New Immigrant Communities in the Heartland: An Interview with Dr. Ted Hamann

Headshot of Dr. Edmund 'Ted' Hamann.

Dr. Edmund 'Ted' Hamann is a professor in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska. He was featured in the 2010 documentary When We Stop Counting, which shares the story of six Hispanic students in Crete, Nebraska and their hopes and challenges. In this FAQ with Colorín Colorado, he describes the changing demographics of the Midwest and its impact on schools and communities.

To see more from Crete, take a look at this vignette from American Graduate Day's "Stories of Champions" about Superintendent Kyle McGowan's efforts on behalf of ELLs and early childhood education programs.


How are the demographics changing in the Heartland? 

Demographic change has a lot of moving parts, but I think four dynamics are worth naming here:

(1) The continued depopulation of rural areas (with meatpacking communities being an important exception) as farms need less labor and cities and university communities beckon with more cultural activities and a broader range of jobs;


Crete Public Schools. American Graduate Project.

(2) The aging of the rural white population (which raises the prospect of a mismatch in the race/ethnicity of those who attend schools and those who pay most of the property taxes that support those schools);

(3) the arrival of a ‘new Latino diaspora’ that means some towns with little previous Latino settlement now have large numbers—Nebraska now hosts six majority Latino school districts;

(4) the location of refugee populations (from the likes of Burma, Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq) into Heartland cities like Omaha, Lincoln, and even Dallas, that have low cost housing, low unemployment rates, and a service infrastructure (often church related) to help re-settle refugees.  This last sometimes means for the juxtaposition of school and community responses to (mostly Mexican and Guatemalan) Latino economic migrants with those of non-white, non-Latino refugees.

Who is part of the new Latino community that is growing in towns like Crete? 

One axiom of migration is that you go where you know someone, so there are particular sending communities in Mexico and Central America that are over-represented in Crete.  It’s also true that links are not just to Latin America; often Latino newcomer families in places like Crete have also lived elsewhere in the U.S., like Chicago or Los Angeles.  According to data collected by colleagues in towns like Crete, an impetus for some families to move to towns like Crete is the small and personable scale of the community.  So parents worried about dangers of working-class neighborhoods in Chicago, for example, might be attracted to Crete because it has fewer perils and temptations for their children. 

How Schools Can Welcome ELL Families

To learn more about Crete Public Schools and efforts there to welcome ELL families, take a look at our related interview with Kyle McGowan, former superintendent of the district.

As a further point, migration often is initiated by a few ‘pioneros’ (usually adults traveling without children) who, once they establish themselves, either start families in their new locale or send back for families still in Mexico.  The Latino community in Crete is multigenerational (in that it includes children, parents, and grandparents, but that’s a bit misleading in that these three generations all have arrived (or been born) in Crete in the last 15-20 years.

What brought these families to Nebraska?

Likely the availability of a living wage, decent housing, and a surrounding community where it would be ‘good to raise a family.’  These are the ‘pull’ factors.  The ‘push’ factors (whether from Latin America or elsewhere in the US) were likely away from unemployment/limited employment opportunities and the desire to reunite families.  In this last scenario if ‘pioneros’ had successfully established themselves in Crete, then children, spouses, and extended family members would be likely to follow.  They came to Nebraska to reunite with loved ones.

How do you think these changes in your region compare with similar kinds of changes in other parts of the country (for example, the Southeast or New England)?

There are clear overlaps, particularly to the Southeast where meatpacking is also a major employer of Latino newcomer labor.  While there is also a new Latino migration to the Northeast (‘new’ to differentiate it from the ongoing Puerto Rican migration with roots in the early 20th Century), with limited exception (e.g., an egg-packing facility in Turner Maine), it is not meatpacking or similar work drawing newcomers to those places.  Also, proportionally more of the migration to the Northeast is to suburbs and cities, not least because those are more developed/densely populated parts of the country. 

These newcomers, who also include a lot of Salvadorans on Long Island, are more likely to find employment in roofing, landscaping, and the like.  In all instances, Latino newcomers are ‘pulled’ to engage in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs that are often intermittent.  This pulling increases the prospective labor supply and puts downward pressure on wages.  As Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda has noted, it also leads to the typing of certain kinds of job by race or ethnicity.  I should add, though it is numerically much smaller, globalization of professional high-skill work (like the professoriate) also brings Latinos to those parts of the country where they historically have been scarce.

