An influx of immigrants is rekindling economic growth in Guymon
It’s a weekday morning, and downtown Guymon is bustling. Guatemalans walk into a clothing store, passing a small group of Mexicans chatting on the sidewalk. Across the street, a man of Kenyan descent walks along the curb.Above it all, the sound of Al Green’s smooth voice spills from outdoor speakers.“Well, we’re mostly Mexican and white, so we ought to have black music,” explains Guymon Main Street Director Melyn Johnson. “You just have to have the diversity to make it better. A mutt is always stronger than a purebred.”Across the Oklahoma landscape, an alarming number of communities are morphing into ghost towns. They are places where youngsters have fled to bigger cities, leaving farms and schools to consolidate and populations to shrink.But not Guymon.Situated in the center of the Panhandle, Guymon is bursting with activity. Downtown buildings are full; motels are booked; construction is constant. In recent months, the town began construction of a new fire station and animal shelter and broke ground on a 19,000-square-foot library.An Oklahoma Watch analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data helps explain why: Guymon is the only city in Oklahoma where Hispanics have become the majority, accounting for 52 percent of its 11,442 official residents in 2010. Some Guymon authorities insist the percentage is actually much higher because many recent immigrants were not included in the 2010 headcount.That’s an impressive milestone in a state where Hispanics represent less than 1 percent of the national Hispanic population and just 9 percent of the total state population. But there are also migrant and undocumented workers to take into account, and it’s unlikely either group was well represented in the Census estimates. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates Oklahoma had from 65,000 to 85,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010.Guymon city officials unsuccessfully appealed the 2010 Census results, arguing their tally fell far short of the true number. They hired a third party to conduct a study, which estimated Guymon’s population between 17,000 and 18,000, with the Hispanic share hovering around 50 percent.Earlier this year, some Americans were startled when the Census Bureau projected that whites will become a minority population nationwide by 2023. Former Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock says that historic shift is driven by two key demographics — both present in Guymon.“One is an aging, literally off-the-end-of-the-life-chart set of non-Hispanic whites,” Murdock said. “Their fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years. The average non-Hispanic white woman is 40-41 years of age. That population is going to increasingly disappear from occupations as they age.“The other population is young and primarily minority. The average Hispanic woman in the U.S. is 25. What happens with that group is important to understanding the future of the country.”Johnson, the Main Street program director, summed up what appears to be the prevailing sentiment around this Panhandle community: Workers, no matter their nationality or legal status, are bringing not only money and growth to Guymon, but also new energy and life.“We respect people who will work hard,” she said. “We respect that a lot more than if you’re third generation and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.”BoomtownGuymon’s vibrant and heavily occupied downtown stands in stark contrast to many small cities across the state. A zapatería stocked with stylish shoes, a shop that sells quinceañera dresses and a community theater are just some of the tenants that fill nearly every storefront.“If the building owners want to rent them, they’re full,” Johnson said. “I’m going to guess that half of those businesses are Hispanic. It’s pretty representative of our population.”The shortage of space is being felt heavily in the housing sector.“If you move here, you can’t get a place tomorrow,” said Ted Graham, Guymon’s city manager. “You may wait a couple months, maybe longer, just to rent.”On any given night in Guymon, it can be difficult to find an empty motel room, as some workers get assistance from their employers to stay in motels for months on end. An estimated 600 workers commute from neighboring towns such as Optima and Hooker.“We’ve seen some real changes here,” Graham said. “As the country went through its economic downturn, Guymon didn’t turn down as hard as everybody else.”The future looks even brighter.“I’m speaking with 13 developers that are looking at bringing another 300 to 500 jobs in the immediate year,” said Guymon Community and Economic Developer Vicki McCune.With two wind farms currently under construction in Texas County and a wind-energy transmission plant under discussion, several hundred more jobs may not be too far away.