ivoh fellow Anna Claire Vollers shares how immigration changed Sand Mountain
David Uptain spent most of his 30-year career as an educator on Sand Mountain, in and around his hometown of Crossville, Ala. When immigration changed the landscape of his community, he worked to draw students of different backgrounds closer together. All photos by and courtesy of Anna Claire Vollers.
Editor’s note: This story was produced as part of the Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh fellow Anna Claire Vollers reported this story for AL.com. It was originally published on August 8, 2017 and is being republished with permission.
Sand Mountain is Alabama’s slice of Appalachia, a once-remote area that in the past few decades has directly experienced the kinds of divisive issues constantly in the national news: immigration, job outsourcing, the war on drugs. But it’s a region too long defined by its challenges rather than its resilience.
In this multi-part series for AL.com, we’ll take you up to Sand Mountain and show you a world in transition. Get to know this place through the people who live there, who are working to mend what’s broken and restore their communities.
It’s a chilly April afternoon and the stadium stands are mostly full. David Uptain sits about halfway up the bleachers, his gray hair a standout among the dark-haired heads of his students.
Forty-three years ago, he played football on the field below, a quarterback for Crossville High.
Today he’s the school’s principal. And today’s game is the “other” football.
The soccer nets sit in the shadow of towering goal posts on either end of the field. Crossville is up, 3-2, over visiting Collinsville, and the mood in the stands is buoyant. The boys’ varsity soccer team has a good chance at state playoffs.
Uptain watches the team with pride as they surge down the field toward the neon-shirted goalie at the other end. Bringing soccer to Crossville several years ago was Uptain’s idea.
“After the first year, our boys have been in the playoff every year since,” he said. “Our girls have won four years in a row. We’ve never done that before in any sport, and we’re excited.”
This is the same Crossville, Ala., where Uptain grew up – and yet the teenage Uptain might barely recognize it. In the early 1970s, Uptain was a star on the all-white football team in his all-white community.
Today he’s one of the only white guys in the stands.
Crossville’s soccer teams are filled almost exclusively with kids whose parents immigrated from Mexico and Guatemala to work in the poultry plants that opened nearby over the past two decades.
Crossville itself – a town of about 1,900 – is still predominantly white, but Hispanic students from nearby unincorporated communities make up more than 70 percent of the school’s student body. DeKalb County has one of the highest concentrations of Hispanic immigrants in Alabama.
The bitter immigration debate that’s raging on the nationwide stage isn’t an abstraction in a town like Crossville. In rural areas across America, people like Uptain watch the fabric of their communities fray at the edges and wear thin in the middle where languages and cultures and assumptions collide.
“Washington is a long way from home,” Uptain said. “Folks think some of the things lawmakers do matters, but a lot of it is just politics. That’s not what they care about.
“They think the world was running just fine.”
The Crossville of Uptain’s childhood – so named for the crossroads that run near the town – was a close-knit rural mountain community where money was tight, faith was important and family came first. People didn’t have much but they looked out for each other. He says they didn’t see many outsiders.
Crossville sits in the middle of Alabama’s slice of Appalachia, on a flat-top highland in the northeast corner of the state called Sand Mountain. After English and Scots-Irish immigrants settled the area in the early 1800s, the mountain kept them isolated. Like many immigrant communities, they were proud, they were resilient, they worked hard.
After the nearby poultry plants opened around the turn of the millennium, hundreds of new immigrants flooded into the sleepy town. It started to seem, to some, like cultural heritage and traditions they’d taken for granted were getting swallowed up.
Many white families had lived there for generations. Some were angry. Others were wary. How do you look out for your neighbors when you don’t speak the same language, cook the same food, share the same history? How do you trust the outsiders?
Uptain himself didn’t, at first.
In a place like Sand Mountain, a concept like white privilege requires some imagination.
Sand Mountain has historically been almost completely white. Most of its early settlers were too poor to own slaves, relying instead on large families to keep up their farms.
Growing up, David Uptain almost never encountered anyone who wasn’t white, other than the occasional black football player on another school’s team.
“I remember going to my first restaurant where there was a black person who waited on me,” he said. “I was nearly afraid to eat.”
He grew up poor, the son of a mechanic and a hospital cook. His mother didn’t graduate high school; his father never finished sixth grade.
When he wasn’t at school or playing sports, Uptain helped his dad out in the shop.
“I realized that was not the kind of life I wanted,” he said. He saw education as his way out.
