Culture clash reaches a boiling point in quiet town of Gentry

Creating new life a struggle for some Hmong


June 19, 2006

Gentry, Arkansas -- Jim Twiggs grew up in Gentry during a time when friends arrived unannounced for dinner, doors often were left unlocked overnight and everyone was on a first-name basis with the town grocer.
"Growing up was almost like a Mayberry-type existence," said Twiggs, whose grandfather, Faye Twiggs, was that well-known grocer. "There was a sense of incredible security."
And while the 52-year-old Jim Twiggs sold the family business in 1998 and now manages the Little Debbie Company Store, this western Benton County community of about 2,600 retains much of its smalltown feel.
But when two teens faced off last November in the city park, one brandishing a pistol, an undeniable reality stared residents squarely in the face - this Mayberry had problems.
Growth, particularly the influx of hundreds of southeast Asian Hmong immigrants into a predominantly white community, set the scene for a clash of cultures that has city leaders scrambling for solutions to a host of new challenges.
Between November and January, police arrested 14 students of Gentry Public Schools following what authorities labeled "racially motivated" fights. All of the clashes involved Hmong youths squaring off against either Hispanic or white peers.
The conflicts involved multiple students, sent a child to the hospital and got two Hmong and two Hispanic teens expelled from school.
Authorities say school-based interventions and a law enforcement crackdown are reducing tensions in this community of cattle ranchers and chicken farmers, but concerns remain that another episode could spark more serious violence.
"We really want to make people aware of what's going on over there before someone gets killed," said Tessie Ajala, who led an intervention at the high school sponsored by the National Crime Prevention Council's Outreach to New Americans.
The nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based program aims to prevent crime and crime victimization within refugee and immigrant communities, according to its mission statement.
"We don't want another Columbine over there," Ajala said, referring to the Colorado school shootings by two students that left 15 people, including the two attackers, dead.

