BY JAY REEVES
KILPATRICK, Ala. —
For years before a tornado hit, few besides the immigrants who work at nearby poultry plants ventured down the pothole-rutted dirt roads of "Little Mexico."
The community, whose official name is Kilpatrick, comprises a large population of Latin American residents who previously mingled very little with the white, English-speaking natives.
Oddly enough, it was the twister, with its 125 mph destructive winds and home-wrecking fury, that began bringing the two groups together, even as it tore much of what they owned apart.
People began working together clearing away debris and wreckage after the storm without regard to language or culture, and folks suddenly were getting along better. Jacky Clayton, assistant police chief in Crossville, which includes part of Kilpatrick, doesn't know exactly what happened, but he said things seem less tense now.
"Maybe it's just a little more understanding of brotherly love," Clayton said.
Ivan Barrera, of Puebla, Mexico, the 31-year-old owner of a full-service Latin grocery store in the town, noted that for much of the seven years he has lived here, he has felt a certain "neutrality" between the immigrant and native communities. No blatant animosity, but no meaningful connection, either.
"I think things have gotten better since the storm," he said, speaking in Spanish.
The tearing down of cultural walls was a rather remarkable achievement in a state that two years ago passed the toughest anti-immigration law in the nation and is now bracing for the results of a protracted debate in Washington on immigration reform.
Located about 75 miles northeast of Birmingham in DeKalb County, Kilpatrick has drawn hundreds of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American countries who moved to the rural area over the past decade to work in chicken-processing plants.
An estimated 2,000 immigrants live in Kilpatrick. An exact number is hard to nail down given the transience of some of the workers and the fact that many moved here without legal permission.
But their influence is unmistakable: The 600-student elementary school in nearby Crossville that many children from Kilpatrick attend is more than 60 percent Hispanic, unusual in a state where the population is only 4 percent Hispanic.
Driving through the area, it's not hard to see why so many people call it "Little Mexico" or, alternately, "Little Tijuana." Signs in Spanish advertise everything from $1 tacos at the El Taco Unico roadside stand to pastries, pinatas and Mexican spices at a Mexican bakery where Latin music plays quietly. On a main road a mile away, customers come and go from Barrera's grocery store.
On a recent sunny spring afternoon, families strolled down the road to a small neighborhood store while boys played soccer in yards next to bleating goats and clucking chickens. Most of the children spoke Spanish, with a little English sprinkled in.
Rosemarie Chavez is a bilingual native of Texas who moved into the area about 16 years ago when hardly anyone else was around and has most recently taken on the role of unofficial liaison between the immigrants and Alabama natives. She said the Hispanic population grew quickly once landowners began subdividing pastureland and selling acreage and mobile homes to the families who were moving in to take the poultry jobs.
The more the town grew, however, the more it became a target of the anti-immigration sentiment that had begun growing in the South and other parts of the country. For advocates of the tough anti-immigration law passed by Alabama's Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011, Kilpatrick was a prime example of unregulated immigration — many of the recently arrived workers had come to the United States without legal permission.
The new law allowed police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops and detain those who couldn't produce the right papers. The legislation also required schools to verify students' immigration status.
Police began to make Kilpatrick a focus of frequent traffic stops, and many residents were scared, said Chavez, who is also a community outreach worker for Quality of Life Health Care Services, which provides medical services throughout the area.
Many Hispanics left Alabama in the weeks after Gov. Robert Bentley signed the strict immigration law. They gradually returned, however, as courts gutted the measure's strictest provisions, officials relaxed enforcement, and the public's attention went elsewhere, Chavez said.
Still, their renewed physical presence did not translate into cultural assimilation. Kilpatrick's residents seldom veered far from the route that led to their jobs at the poultry plants and their native neighbors showed little interest in getting to know them.
That all began to change on March 18, the day two twisters plowed through DeKalb County, damaging 270 residences countywide. A total of 27 homes were destroyed, 19 of them in Kilpatrick, which was hit by an EF2 tornado, said Daryl Lester, deputy director of the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency. Tornadoes are considered significant when they are rated EF2 or higher.
Students and volunteers from English-speaking churches accompanied the police, rescue squads and fire departments that descended on Kilpatrick within hours, helping to deliver food, right overturned vehicles, pick up fallen limbs and rescue photos and other precious keepsakes from the wreckage of the homes.
The immigrants were initially spooked by so many officials with badges, and some fled to the homes of friends and family instead of taking advantage of local agencies' offers of food and shelter, Chavez said.
But Chavez and others helped spread the word that authorities were there to assist tornado victims, not to arrest or deport anyone.
Both immigrants and natives learned valuable lessons that day and in the weeks afterward as they found themselves working side by side. The newcomers discovered that not everyone resented their presence in town. Alabamians with family roots reaching back for centuries discovered that the Hispanics down the road were a lot like them: family folks just trying to scrape by.
"We were helping a lot of the Hispanics and they were reaching out to help others," said Clayton, the police officer.
Barrera said that in the weeks since the twister, English-speaking firefighters and church groups have continued to help the Hispanic community by taking up collections. Just two weeks ago, a man who has sold land and mobile homes to residents in the Hispanic community dropped by Barrera's store to let him know that food and replacement furniture were available at a nearby church.
Miguel Gomez, 24, a native of Mexico's Michoacan state who has worked at the Guelaguetza Bakery in Kilpatrick for four years, said he felt a welcome change after the tornado, which did minor damage to the mobile home where he lives with his wife, child and mother.
"A lot of Americans came to offer us help, to offer shelter and food," Gomez said, speaking in Spanish. "It did surprise me a little to see it because not everyone tries to help the Mexicans."
Signs of the tornado are still evident: Blue tarps still cover damaged structures, and some of the mobile homes brought in to replace destroyed trailers appear ramshackle and rickety. Meanwhile, immigrants and natives are far from being the best of friends in Kilpatrick, where immigrant residents say they still see the occasional police car pulling over drivers whose legal status might be in doubt.
But few deny that important progress toward tolerance and unity has been made since the day the twisters landed.
"A great bridging has taken place," said Zach Richards, pastor at the local Union Grove Baptist Church. "It's beautiful to see."
Associated Press Writer Lisa J. Adams in Atlanta contributed to this report.