May 27, 2011 | The Republic | Original Article

State's Hispanic population growing quickly

RAPID CITY, S.D. — South Dakota's growing Hispanic population was obvious recently at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Hill City, where half of this year's First Communion class hails from a Spanish-speaking family.

According to the 2010 Census, the number of Hispanic people living in the state doubled to more than 22,000 in the past 10 years, but they still comprise not quite 3 percent of its population.

Several western South Dakota towns have Hispanic populations well above the statewide average. Hill City tops the list, where nearly 20 percent of the town claims Hispanic ethnicity. Just 55 Hispanic people lived in Hill City in 2000, according to the official count from the U.S. Census Bureau, but that number had grown more than 200 percent by 2010, to 179.

The city of Box Elder's Hispanic population grew at an even more exponential rate - up more than 500 percent in the past 10 years. Box Elder has boomed in the past decade and nearly 8 percent of its 7,800 residents were of Hispanic origin in 2010. Much of that demographic is probably attributable to Air Force personnel stationed at nearby Ellsworth AFB, or to working class Hispanics who want to take advantage of the city's reasonable home prices for first-time home buyers, said Mayor Al Dial.

Rapid City, meanwhile, is 4 percent Hispanic, growing by more than 1,000 people in the past 10 years.

The Black Hills logging industry draws most Mexican immigrants to Hill City, where the Meza and Munoz families have run logging businesses for decades. That's how Leo and Ana DeAnda came to live in Hill City 20 years ago.

"My brothers came here first," said Ana (Meza) DeAnda, who followed her husband north about a year after he came to Hill City to work for Meza Logging.

Liz Simental, owner of the Mexican eatery Rico's in Hill City, said Mexican immigration is nothing new to the southern Black Hills town.

"Mexicans have been coming to Hill City for a hundred years," Simental said, noting several longtime Hill City businesses that are run by the descendants of Mexican immigrants. "Most of the Mexicans in the area now are in the logging business, and I think it's just going to continue to grow."

Thirty years ago, she remembers getting all of the town's Hispanic population in her backyard for parties. No longer. "Now, you've got to rent a place," for gatherings like weddings, graduations or quinceaneros.

The influence of that growing Hispanic population on the culture of Hill City is everywhere.

The grocery store sells an array of ethnic food products used in Mexican cuisine and the Catholic Church holds a weekly Spanish-language Mass at 7 p.m. every Saturday. The local school district has about 18 percent Hispanic enrollment and many of those students, including DeAnda's children, spoke Spanish as their first language. The Hill City elementary school newsletter, "What's New," is also printed in Spanish as "Que Hay de Nuevo."

But nowhere is the Mexican culture more on display than in Hill City's annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, which has grown into a popular inter-cultural event embraced by American-born residents and Mexican immigrants alike.

"Hill City people, they open the doors to us. They are really friendly," DeAnda said. "So we want to involve them. In the same way they invite us, we want them to invite them to participate in our culture," she said.

Organized in 2009 by Jack Jewett of The Gathering Place ministry, the first Cinco de Mayo celebration involved about seven families. But this year's parade and community potluck drew more than 200 participants on May 7. "And this year, oh my gosh, it was so impressive. Everybody came," said DeAnda. She brought homemade tostados, tacos and posole to the potluck, and American-born Hill City residents contributed food, as well. "We exchanged food, too. It was like a family."

Texas-born Simental, who moved to South Dakota with her immigrant husband, also experienced the Hill City welcome mat when she opened her restaurant four years ago. She worried about how it would be accepted by non-Hispanics, but she needn't have.

"When I started the restaurant . everybody gave me things to put on the walls in here," she said. Five years later, townspeople like to see their donated decorations on the restaurant walls, and her customer base is mainly non-Hispanic people who want a taste of homemade Mexican food, something that her fellow Hispanics can get in their own kitchens, she said. "My husband makes the carnitas we serve here. Not everyone can make them, so that's the only time I see Mexicans when they come in to buy carnitas by the pound," she said.

The Rev. Janusz Korban, himself an immigrant from Poland, agrees that Hill City and Hispanics are a good match.

"I think there is no better place for Mexican people than Hill City. They are really very hospitable."

The DeAndas and their five children are one of about 50 Hispanic families who have helped revitalize the Catholic parish in Hill City, said Korban. Ana DeAnda serves on the parish council, and the family often attends both Spanish language and English language masses. In addition to his Hill City Hispanic ministry, Korban now says a weekly Spanish-language Mass at Blessed Sacrament in Rapid City. More than 50 Spanish-speaking families are registered there.

The growth of the Catholic Church in America is tied to immigration from Mexico and St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church has benefitted from it, said Danny Bergin, a longtime Hill City resident. Bergin enjoys the cultural diversity that DeAnda and others have brought to the church and the community.

Ana DeAnda was a registered nurse in Mexico 20 years ago, but she and her husband were still unable to make enough money to support their growing family there. After immigrating to Hill City, she cleaned motel rooms and worked at Krull's Market for many years while she improved her English skills before taking her current job as a certified nursing assistant at the Custer nursing home. She also volunteers on the Hill City ambulance crew, and she hopes to get her U.S. nursing education and certification some day.

"I'm going to try," she said, "I don't feel comfortable with my English yet."

Unlike other areas of the nation, where a rancorous debate about illegal immigration can dominate community conversation, the issue has never been much of a factor in Hill City. Nor is it in Box Elder, according to Dial. Dial said he has no indication that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has ever found illegal immigration to be an issue in Box Elder.

Box Elder Police Chief Tim Ryan said he hasn't encountered the issue in his first year on the job, either.

"I don't think so, because we haven't run across it," said Ryan.