The Latin Americanization of WNC

Twenty years ago, if you lived in Western North Carolina and had a sudden urge for good Mexican food, your only options were a few mom-and-pop places like Dolores and Jose’s in West Asheville, just off the intersection of Interstate 240 and Haywood Road. These days, you don’t have to travel far at all to find not only excellent Mexican cuisine but also throbbing Latin music, a Hispanic mercado, a Latino festival, or even a Spanish-language newspaper. Within a few minutes of several WNC towns, an entire Latin American world has suddenly materialized.

Even 10 years ago, the appearance of such a microcosm here in the mountains would have seemed unlikely. Yet the influx of significant numbers of Hispanics has had startling effects. Much like parts of Texas where I grew up, WNC is being Latinized, only at a much more rapid rate — within decades, rather than centuries. Still, the cultural interaction will follow a somewhat predictable and sometimes trying path not only for Anglos but also for African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans, as well as for Latinos themselves.

Something very big is happening here in Western North Carolina. It’s a demographic change that’s every bit as dramatic, if not as large, as the migration of the Scots-Irish (who first made their way over the mountains two centuries ago) or of the “tourists” (who started coming on the railroads a century ago and are still arriving in droves). Just two years ago, Gov. Jim Hunt — always politically sensitive to change and recognizing the newest North Carolinians — began a press conference in Spanish: “Buenas tardes. Bienvenidos,” he greeted the media as he announced the creation of a special Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs to focus on the state’s new immigrants.

Since 1990, North Carolina’s Latino population has increased by about 150 percent — the third-fastest growth rate of any state in the nation. The 2000 census will probably show that the pace has been sustained, if not accelerated. Record keepers in Raleigh report that the state is home to more than 10,000 Hispanics. Chatham County, for example, had only 510 Latino residents in 1990; today, it has more than 6,000, prompting one writer to dub Siler City the “Mexico City of North Carolina.” Forsyth County has 22,000 Hispanics, Robeson County more than 3,000. Charlotte, a rapidly expanding New South city straddling the two Carolinas, numbers more than 63,000 Latinos among its 536,000 residents. (In Mecklenburg County, there’s now a Spanish-language edition of the yellow pages. The state now has nine Spanish-language newspapers, including La Noticia in Charlotte. The Catholic diocese of Charlotte, which includes Asheville and Western North Carolina, includes the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic population. In Asheville, Hispanics swell the congregations not only of Catholic churches such as the Basilica of St. Lawrence, but also of many Protestant ones. In 1990, 1,173 Hispanics lived in Buncombe County. Today, that population has at least quadrupled, though the exact number isn’t known.

Across the state, Hispanic immigration has even more significantly affected working and school-age populations. Hispanics now constitute an estimated 15 percent of the work force and 9 percent of those attending primary and secondary schools, and both percentages are expected to rise in the next few years. Yet even those numbers downplay the transformational nature of such a startling rise in Latino populations in such a short span of time.

The impact on the work force has already been felt in cities such as Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Asheville, where Hispanics find themselves working alongside other North Carolinians in businesses and factories. But many of these immigrants come from rural backgrounds, and most end up laboring not in factories but in the fields, on the roads and in our yards and resorts, working almost exclusively in groups of their own kind, at low wages in mostly dead-end jobs. As in Texas, Arizona and California, they will soon move into unskilled maintenance, cleaning, janitorial and construction jobs — traditionally the domain of poor whites and blacks in the South.

Like so many immigrants before them, Latinos have segregated themselves from Anglo- and African-Americans, frequently in trailer parks on the edges of towns, in low-rent apartment units, or in marginal neighborhoods like those found in east Henderson County and in south and west Asheville. Most Latinos will attend public schools, but a smaller percentage of them will graduate from high school than either Anglos or African-Americans. Indeed, Hispanics traditionally have one of the lowest levels of high-school graduation and college attendance of any minority in this country. In Buncombe County, the majority of school-age Hispanic children fall into the youngest school-age category, 5-11, which means that the new migrants come with their small children and intend to stay and raise their families. In this way, schools and social services, especially elementary schools and legal counseling, will not only be quickly impacted by the new immigrants but will also serve as institutional antennae for assimilation. No longer migrants like their predecessors, Hispanics like calling North Carolina home. They’re here to stay.