“We have students now who can graduate, go to college, and there will be a job when they come back,” said Mike Parkhurst, Guymon’s assistant superintendent of schools. “There are a lot of communities that you can’t stay in after you graduate because there’s not a job for you.”SeaboardOn the northeast corner of town, cradled by a cluster of dilapidated trailer homes, sits a business that many credit for starting it all.Seaboard Foods is a plant where some 2,600 employees slaughter and process 19,000 hogs daily. Work on the floor can be hard and dirty, and many in town admit it’s the type of labor some white people simply won’t do. Most employees are people of color, many of them Hispanic.Yet the nationality of Seaboard’s employees seems of little importance to Guymon authorities. They’re more likely to note that every dollar that Seaboard earns generates seven for the local economy.McCune, the community developer, acknowledges she probably wouldn’t have a job if Seaboard hadn’t opened its meat processing plant, citing the closure of a similar plant operated by Swift in the late 1980s.“The population was around 6,000 and dwindling,” McCune recalled. “Main Street was nearly dried up. People just don’t understand how bad things were prior to Seaboard coming in.”A running joke in town was that there were more boards on windows than in the local lumberyard.Seaboard opened its plant in 1995. Several other processing plants soon followed. According to McCune, still more are considering Guymon for future expansion.Guymon’s population began to grow in the late 1990s. Census takers calculated that Hispanics accounted for 38 percent of the town’s 10,472 residents in 2000.Seaboard administrators declined to answer questions about their Guymon operations or allow a reporter to tour the plant. Instead, the company issued a prepared statement. “We take great pride in being part of Guymon,” it said. “Guymon’s success creates a great community for our business to operate and for our employees to live and work.”From the plant’s parking lot, dozens of workers can be seen filing in and out of the main building. They are mainly young and old men. All but a handful are people of color.One former Seaboard employee said all workers “on the killing floor” were ethnic minorities.That doesn’t mean they’re all Hispanic. Some of the foreign workers who came to town looking for jobs at the plant were fleeing conflict or refugee camps in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Burma.Sources close to refugee immigrants said Seaboard’s starting pay is around $11 to $12 per hour. For many, that’s the best pay they have ever seen.On Sept. 19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it was conducting an investigation of Seaboard Foods, but declined to divulge details. Seaboard issued a statement saying the agency had “reviewed and collected documents at Seaboard Foods’ Shawnee Mission, Kan., and Guymon, Okla., properties.” It, too, declined to discuss the matter further.TensionsIn the well-worn hallways of the former Guymon High School — a building that would have faced condemnation if it weren’t for the need for more space — class portraits from the old Guymon grace the walls. The young men and women pictured smile from behind the glass, their hairstyles reflective of past decades, the color of their skin all white.Julie Edenborough, director of Title III and Migrant Services for Guymon Public Schools, runs the sizable English Language Learners program at the squatty, brick building. She manages the needs of the students whose native tongue is not English. Twenty-four languages or dialects are spoken in Guymon classrooms.Sitting in the office she spent weeks refurbishing herself, Edenborough characterizes the Guymon of her youth as “Mayberry-ish.” She describes the Guymon of today as a safe, close- knit community, but she recalls the widespread uneasiness that accompanied the Hispanic population explosion.“There were some people who said that [Mexican] students would slow ours down,” said Edenborough, who has taught for two decades. “I was told to put my children in advance placement classes to get them away from ‘those’ children. So, there was very much an us-and- them mentality.”Tensions were high. Parents complained about curriculum changes and the growing student population. Some teachers began to express concerns. Tempers flared.Carlos Urias, a third-generation American of Mexican ancestry, works at a Guymon automobile dealer. He recalls a conversation he had with a local farmer and longtime friend when the city of Guymon first considered bringing in Seaboard.“He got right in my face and said, ‘Carlos, we don’t want this bad element coming into town. Those Mexicans are going to take over,’ ” Urias recalled. “I told him, ‘These folks that come and make Seaboard a success are going to bring up the price of your grain and give you a local market.’ ”Despite the growing pains, some locals ponder what life might be like today had the Hispanics stayed away.“We grew pretty fast,” acknowledged Doug Melton, Guymon’s superintendent of schools.“But I also look back and wonder, if they hadn’t come, where we would be now?”Oklahoma Watch staff reporter Graham Lee Brewer is a longtime contributor to KGOU Radio and has written for local and online publications. Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit investigative news team established to report on public policy issues in Oklahoma.