The Shifting complexion of McDonald County

When a small town changes so dramatically, how do neighbors get along?

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BY ROSE HANSEN | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 04

Noel, Mo., seems an unlikely location for hijabs and cowboy boots to cross paths, but that’s an ordinary, everyday event in this tiny pocket of rural McDonald County. The picturesque town flanks the much-loved Elk River, a popular Ozarks destination, though its primary employer is a chicken processing plant that provides some 1,600 jobs for a town of less than 2,000 people. With wages starting at $9 an hour and no English requirement, it attracts many immigrants struggling to find their footing in America.

In 1990, the demographic profile of McDonald County was almost completely white. Much has transpired in the years since. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011–2015 estimates, Hispanic people now make up 17 percent of the county’s population, black people 13 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders roughly 6 percent. Nowhere are these changes more visible than in Noel, where more than half of the population is made up of Hispanics, and whites are an ever-falling minority.

The town’s most recent arrivals include Burmese refugees and Pacific Islanders seeking better economic opportunities. Others come from war-torn Somalia. This has created a diverse community full of people who share the common dream of a better life in a new and sometimes bewildering place. But their influx has also challenged the region’s cultural identity.


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