In the midst of these changes, what are the kinds of challenges facing both the newcomers and existing communities?

A lot of those communities have, historically, been very stable with few newcomers.  As a newspaper elegiacally put it in Dalton, GA, a town that is now majority Latino, a number of years ago: ‘[pre-Latino migration] it was rare that you saw a face on the street that you couldn’t put a name with.’   While this newspaper was not criticizing the new migration—it noted the revitalization of downtown, for example, with occupied storefronts replacing empty ones—it did acknowledge that the new migration gave rise to a need to recalibrate definitions of community.  With my colleague Jenelle Reeves, I too have written about changing definitions of community in meatpacking towns

Of course, the newcomers too face a challenge regarding their own sense of community and belonging.  When and how does a newcomer become of their new locale instead of of their previous or historic one?  As a final note, I should add that often the arrival of newcomers coincides with a loss of unionized local employment; this has particularly been true in meatpacking where unionized plants have been closed and then re-opened (often under different ownership) as non-unionized.  In these scenarios demographic change coexists with and as complicated growing economic insecurity.

What specific challenges face small and/or rural districts whose demographics are changing?

The late anthropologist Robert Hackenberg wrote about the ‘externalization of indirect costs’ to describe economic challenges born by changes in employers’ practices that were not, in turn, born by the employers.  So, for example, if the recruitment of a Spanish-speaking workforce (or, for that matter, a Burmese or Somali workforce) means a community faces costs finding interpreters for its courts and hospitals and training costs related to helping teachers be ready for English learners, these costs are not born by the local employers, but instead by the larger community.  In small communities with modest budgets, these costs can be difficult to fund and either they compete against other local needs and/or they result inadequate support of the newcomers.

In a similar vein, in a small community it does not take the arrival of all that many newcomers to alter the feel of a community.  The 2010 Census counted less than 2500 Hispanics in Crete, but that was a big enough number to make the schools almost half Latino.  Crete public schools are now majority Hispanic.

What are some examples of successes you’ve seen in addressing those challenges?

There are some exciting examples of communities seeing change as an opportunity.  As I noted earlier, revitalization of central business districts has been common, but speaking more specifically about schooling, I have also seen dual language education programs blossom that don’t just target teaching newcomers English, but that help English speakers develop Spanish as a second language.  This learning has implications not only for the cosmopolitan feel of a community but also the employability of its graduates.  As the documentary notes, Crete was the first district in Nebraska (per their own account) to intentionally recruit a bilingual high school counselor to be better positioned to work with its Spanish-speaking families.

What are some mistakes that you’ve seen made?

Demographic change changes the relative value of different people’s various skill sets.  I have seen teachers less capable in the middle of their career (as measured by the success of their students) than they were earlier because they haven’t adapted their skill sets to work as effectively with the newcomers.  Such teachers can work to develop new skills or they can ‘defend’ their struggles by blaming students and/or their families and/or other external factors for their challenges.  I would call the latter examples of ‘mistakes.’

Noting that demographic change is not the only new dynamic and that accountability changes required by No Child Left Behind have also been hugely consequential (and not necessarily favorably), I have also seen districts respond to their new enrollments by purchasing and implementing large-scale scripted phonetics curricula.  While phonics is a prospectively useful part of reading instruction, it is only a part, and these efforts ignore/forbid adapting instruction to help students connect it to their own lives and contexts.  Sometimes these new curricula help with test scores, but often they don’t.  More importantly they leave students without practice about how to connect their learning to their aspirations, concerns, and interests.  Almost always these new curricula are initially welcomed by most teachers (although the strongest, most creative teachers tend to chafe at them immediately), as those teachers struggle to regain their footing when suddenly faced by transformed enrollments.  However, reasonably quickly (i.e., within 2 or 3 years), all but the weakest teachers tend to be uncomfortable with the constrictions of scripted instruction.  In this sense these big investments in curriculum narrowing seem to be misdirected.

What is your advice for school leaders and teachers in schools where the demographics are changing?

