Hispanic population gains in rural counties spark South Dakota growth

Esmerelda Rivas, Juana Sebastian and Rubia Lopez make pupusas, a traditional El Salvadorian food, at a Cinco De Mayo celebration on May 7, 2022, at Falls Park in Sioux Falls. (Sioux Falls Argus Leader photo)

South Dakota’s Hispanic population more than doubled over the past 12 years and now helps keep many small towns vibrant, a trend seen in other rural areas of the U.S., according to census data and experts.

There were an estimated 44,581 Latino individuals living in South Dakota as of 2022, or nearly 5% of the state population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That base number is more than double the 2010 census count (22,119, or 2.7%) and more than four times the 2000 count (10,903, 1.4%). Hispanics are the third-largest racial/ethnic demographic group in South Dakota behind non-Hispanic whites (84.2%) and Native Americans (8.5%).

While Hispanic immigrants traditionally clustered in urban gateway cities, there has been a push to the rural Midwest as companies build food processing and manufacturing plants in smaller agricultural communities with lower operating costs.

This creates a need for workers and can help bolster population numbers in rural counties that have seen declines in recent decades, according to South Dakota State University professor and state demographer Weiwei Zhang.

“Much of this is driven by job opportunities,” she said. “A few family members find employment in the community, and then more relatives move there through chain migration.”

Nationally, the Latino population increased 23% from 2010 to 2020 to reach a total of more than 62.1 million in the United States. The overall population growth during that time was 7%.

About one-third of all Latinos living in the U.S. were born outside the country, according to the Pew Research Center, with Mexico the most common place of origin (61.5%).

Diana Vianey Pineda, a 30-year-old native of Guerrero, Mexico, came to South Dakota in 2015 to work at the Dakota Provisions meat processing plant in Huron. She was part of an influx that gives Beadle County the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the state at 14.3%, or 2,741 residents, up from just 155 in 2000.

Other counties in the state’s top five of Hispanic population percentage are Aurora (8.0%), Grant (6.4%), Minnehaha (6.1%) and Marshall (5.9%).

Along with her husband, who is also from Mexico, Pineda in 2021 started her own piñata business, Piñatas La Mexicana, in Huron. Family members have helped operate the business so

far. The goal is to become immersed in the community and find financial stability after starting out at the packing plant, she said.

“We had a party and couldn’t find anyone to make the piñata for us,” said Pineda, referring to a decorated container, often made of papier-mâché, filled with candy and broken up by party goers with a stick. “I decided to make one, and my family liked the results, so we decided to start selling them to the public.”

Pineda, whose interview with News Watch was done through translation software, said she is taking English classes so she can better communicate with her clients and expand the business, which has branched out with appearances in Sioux Falls and the South Dakota State Fair.

“This business is something beautiful and we are moving forward,” she said.

For South Dakota communities shrinking from natural change (more deaths than births) and negative net migration, one of the solutions is to try to foster more international migration to offset those trends. 

A prime example is the city of Huron, which lost 1,300 jobs when the Dakota Pork plant closed in 1997, around the same time NorthWestern Energy moved its corporate headquarters to

Sioux Falls. Huron University was experiencing financial turmoil and officially closed in 2005.

Terry Nebelsick, a former principal and superintendent of the Huron School District who retired in 2021, told News Watch that the district had 2,400 students when he arrived in 1994.

“Seven years later we got down to 1,800 students, and the projection six years after that was 1,200 students. The community had to make a decision.”

Discussion among agricultural groups, city leaders and the Hutterite colonies led to the Dakota Provisions turkey plant opening in 2006. It created jobs that spurred incoming migration and refugee efforts, including an influx of Karen (pronounced kah-REN) refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in southeast Asia.

Beef jerky maker Jack Link’s also expanded operations at its plant in Alpena, about 20 miles southwest of Huron, contributing to the wave of incoming new residents.

Huron’s school district enrollment is now just under 3,000, 58% of whom are minority or international students. Hispanic students make up 30% of the student body, and Karen students

were named high school homecoming king and queen in 2022.

One of the challenges was to make sure that new residents found not just employment but opportunities to become part of the community. That meant lobbying the South Dakota

Legislature successfully for more state aid to fund English- language learner programs by tying them to economic development, according to Nebelsick.

When it became clear that there were elementary schools with mostly low-income or immigrant/refugee students, school officials proposed a $22 million bond measure for three new elementary schools that would put all kindergarten and first graders in the same building, with a separate school for second-third graders and fourth-fifth graders.

The 2013 measure needed 60% approval to pass and ended up with 71% of the vote.

“By doing that, the kids have been together since kindergarten, and there are very few problems,” said Nebelsick. “When kids grow up together, they don’t see color.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.