In many ways, little has changed in Gentry since its creation in 1894 along the tracks of the Kansas City Southern railroad.
Main Street, with hardware stores and beauty salons mixed among empty storefronts, still welcomes its share of residents out for evening strolls. Agriculture still drives the economy. The library still fits in one room. And there's still no McDonald's.
But time marches on, even in Gentry.
Little Debbie opened a snackcake factory in 1981. A water wholesaler extended a regional pipeline to the city in 1999. And, most recently, a wave of Hispanic and Asian newcomers arrived in search of better jobs and cheap land.
Between 1990 and 2004, Gentry's population of minority-group members grew from 3 percent to 12 percent, while the town grew by 50 percent to 2,577 people. Minority-group members now account for 23 percent of Gentry's students, up from 5 percent 12 years ago.
Most of the Asian newcomers are Hmong (pronounced "mung" ) - a stateless, southeast Asian ethnic group that fled Laos in large numbers after the Vietnam War.
There are 275,000 to 300,000 Hmong spread across the United States, with the majority concentrated around urban hubs in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Many of these former refugees are nearing retirement age as they inch toward 30 years in the United States. Weary of wage labor and city life, the Hmong are moving to rural areas for a fresh start.
For many, Northwest Arkansas is becoming the destination of choice.
The 2000 U.S. Census counted 27 Hmong in Arkansas. Experts now say there are 1,800 to 3,000 Hmong in the State, with most settling in Northwest Arkansas.
The nexus point is western Benton County - in Gentry, Siloam Springs and Decatur - a landscape linked by Arkansas 59 and dotted with cattle pastures and chicken houses.
As many as 2,000 more Hmong live in northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri, all within a few minutes' drive of the Arkansas border.
For the Hmong, the American dream often revolves around a return to the pastoral life they led in Laos. Rather than growing rice and sugar cane, however, these new Arkansans typically enter the contract poultry business to raise chickens and turkeys for companies like Tyson Foods Inc., George's Inc. of Springdale and Simmons Foods of Siloam Springs.
Not all Hmong have found success as poultry farmers. Aid groups and lawyers close to the Hmong situation estimate that at least half of the more than 300 Hmong farmers in the tri-state region have filed for bankruptcy protection or are considering it. But enough success stories have spread to family and friends in other states to keep a interests in poultry farming high.
Nhia Xiong, who lives in Minnesota and hopes to buy a 100-acre plot in Anderson, Mo., near the Benton County border, has traveled to Siloam Springs 10 times visiting cousins and inspecting parcels.
"I would like to change my lifestyle a little bit, and my cousins tell me Arkansas is quiet," Xiong said in a phone interview. "And they say you can make a little bit of money to support the family."
Cha Lee, executive director of Hmong National Development, a Washington, D.C.-based Hmong advocacy group, believes the Hmong population in Arkansas could top 10,000 within 10 years.
"If they see the opportunity to have a good farm business and get their kids a good education, that's something the Hmong want to be a part of," Lee said. "But if they feel there are certain things they encounter that are inappropriate, the Hmong will shy away from that."
Northwest Arkansas hasn't been a land of plenty for all Hmong.
Some farmers are struggling under the weight of heavy bank notes and operating costs. And cultural conflicts have developed as Hmong, Hispanics and whites find their lives more and more intertwined, especially in the schools.
Police say offensive graffiti targeting Hmong began to surface in the schools and parks over the winter, when a glut of violence involving Gentry's youth tore through the town.
In the most serious instance, Kong Kue, 19 at the time, pulled a loaded pistol on a 16-year-old white teen at the city park in November.
Kue admitted carrying the weapon but claimed it was jammed and couldn't be fired. He needed it to scare away his enemies, he said. Several white students had been harassing Kue at school and at home for weeks, he said. At one point, Kue said in interviews at school and his home, his life was threatened by the boy he later pointed the gun at while at the park.
Word of the confrontation spread quickly through the community.
"It was a big wake-up call that something like that could happen here," said Carlette Anderson, Gentry's sole school resource officer.
About two weeks before the park episode, a brawl in the Gentry High School gymnasium broke out between white and Hmong students.
The fight started after the white teens threw spitballs at the Hmong and called them "f****** chinks," according to the police report. Two Hmong - including Kue - and two white students were arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and third-degree battery.
In January, a fight broke out between Hmong and Hispanic students in a hallway at Gentry High School.
The level of violence was more serious than the usual schoolyard dust-up, Anderson said.
"I had to separate two boys, and then two more. I had to go in and almost do a chokehold to pull them apart," Anderson said. "When it ended, one boy had an earring jerked out and another had a big goose egg on his cheek."
Later that day, a group of seven Hmong and Hispanic middle school students pulled the fire alarm to distract teachers from a planned fight.
The fight was intense enough that one boy fought teachers off to jump back into the melee. A Hispanic boy, who three Hmong beat and kicked as he lay on the ground, went to Siloam Springs Hospital with a slight concussion.
Gentry Police Chief Keith Smith, an American Indian, found the fights alarming.
"It started basically because of ignorance, stereotypes being said - 'he's this or he's that, and I don't like him because he's not like me.' That's racism in my opinion," Smith said. "[The Hmong] wanted out of big cities where they were having problems like this. We don't want them to feel like they jumped from the frying pan into the fire."
Between 1995 and 2000, there were 448 reports of racially motivated crime in schools nationally, according to the most recent data posted on the U.S. Department of Justice's National Incident-Based Reporting System.
In Decatur, police cited five Hmong students and four white football players for misdemeanor disorderly conduct after a fight at the high school in September.
Though authorities never pressed charges, one of the football players had his jaw broken in three places.
Brigitte Ward, a homemaker who has lived in Gentry for 15 years, believes the problems among students are rooted in their parents' concern that their quaint little town is being invaded by foreign cultures.
"I just think people started feeling threatened, because, you know, this is just a little hick town," said Ward, who stopped letting her ninth-grade son hang out at the city park after Kue pulled the gun in November. "Everyone just kind of put their guard up."
Nick Philpott, a junior at Gentry High School, says his mother told him not to hang out with Hmong children when they first began attending his classes.
"When the Hmong first came here, everybody was real tip-toe-y. People thought, 'Oh no, we are going to have a bunch of fights, the whole town is going to go downhill,'" said Philpott, who now has many Hmong friends. "We've been white-dominated forever here. This is just a huge change for us, and people just don't want to change."
Gentry Superintendent Randy Barrett, the longest-tenured school chief in Benton County, said his district's new challenges required new solutions.
"If we didn't take some proactive stance, we could've been on the edge of that proverbial slippery slope," said Barrett, who has led Gentry's schools for 14 years. "We had the possibility of becoming a community with some serious problems."
To help identify the specific problems, educators sought help from the National Crime Prevention Council.
The group sent a team from Washington to Gentry over the winter that interviewed and surveyed 72 students, parents, educators and police.
More than two-thirds of those interviewed agreed:
Gentry is not ready for the influx of new cultures.
The conflicts are "racially motivated."
If something is not done, the conflicts might escalate.
Shayla Oliva, a 17-year-old senior, said the survey findings reflect harsh truths about attending school in Gentry.
Racially charged language isn't uncommon in the school's hallways, she said.
"A lot of kids here use the words nigger, or chink or white cracker. They use them all the time," she said.
After completing the survey, the council and school district hosted meetings aimed at starting a dialogue within the community.
Students, educators and other residents attended brainstorming sessions on the root causes of the conflicts and prevention strategies. More than 250 people attended the first session in January.
Police hosted a town hall meeting in March, and educators launched a weekly, student-led "diversity" lunch.
Administrators also stepped up security standards by restricting student movement outside the classroom.
Students could no longer leave the cafeteria during lunch, and escorts became mandatory for restroom trips. "While the potential for actual danger to staff and students during the school day appeared to be minimal, the district enacted stricter security measures to ensure that the risk potential remained as low as possible," Barrett said, adding that the tougher standards would stay in place next school year.
Educators and students reported progress after the meetings, noting there were no fights that required police presence from January to the end of the school year.
Mike Vang, an 18-year-old senior, no longer felt tension in the hallways - which another Hmong student described as "prisonlike" - after the meetings.
"I just want this school to get better for my younger brothers," said Vang, the third-youngest of seven brothers. "If we don't fix it now, what if in the future it escalates even bigger?"