I have been impressed by districts that have seen these changes more as an opportunity than as a challenge.  These districts have figured out ways to use newcomers’ different personal and family histories as resources that not only help the newcomers to learn but that also double as resources for their classmates.  My colleague Beth Lewis, for example, offers a fascinating account of how a geology class’s study of earthquakes was enhanced by Mexican newcomer students being able to interview parents and relatives who remembered the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.  A certain segment of the student population’s access to first-hand accounts became a resource for everyone.

The creation of dual-language immersion programs (that match English-as-a-second-language learners in classes with Spanish-as-a-second-language learners) are another example.  A third comes from “When We Stop Counting” when Superintendent Kyle McGowan pauses dramatically after saying he doesn’t want Crete to be a tolerant district (as tolerance suggests putting up with something that one doesn’t like) but rather a welcoming one where all parents can be sure that their children are understood as important, deserving, and welcome.

What kinds of training or support do you think is most helpful as a first step in addressing changing demographics?

At risk of answering a question with a question, the issue is ‘most helpful for whom?’.  Dentler and Hafner 15 years ago published a fascinating study (“Hosting Newcomers”) that showed that the districts (all in Arizona, Nevada, and California in that case) that had best negotiated a rise in immigrant student enrollments all had expertise related to English learners and immigrants at tiers above the classroom level. 

To me, that means that while it is crucial to have teachers in the classroom who know how to most effectively respond to such students, that expertise is only valuable if it is synch with larger school and district efforts.  An effective third grade teacher whose principal does not understand why she is effective, can be easily undermined by an ineffective 4th grade teacher, by a required curriculum adjustment that is not newcomer responsive, and the like.  Immediate classroom expertise needs to be echoed at larger supervisory tiers.

I remember a superintendent in Georgia from a fast-changing district who declined a chance to spend two weeks in Mexico studying the school experiences of students and parents now enrolled in his district.  He explained that he didn’t think such a trip would be supported by his school board.  That may well have been an accurate appraisal, but it also meant that he skipped a chance to develop key understandings that he lacked (and that he hadn’t needed previously).  He was less well positioned to guide a newcomer responsive district than he might have been.

I think the starting point for good training and support is consideration of who the newcomer kids and their families are.  What skills, languages, and background knowledge do they bring with them to their new community and schools?  How might these be tapped as tools for learning and engagement?

How can educators build positive relationships with the community where tensions may be high due to immigrant newcomers?

I think Mr. McGowan in Crete offers a good (and replicable) illustration:  Concentrate on what newcomers and established residents have in common (like all parents wanting their children to be treated well at school).  Language matters.  It may be that the same individual can be referred to as: ‘mother’, ‘employee’, ‘illegal alien’, ‘Latina’, ‘churchgoer’, etc.  Choosing labels that are inclusive and not fraught is important.  Thirdly, I think it is worth remembering that schools are not the only institution where newcomer and established resident mixing is happening.  In the six meat-packing communities where Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made raids in Dec. 2006, churches played a key role in organizing donations, sharing information, and being an inter-ethnic ‘safe space.’  While there are important ways schools are (and should be) different from churches, there are some spaces, like inclusive community building, where there can be common cause.

What role can local universities play as partners with the schools?

Universities purport to be both sources of expertise and vehicles of opportunity and upward social mobility.  Related to the former, universities should work with schools and schools should work with universities to convert research into practice.  I know this is easier said then done.  At the university end, too often the contingencies and challenges of school are ignored/dismissed.  Yet it is also true that too often schools are too cautious forming partnerships with university-based colleagues, and school-based folks sometimes dismiss what is taught and developed at the university level.  University based efforts (be they research or teacher preparation) to attend to that problem should not be dismissed out of hand.  Ultimately, a key is to develop partnerships where each of the participating parties gets something out of it.  Professors, teachers, and students do not need to get the same benefit from an effort for all three to nonetheless value and participate in that effort.

Separate from their expertise on education research and policy, universities are also postsecondary education institutions (i.e., the next level after high school).  Given that universities tend to under-enroll students of color (in relation to their representation in the general population) and do less well at retaining those they do admit, tighter university-school partnerships can also improve the likelihood of Latino students’ postsecondary success.  The BESITOS program led by my colleague Dr. Socorro Herrera at Kansas State University is a particularly promising example of a university initiative that welcomes, retains, and graduates first-generation Latino students.  It does so by monitoring how such students are faring, building peer networks, assuring students feel cared for, and otherwise interrupting factors that historically have inhibited Latino students’ success.