He went off to community college, and then university. He came back to Crossville to teach. He thought he could do some good for kids like himself, mostly from blue-collar families, mostly rural, mostly white. He didn’t trust outsiders.
“I was prejudiced,” he said simply.
Nothing changed, much, until he was in his late 20s.
His sister, seven years his junior, started dating an Armenian exchange student she met while in school at a nearby community college.
Uptain and his father strongly disapproved.
“I didn’t like him,” said Uptain. “He was different. He wasn’t one of us.”
Uptain’s sister and her boyfriend had been dating two years before she asked to bring him home to stay with the family over Christmas break. His parents lived in Kuwait at the time and he didn’t have the money to go home to visit.
Uptain wrestled with it. Slowly, finally, he made a decision. He didn’t want to lose his sister, so he told his dad they needed to find out what she saw in this guy.
“So I treated him different that year,” he said, “and I got to know him a little bit. And what I found out was, he was a great guy.”
He marks that experience as a conversion of sorts: the moment his worldview started to change.
Originally a special education teacher, he’s always had a soft spot for underdogs, for kids who have it harder than everyone else. After that Christmas break, he started to feel drawn to the outsiders, too.
Just outside of Crossville, where Highways 68 and 168 intersect, is the tiny community of Kilpatrick.
In Kilpatrick, longtime institutions like the Sand Mountain Stockyard and Pack’s Nursery have been joined by businesses like Barrerra Supermarket, Tienda El Nino, and Los Ramos Bakery.
Locals nicknamed the area “Little Mexico” or “Little Tijuana” in recent years because of its neighborhoods and mobile home parks that are filled with Hispanic immigrants – 2,000 or more, by some estimates.
At the same time that more immigrants moved into the area, DeKalb County slowly became one of the poorest counties in Alabama, with a per capita personal income averaging $29,621 in 2010. That puts it in the bottom 10 of all Alabama counties. In 2000, it ranked in the middle.
During the same period, Sand Mountain earned the nickname Meth Mountain for an unprecedented epidemic of methamphetamine use, mainly among white people.
Uptain watched as his community struggled. He got pitying looks from some folks in the community who asked how the school was doing, assuming it was overrun with drugs or fighting.
He started to feel like an ambassador of sorts, using what influence he has as the high school principal to take hold of both sides and pull them together.
“Patience is the key,” he said, “and understanding and prayer and a belief that everybody deserves a shot at anything that we’ve got.”
The county is now at least 14 percent Hispanic or Latino according to the U.S. Census Bureau, though the actual percentage is likely higher due to the number of undocumented immigrants living and working there. In Alabama, about 39 percent of the Hispanic immigrant population is estimated to be in the country without authorization.
DeKalb County voters favored Donald Trump overwhelmingly in the election; the president won 83.5 percent of the vote, the 11th highest support for Trump out of Alabama’s 67 mostly-conservative counties.
And in the white community at least, there has been little outspoken debate surrounding Trump’s positions on immigration. Uptain said most folks are focused on local politics.
A change in state law in 2011 drew particular attention, as Crossville’s population boom coincided with a wave of anti-immigration sentiment around the state. In June 2011, Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law one of the nation’s strictest immigration bills. The new legislation permitted law enforcement to detain people they suspected to be undocumented, and made it a crime to transport undocumented immigrants.
It also required schools to determine the citizenship of their students.
Some discounted the state law as unconstitutional, but the day after a federal court upheld most of the sweeping act, scores of Hispanic students failed to show up in schools across North Alabama.
Crossville High was no exception. Dozens of Uptain’s students left and didn’t come back for several months. Uptain tried to remain neutral, saving his concern for the students themselves.
Months later, much of that state law would fall apart on appeal.
Maria Quintana sits at the main desk in Crossville High’s front office, about 10 steps from Uptain’s office.
She came to the United States from Mexico with her parents when she was a child. They settled in Crossville about 15 years ago, and she later graduated from Crossville High. A couple of months after graduation, Uptain hired her to work in the front office. He says sometimes it feels like they share a brain – that she can read his mind before he can even ask for her help.
Quintana is technically a school secretary, but she’s the de facto translator for the school, and knows pretty much everyone – parent, student, staff – who comes in the door.
“It’s been so calm lately,” she said, adding that it’s been years since the school used to see regular student fights. “Everybody’s trying to get along, trying to work out their differences.”
Her accent falls halfway between her Mexican heritage and the deep Southern drawl of pretty much everyone else on the school’s mostly white staff. She laughs often, and her humor tends to be self-deprecating.
