noble County has. Sometime in the last decade, the city of 4,400 became mostly Hispanic. Only one other Indiana city – East Chicago – has a Hispanic majority population.

Ten years ago, Ligonier reported a 352 percent Hispanic increase and a third of its residents were Hispanic. Over the past decade, the town added only 48 people, standing at 4,405. But 52 percent of residents are Hispanic. About half of the downtown businesses are Hispanic-owned.

John Lutton, Ligonier city councilman and pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, said such a cultural change in a historically white state caused a little discomfort on both sides. But that is gone.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’ve assimilated into the community and become a part of it,” he said.

Like some Ligonier residents, Margarita White, programming officer at the Noble County Community Foundation, thought new census numbers would show a Hispanic decline in the city. The economy forced many to move for jobs, some townspeople say. In 2000 the city’s Hispanic population was 1,451; in 2010 it blossomed to 2,270.

There aren’t many conflicts between ethnic groups in Ligonier, said White, a Hispanic.

“Everyone seems to get along really well,” which White attributes to schools. “They’ve been dealing with this a long time.”

Gary Bishop, former mayor and current city councilman, echoed other residents’ comments about Hispanic integration.

“During the Labor Day celebration, for example, they bring floats, they have mariachi bands,” he said. “The food vendors downtown are probably 60 percent Hispanic. You can go down there and get any kind of Hispanic food you want. We have very little trouble up here.”

But despite a Hispanic majority, you won’t see any Hispanic names on the list of town elected officials. Not yet.

White ran for mayor three years ago and lost. She said she ran mostly because she wanted young people to see that, “Hey, we can make a difference.”

“They really keep to themselves,” White said of the town’s Hispanics. “I have never seen anybody other than myself” seek elected office.

Bishop believes that’s a matter of time.

“Some of the Hispanic high school kids come to the council meetings, and I’ve been asked questions about city government, about would it be improper (for them) to run for government office,” he said. “Why would that be a problem? Someday we’ll have a Hispanic mayor. I firmly believe that.”