What kinds of research would you like to see being done on these issues?

I think there needs to be more research across transitions.  We need to study kids in middle school and then follow them to high school, or study them in high school and follow them to college.  Our questions should be about what happens in the first environment that make students successful and/or resilient in the second (or, pessimistically, causes problems in the second).  But it’s difficult to get long-term research funded.  I think we also need more research on how students subjectively experience school.  What makes them feel welcome vs. unwelcome?  Capable vs. Impeded?  And so on.

I think there is also often an impatience or frustration at schools related to research that has at least two important dimensions.  First, I think schools where Latino students (or any students) are struggling feel vulnerable to external scrutiny.  Researchers need to be able to answer to the worry: ‘So if you discover what isn’t working here, what happens beyond us looking bad?’  Not all practices engaged in by schools are good or effective (some are even deleterious), but school bashing seems unlikely to lead to positive change.  Research needs to have clear and inclusive applications.  We need to better document the incubating conditions that surround promising practices and figure out how to make those conditions more common in additional environments.

Knowing this still sounds pretty abstract, I would like to see research that a student can describe and articulate how he/she benefits, that a teacher can describe and explain how he/she too benefits, and that a university-based researcher can sufficiently document so that others elsewhere with similar challenges can emulate successful practices and avoid pitfalls.  In this I should add the important caveat that you can’t just pick up something that works in one place and move it to another and expect it to be similarly successful.  On the other hand, it’s also important to note that a second location can and should learn from the experience of the first.

What kinds of topics have you heard discussed when screening the documentary?

I’ve been part of screenings primarily to two audiences: (1) Nebraska student teachers who are about to graduate and formally enter the teaching profession; and (2) scholarly audiences of teacher educators and anthropologists of education like myself.  For the student teacher audience, I think the movie’s biggest success is the way it invites teachers in to consider backgrounds and life experiences that are surprisingly ordinary but that few of the teacher candidates have direct experience with.  (It remains the case in Nebraska that we overwhelmingly attract white, non-Hispanic women to the teaching profession even as who goes to school in our state continues to diversify.)  A lot of student teachers want to visit Crete to see it for themselves, which reminds me how vivid video documentaries are in comparison to, say, book learning.

The teacher education and scholarly audiences I have seen watch this movie most commonly ask if they can, in turn, show the documentary to their college students.  They tend to be delighted to learn that the video is freely available to stream on the Internet.  They also ask if there are any discussion facilitation materials available.

As a final response to this question, I also find that audiences start talking more about immigration, immigration reform, and legislation like the DREAM Act after seeing this film.  At the very first screening of this ever (in Lincoln Neb.), the audience interrupted its own applause at the end to start chanting “More Cretes, less Fremonts” referencing not only the town depicted in the documentary as an example of welcome, but also referencing another Nebraska meatpacking community that has made headlines for its more xenophobic response to Latino newcomers (with housing restrictions, for example, that make a landlord liable if they rent to an undocumented person).

How do you think the documentary can be used for pre-service or professional development purposes?

The quickest answer is: “a lot of ways.”  Professional development questions can be used to talk about the role of parents, stereotypes (and stereotype busting) of Latino students, school and district leadership, and so on.  I know a group in Philadelphia that has compared Crete Nebraska to Norristown, a Philadelphia suburb that has also seen dramatic recent growth in its Mexican origin population.  So I’m convinced this isn’t just relevant to rural meatpacking communities.  I know a second discussion strand builds off of the ‘how’ of this documentary’s production. 

It can be powerful to ask what would happen if (fill in the blank) students were given cameras like these students were.  What would these (other) students document?  Yet a third theme worth exploring is hinted at at the end of the documentary.  These students are largely successful at Crete and they are clearly thoughtful and capable.  However, it is not certain that all will be successful as they go on to higher education.  It’s interesting to ask what is necessary to help college work for capable students like these.


Hamann, E.T., & Reeves, J. (2012). ICE Raids, Children, Media and Making Sense of Latino Newcomers in Flyover Country. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 43(1): 24-40.


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