She’s the kind of person who refuses to speak Spanish to the immigrant students, insisting they practice their English on her. Their parents know they can stop by the school and ask her for help filling out forms or understanding paperwork. When students come to her with questions about how immigration laws are enforced around town, she calls the local sheriff’s department to get clarification.
For Quintana, the Crossville she first knew isn’t the one she loves today. When she came to the school in the early 2000s, white and Hispanic students didn’t mix.
“You could just feel the tension, you know?” she said. “Especially when you’re from a different culture that wasn’t very accepted here.”
Quintana said she and other Hispanic students were the targets of racist comments and bullying. Sometimes other students would throw rocks. Pull her dark hair. The ELL teacher, who helped the immigrant students learn English, would get notes taped to her door calling her a ‘wetback lover’ and worse.
“You look back now and you think, my God, things have changed so much,” Quintana said. “It’s for the good. People are being more accepting, and you’re seeing Hispanic kids being friends with other races. It’s awesome.”
When she shops at the Mexican grocery store and the bakery in Kilpatrick, she sees white shoppers sometimes. That never used to happen.
“Now they buy bread, they’re accepting,” she said. “They try new things.”
When Uptain first arrived as principal at Crossville High in 2001, the town had about 1,150 white students in its schools and around 100 Hispanic kids.
Now there are about 2,000 kids, and 1,400 of them are Hispanic.
Crossville is part of the DeKalb County school system, which has an open-door policy that allows students to transfer to any school in the county, as long as the school has room and the student can provide his own transportation.
But as more immigrants have moved into the area in the past decade, the schools have become increasingly segregated. Crossville remains overwhelmingly white, yet its schools are nearly 80 percent Hispanic.
Uptain’s wife, Sandi, recently retired from the school as the librarian and technology officer. She’s lived in Crossville ever since they married 30 years ago.
“Outside the school, there’s still resentment towards the Hispanic population,” she said frankly. “There have been people who have pulled their kids out of school and sent them to other schools.”
Crossville schools struggle to provide the extra services that the Hispanic students need. Uptain gets heated when he talks about state lawmakers, who he said will push for tougher immigration laws but don’t want to add money to the education budget to help schools educate their immigrant students. He only had one ELL teacher – a teacher with specialized training in helping students who are learning English – until this year, when he was finally able to add another.
He also bristles at a new state law, passed in April, that requires Alabama high schoolers to pass a civics exam before graduating. The 100-question test will be introduced next year and is identical to the federal government’s naturalization test.
“It’s not for the white kids,” said Uptain, explaining what he thinks is the real reason the law passed. “It’s a pointed sword to our Hispanic kids.
“If those high-horse legislators would actually come out to some of these schools like mine and see (the schools) really working, they might have a different opinion.”
Angela Short teaches 10th and 12th-grade math at Crossville High. In her first period class, almost nobody speaks English. For her, a personal connection is critical.
“The biggest compliment is when they forget and call me ‘mama,'” she said. “That is amazing, when they feel that comfortable with you because they know mama won’t hurt them.”
She’s known Uptain for years and she’s also one of the teachers who, in Uptain’s words, buy what he’s selling.
In his first few years as Crossville principal, Uptain struggled to make some of the teachers understand how important it was to him that they were willing to put in the extra effort it required to teach immigrant kids.
“The teachers that are here, that have stayed, stayed because they wanted to,” he said. “The new teachers that come in, I’m pretty tough on them. If you don’t buy in to what we’re selling, you don’t get to stay.”
“Some have changed, some have left. And that’s OK. Everybody doesn’t have to believe like I believe.”
There’s been a gradual but noticeable change in how the Hispanic kids – and their parents – view school. A decade ago, most of the immigrant families placed a higher value on getting a job and helping the family than on graduating high school. Hispanic kids rarely participated in extracurricular activities and their parents – working hourly shift jobs at the poultry plants – rarely came to the school. Uptain said many students dropped out of school when they were 16 or 17 to work in the poultry plants.
Now, Hispanic kids are active in academic clubs, sports teams other than soccer, the school play.
“I remember about 10 or 15 years ago, if a Hispanic kid was going to college, man, that was a big deal,” said Sandi Uptain. “Of course, nowadays we’re still happy for them, but it’s more commonplace than it was.”
Crossville’s graduation rate in 2015 was 89 percent, on par with the state average.
