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I Born Again in America

Observations on a More Diverse Nation

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitIn 1820, when the U.S. Census first identified the "nationalities" of Americans, most were English—and Protestant—although persons from other European countries and religious backgrounds had settled here as well. The United States followed Britain's example and pushed American Indians ever westward beyond the frontier. Not until the late 19th century, when the frontier had disappeared and new land was at a premium, did the government systematically attempt to "civilize" and assimilate them.

African American made up about one-fifth of the total population, but slavery, combined with racial and cultural prejudice, precluded serious efforts to incorporate them into the dominant society. Policies designed to foster integration and equal opportunity of African Americans and other minorities had to wait for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitBut over the next 150 years, the complexion of America was to change greatly. In the mid-19th century came Irish, Germans, Scandinavians. this period also witnessed the incorporation of many Mexicans as the United States acquired the southwest and California, the emancipation of the slaves; the pacification and confinement to reservations of American Indians; and the immigration of Chinese to work in the California gold fields and on the transcontinental railroad. Then as the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, southern and eastern Europeans came, fleeing persecution and industrial displacement.

At the close of the 20th century newcomers were largely from the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central American, East and Southeast Asia. they brought a rich medley of languages, cultures, and ethnicities. Like earlier immigrants, they too came seeking refuge from the ravages of war and civil strife; they came to find jobs and escape wrecked economies and runaway inflation. They saw in America a chance to reach for their dreams—dreams of a better life for their children, if not for themselves.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitBetween 1820 and 1960, 83 percent of all immigrants came from Europe. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 altered restrictionist policies favoring immigrants from northern and western Europe. It raised the ceiling on numbers of immigrants, revised geographic and national limits, based preference for admission largely on family reunification, and made special provisions for admitting refugees. The Indochina Immigration and Resettlement Act of 1975 and the Refugee Act of 1980 allowed more applicants to qualify for admission as refugees and provided for their resettlement and assistance. The Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 (IRCA) offered amnesty and citizenship to illegal immigrants who could qualify under its provisions. The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the level of immigration; provided easier access to those seeking permanent residency; further removed barriers to family reunification; increased admissions for highly educated and skilled workers, and those with a job waiting for them; and created "investor visas" for persons who start businesses in the United States. These laws responded to changes both at home and abroad, and they were to set in motion this latest surge of immigration to the United States.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitBy the mid-1980s only 12 percent of the legal immigrants admitted to the United States were Europeans—Asians made up 48 percent and Latin Americans 35 percent. Net immigration of both legal and illegal entrants accounted for between one-fourth and one-third of the nation's growth in the 1980s.

Fueled by increased immigration and high birth rates, minorities grew to 20 percent of America's population in 1990: Asians and Pacific Islanders doubled, while Hispanics few by more than 50 percent, and African Americans by 13 percent. Those identifying themselves as native Americans leapt by 38 percent, reflecting not only a high birth rate but a greater desire to openly declare their native heritage. On the other hand, the non-Hispanic white population grew by only 3 percent.

Three-fourths of Americans are non-Hispanic white; in Kansas it is 77.5 percent. But the ethnic balance is tilting. Asian Americans and Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic groups in the nation. In Finney and Seward counties in southwest Kansas the percentage of growth in Hispanics is growing most rapidly.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitIt is no wonder then that "diversity: has become the watchword—cultural and ethnic diversity are increasingly a part of the American landscape. Not just in metropolitan centers, on the coasts, or along our nations' borders, but in the small towns and rural hamlets of the heartland as well.

"Diversity" seems to roll off every tongue but it isn't always clear what is meant, nor whether we should be celebrating a new more diverse American or mourning the passing of an old more homogenous one. Many people use "cultural diversity" as a code for racial difference. But race is a minor aspect of human diversity, and there is far more biological variation within races than between them. People are as likely to share common bonds of culture and class, of religion and nationality, with those of different races as they are with members of their own.

"Ethnicity" is more appropriate when speaking of such diversity than "race." Yet ethnicity is situational—definitions of group identity and boundaries may change. ethnicity is both self-declared and imposed by others, and people may claim different identifies in different contexts. Broad, sweeping labels for others-black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American—mask the very real, and very rich, social and cultural distinctions among members of such groups.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitRegardless of the labels we use, the fact remains that now, more than ever, America is a land of difference—in language and culture, in class and gender, in national origin and ethnic affiliation. Some see a richly woven tapestry; others a frightening babel. Some see a renewal of the "American dream," while others fear that growing linguistic and cultural variations threaten the very fabric of our national identity. Nevertheless, government policies of the last quarter century have set our nation on course toward becoming an increasingly diverse and pluralistic society. Notions that new immigrants will quickly lose their identities and assimilate in the cauldrons of Anglo society and culture are antiquated. America is and is becoming evermore a land of contrast. We have long relished our regional distinctions, we must now come to accept, if not applauded our growing mix of ethnicities, languages, and culture.

