The Diverse World Of America’s Heartland

Four years ago, Marjorie Rosen, associate professor of journalism at Lehman College, went out on a limb.

After stumbling upon a New York Times story about Etz Chaim, a small synagogue sprouting in the Bible Belt town of Bentonville, Ark.- home of the first Wal-Mart - she took a trip there. It would be the first synagogue in 50 years in a town known to be homogeneously white Protestant.

When she got there, the diversity was even more unexpected. There were Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Hispanics and more Marshall Islanders than in The Marshall Islands. Mega-corporations like Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, she discovered, were the catalysts for the growing change.

This is the subject of her latest book, Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town Into an International Community, released in October. Accounts of people from immigrant communities serve as paradigms for the daily struggles faced by different ethnic, religious and racial groups trying to adapt to life in a new country.

"I had a sense that there were small towns and suburbs across America that were going through similar things," says Rosen. "This is the future of America."

One of the surprising stories she tells is that of a Muslim philanthropist from the West Bank who was helping a Jewish community facing discrimination build a synagogue. "It was a major display of multiculturalism," Rosen says.

But not every story had a happy ending. Some people, like Bentonville's Mayor Steve Womack, resisted change. He supported a program, that gives local law enforcement officials some federal authority to detain illegal immigrants. "It drove a wedge between communities and made Latinos distrustful," Rosen says.

Rosen believes these issues resonate back home in the diverse population of Lehman College. "People from other countries and cultures have to learn to live with each other," she says. "There are all sorts of permutations of complicated situations that have to be dealt with in the Bronx, in Arkansas, and all throughout America."

- Tatyana Gulko