When the tornadoes hit
Ask around Crossville about relations between white and Hispanic residents, and you’ll likely hear about the tornadoes.
On March 18, 2013, three tornadoes touched down on Sand Mountain, damaging or destroying more than 1,000 homes and businesses across three counties.
Kilpatrick suffered the worst of it. Two EF-2 tornadoes flattened 19 of its mobile homes in seconds; dozens more county-wide. There were, luckily, no deaths and few injuries.
The Red Cross and other agencies swooped in to help, but their presence spooked Kilpatrick residents who worried officials might come after the undocumented immigrants. Many fled to families’ homes. Others refused to ask for or accept help.
Uptain was one of the Crossville folks who went to Kilpatrick after the tornadoes to see what he could do. He’d grown up there; he knew all the backroads.
He ran into the police chief, who asked if he could open the school as a temporary shelter. Uptain called his wife, asking her to go to the store to pick up as much food as she could and then meet him up at the school.
The school gym housed families for the next few weeks and served as a donation drop-off point for food, clothing and furniture. Local churches and business owners pitched in to get the Kilpatrick residents back on their feet. Students from the high school’s agriculture department spent class time in Kilpatrick, putting roofs on houses and trailers.
‘Everybody knows everybody’
Brittany Casimiro, 17, is a junior at Crossville High. Her parents are from Mexico but she was born in Alabama and has been at school in Crossville since kindergarten.
Casimiro and her friend Estrella Martinez, a senior, think the “getting along” issues are more of an adult problem.
“In bigger schools there could be segregation and stuff, but I feel here everybody gets along,” said Martinez, who was born in Mexico but who’s also been a Crossville student since kindergarten.
“It’s a small community, that’s all,” said Casimiro. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Uptain and the teachers make them feel accepted, they said.
“Mr. Uptain is just great,” said Casimiro. “He’s been here so long it’s hard to imagine him leaving.”
Almost ready to leave
The ‘second shift,’ as Uptain calls it, has gotten harder in the past few years. His work day’s only half over when the school bell rings in the afternoon. In addition to all the ball games – 150-200 a year – he’s at pretty much every other school event and is often the last one to go home.
“He’s the one who’s there at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning because somebody’s mother didn’t come and pick them up,” said his wife. “He thinks he has to be responsible for everybody and everything.”
Now after more than 30 years as an educator, he’s finally, grudgingly, ready to retire. The 60-hour weeks aren’t as easy as they used to be.
He and Sandi met on a blind date and have been married 30 years. They have no children together, though they raised Sandi’s granddaughter and her granddaughter’s half-brother, who is not biologically related but who they consider their grandson.
“We’re attached at the heart,” Uptain likes to say.
They’re looking forward to having more time to travel together. For the first 20 years of his career, Uptain spent every summer and most weekends as a whitewater rafting guide on the Ocoee River.
He and Sandi have been to every state in the nation and like to spend their vacations outdoors, hiking and fishing, and camping under the stars. In a community where most people drive no further than an Alabama beach for vacation, he’s something of an outlier.
“That’s how you grow,” he said. “It’s hard to grow, staying isolated. You need that exposure.”
The afternoon of the soccer game, Crossville won over Collinsville. They were headed to the state playoffs. The girls’ team later made the playoffs, too.
“You don’t know how hard it is, really, for me to walk away,” Uptain said. He worries about who the superintendent will pick to replace him. His teachers can’t talk about it without getting teary-eyed. He’s hired almost every person who currently works at the school.
But he thinks it’s time the school got a fresh set of eyes.
“I’ve probably got us to the furthest point I’m capable of, so it’s time for somebody else to come in and take us home.”
Crossville still hasn’t made it to a place where everyone’s OK with everyone else. Most people – including Uptain, Crossville teachers and students – will tell you that. Profound change takes decades to work through.
“Crossville is home,” Uptain said. “I could have been one of those folks that said, I’m not doing this, I’m leaving. But Crossville means more to me than that. So it meant we need to accept and change and grow. Be the right kind of person.”
He sees his life’s work as guiding the school – and, he hopes, his hometown – through the kind of transformation that’s challenging Sand Mountain and similar proud pockets across America. He doesn’t plan to leave it alone, even in retirement.
“It’s way beyond just picking a side,” he said. “It’s all the way down. It’s rooted, now, down in my soul.”
Stay tuned: This is the first in a series of stories about transformation on Sand Mountain. We will be publishing the other stories in the following weeks.
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