Right now, the new immigrants and other North Carolinians are enjoying a kind of honeymoon. The markets and the economy here are so open at the moment that former pickers and packers in the apple orchards of Henderson and Haywood counties have graduated to changing tires at a Sears store or sheets in a Hampton Inn — or maybe to a shift at Sonopress or J. Crew or even to the sales staff at Stein Mart or Belk, if their English is good enough. “Barrio lawyers” such as Edna Campos — who mediate between Hispanics and Anglos — have now emerged to represent and advocate for the Latino community. More will be needed. Still, despite Latinos’ impact on the work force, the biggest bonanzas in this land of bonanzas will remain in the hands of the Anglos — both the developers already here in Western North Carolina and those swarming into the region from Charlotte, Atlanta and other New South cities.

Although such local institutions as government, religion and schools have been taken by surprise by the magnitude of the Hispanic immigration, they, along with most North Carolinians, have reacted with compassion, an attempt at understanding, and a long-standing tradition of hospitality. The Asheville Citizen-Times published a series of articles in October that had, as their theme, the all-American idea that the Hispanics who come here hope only “for a better life,” as we all do, simply “striving for the American dream.” An Asheville City Schools Foundation grant helped elementary-school children learn about Hispanic culture, and the Fire Department and Emergency Services have instituted crash courses in Spanish for their employees. The Mountain Family Resources Coalition held seminars on working with immigrant families in Western North Carolina, especially Hispanics and Ukrainians. African-Americans, who know something about overcoming barriers and trying to find acceptance, reached out to the new immigrants by sponsoring leadership summits through the NAACP and child-care programs based in local churches. As in other states such as Texas and Arizona, these efforts met with mixed success, a harbinger for the uneasiness of future political and social cooperation. Cultural change is hard, and it takes both time and effort.

And now that Western North Carolina has more than the initial handful of Hispanics (who at first seemed merely different, perhaps even exotic), the process of Latin Americanization will begin in earnest. The results are, to some extent, predictable: Tolerances and boundaries, both social and cultural, will be tested. Family parties and community fiestas, perhaps too loud and raucous for the sensibilities of mountaineers, will increasingly be warned and busted by police. Preferring baseball and soccer to football and basketball, Latinos assuredly will want to use parks, playgrounds and other public areas for their sports of choice as well as for general get-togethers. A combination of more tolerance and more public spaces and playgrounds could help both Latinos and mountaineers. In some mountain counties, Latinos will be the only significant minority. In others, such as Buncombe, Henderson and Haywood, they will call into question the position of another minority in mountain culture — threatening, it seems, the place that African-Americans historically have occupied through much of North Carolina’s history.

Schools will be in the forefront of assimilation here in Western North Carolina. A great many young Hispanics with names like Jesus, Jose and Magdalena will see them mutated, by the time the senior prom rolls around, into Jesse, Joe and Maggie. And traditional Hispanic values that all of us should admire — such as respecting elders, a natural deference to authority, good manners (taking hats off indoors, etc.) and looking after relatives — may begin to change the longer the people who brought them here reside in Western North Carolina and attend our schools.

Within a generation, some Hispanics may learn to neglect some of their sorrier kinfolk, disregard their elders, be rude, wear their new baseball caps indoors, scorn grace at meals, curse and spit in public, and even eat roast beef and caesar salads instead of pozole and gorditos. In short, Hispanics may become more like us.

Some will even be saved by charismatic Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant churches, instead of staying in the bosom of the mother Catholic Church. Most of the mom-and-pop restaurants and small mercados will soon disappear, absorbed by chains from Atlanta and Houston with names beginning with “fiesta” or “los.”

Traditionally hard-working and frugal, with deep family loyalties, Latinos may come to want lengthy vacations and fringe benefits, just like their Anglo neighbors. And meanwhile, we won’t even know what to call them. Are they Mexicans? Puerto Ricans? Cubans? Hispanics? Or the currently politically correct (at least from our perspective), all-inclusive “Latinos”? (They, of course, also have names for us: Anglos, Negritos and some other less-flattering terms.)

Like all cultural assimilation, Latin Americanization works both ways, with each group having an impact on the other. In the end, however, Latinos should not be treated as a minority group on parole, trying to make their way into our larger democratic society, but as a welcome addition to an increasingly diverse mountain culture.

[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]

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