LIGONIER — Here is this small, northwestern Noble County city, the minority is now the majority.
The 2010 census figures released last month show that Ligonier’s population is 52 percent Hispanic, making it the second majority-Hispanic city in the state (East Chicago is the other).
This is nothing new at either the local or national level. Statewide, the number of Hispanics nearly doubled in the last decade to 389,707. Hispanics now make up 6 percent of the state’s population. But in a town of approximately 4,400 people, the cultural shift is much more noticeable.
So when did the shift begin? According to Ligonier Mayor Patty Fisel, the Hispanic population began increasing as far back as 1992, back when the large industrial area had a thriving economy and jobs were plentiful.
"It was mostly young, single men looking for jobs at that time," Fisel said.
That pattern of young people looking for jobs continued steadily throughout the decade and into the new millennium, as well as Hispanic families moving into the area as well. This meant schools also saw an increase of diversity. Ligonier Elementary Principal Brian Shepherd — whose school population is 53 percent Hispanic — considers that a blessing.
"Diversity is a great thing," Shepherd said. "Having so much culture shows that we can all learn from each other’s differences."
Margarita White’s family moved to the area in 1976 from Texas because her grandparents, Celia and Domingo Pena, were migrant farm workers. She said the reason her family, and others like hers, moved to Ligonier was because it was seen as a land of opportunity.
"Migrant farm workers don’t make much," White said. "It was considered more seasonal work. But there was a lot of industry around back then to help bring in income, too."
White works for the Noble County Community Foundation providing grants that promote cultural awareness for local residents. She also helps translate for non-profit organizations. Jobs like those require an outgoing personality — which White has, as evidenced by her recent run for mayor — but is a rare quality in Hispanics, White indicated.
"Hispanic people generally keep to themselves," she said, adding that the younger generations do tend to try and branch out more socially.
Vicki Vargas, who owns Leti’s Tacos Restaurant in downtown Ligonier, echoed those sentiments.
"Hispanics are a very close-knit group," Vargas said. "Their family is their social network."
Vargas’ restaurant is one of the few successful businesses in a sea of vacant buildings downtown. It hasn’t been for a lack of effort that businesses have not panned out. It’s a matter of finding the right niche that keeps people from driving to a nearby department store.
"Hispanics put up signs in their window to advertise their business, so they are there," Vargas said. "But if they go out of business, the buildings would be empty and it would be a ghost town."
Fisel said that due to the generally private nature of the Hispanic culture, cultural tension has been virtually nonexistent.
"We expect them to respect our culture," Fisel said, "so we should respect theirs."
Fisel said that while much has changed since the 2000 census, that doesn’t make the figures any less accurate. Since then, several jobs have crumbled due to the recession, only to blossom bigger and better than before. Also there is a comfort in knowing that as long as Hispanics have proper documentation when they enter the country, they have nothing to worry about.
"There were quite a few Spanish-speaking workers collecting census information last year, which shows that they are not living in hiding," Fisel said. "The cultural change really is not a big deal anymore."