Recognition that we are a diverse nation does not imply that we are also a harmonious one. We are not. and much of the conflict can be traced to our differences—in educational and economic opportunities, in religious beliefs and political ideologies, as well as in race and ethnicity and culture. But greater awareness of those who are different from us is the first step to understanding and tolerance. the changes and the challenges that confronted people in Garden City in the 1980s may help us to better understand those around us—and ourselves.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitGarden City is not what most Americans imagine a typical Kansas community be like. But it is in fact typical of the social, economic, and demographic changes that many American communities experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, and what many will witness in the decades to come. In that brief span Garden City has become a kaleidoscope of changing cultural and ethnic patterns.

Three ethnic groups make up the vast majority of Garden City's population—Anglos or whites, Hispanics or Latinos, and Southeast Asians. Each group consists not only of "oldertimers" (established residents) and "newcomers (new immigrants), but of religious, regional, national, cultural, and ethnic subgroups.

Anglo ranchers and farmers settled southwest Kansas in the 1870s and 1880s, and Anglos are the region's largest ethnic group. Yet around 40 percent of the population is Hispanic. They began coming to the area around the turn og the century to work for the railroad and in the sugar beet fields. Most are of Mexican origin; others are from Cuba, Central and South America. In 1980 less than 100 Southeast Asians lived in Garden City. They now make up more than 5 percent of the population and are very much a part of the community. Most are from Vietnam, others are Lowland Lao, Cambodia, and ethnic China.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitGarden City sits on the High Plains, 215 miles west of Wichita and 309 miles southeast of Denver. the Finney County seat, the town of 27,000 is a regional trade and service center for small agricultural communities and unincorporated rural hamlets. At first glance, Garden city would seem an unlikely candidate for sustained economic growth at a time when American agriculture was in crisis. Yet throughout the 1980s it was the fastest growing community in the state. The seeds of Garden City's economic boom were planted in the 1950 and 1960s when innovations in irrigation agriculture generated an abundance of feed grain; surplus grain in turn spawned commercial feedyards, where cattle are fattened for slaughter.  Feedyards attracted beefpacking plants. 

In December 1980 IBP, Inc. (formerly Iowa Beef Processors) opened the world's largest beefpacking plant 10 miles west of Garden City, near Holcomb. In 1983 another plant, later owned by Monfort and then ConAgra, reopened on the town's eastern edge. At the peak production the two plants employed some 4,000 people who processed about 2.5 million head of cattle a year. The Garden City plant burned in 2000 and has not reopened.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibit

The early 1980s were hard times for the country—and for Kansas. Oil and gas exploration, agriculture, the aircraft industry were all in decline. The push of a recession and the pull of jobs in the expanding beefpacking industry lured many people to Garden City. From 1980 to 1985 the town grew by one-third—more than 6,000 people. the majority of newcomers were Hispanics and Southeast Asians. Meatpacking has always drawn immigrants, minorities, and the poor because wages are "good" and few previous skills, not even a command of English, are required.

In less than a decade, Garden city was transformed into a multicultural community as Hispanic immigrants and Southeast Asian refugees came seeking work in the packing plants. the sheer number of newcomers—and their cultural diversity—strained Garden City's ability to provide housing, education, health care, and basic services.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibitThe community responded to the rapid growth: apartments and mobile home parks sprang up; bond issues and tax increases funded three new elementary schools, a library, city building, and a law enforcement center; local efforts resulted in a bypass to alleviate traffic problems. Garden City soon gained a reputation for coping with rapid growth and increasing ethnic diversity.

Three factors seem to account for the nature of ethnic relations in "the Garden." First, in spite of a decade of unparalleled growth, it remains a small town in many of its attitudes and patterns of interpersonal relations. Oldtimers and new immigrants often come to know one another as people, since the size and nature of the community bring them together at work and school, in stores and churches, in bars and restaurants, at the zoo and in the "Big Pool."

Second, people move to Garden City to find work. Jobs in the beef plants at least, are plentiful, so newcomers are not seen as taking jobs from established residents. Garden Citians value hard work and admire hard workers. They know of the hardships and sacrifice many Southeast Asian refugees and Hispanic immigrants have endured. And Garden City is a "cowtown" in the true sense of the word. Its economy and much of its identity are bound up in the beef industry. Those who earn a living in its various aspects—feed grain production, cattle feeding, beefpacking—share a sense of identity and camaraderie that often transcends ethnic differences.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibit

Finally, and most importantly, many in the community—clergy, news media, school teachers and administrators, social service providers—have worked hard to serve the needs of Garden City's newcomers. For example, when Southeast Asians first began arriving in large numbers, the ministerial alliance spearheaded a campaign to provide necessary services and minimize negative community reactions. They started an adult learning center to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, and brought in outside experts to offer informational and cultural-awareness training. The Garden City Telegram began publishing La Semana, a Spanish/English weekly. Much was accomplished; much remains to be done.

Image from I Born Again in America exhibit

Garden City offers a vision of what rural and small-town America is and is becoming. In the 1980s it experienced the industrialization and increased ethnic and cultural diversity that has now come to other parts of the nation. It faced great challenges, and it met them head on. The people of Garden City have plotted a course—one not always straight nor easily followed—toward a more pluralistic and more tolerant America. A place where Americans from many different backgrounds can be American in many different ways.



This was a traveling exhibit produced by the Finney County Historical Society and the Kansas Historical Society based on research conducted by the Changing Relations Project funded by the Fort Foundation.

Entry: I Born Again in America

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2015

Date Modified: May 2021

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.