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Hispanic Magazine

The Hispanic Boom

By Jane Kitchen

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Latinos are the fastest growing minority, and in North Carolina, the population has increased faster than the rest of the nation

February 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Hispanic Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

On a gray Sunday morning, the Iglesia Cristiana Wesleyana in Kernersville, North Carolina, is filled with families sitting on blue-cushioned pews under the glare of fluorescent lights. At the pulpit, a small wooden cross adorning the wall behind him, Pastor Fermín Bocanegra, a small man who speaks with big, passionate gestures, greets his congregation in Spanish. Toddlers play in the aisles as Bocanegra prays out loud, and asks the congregation to join him. He prays that no one will lose his job. He prays that no one’s car will break down. And he asks for everyone to remember that no matter how bad things may seem, they were worse where they came from.

Bocanegra, who came to North Carolina from his native Peru in 1968 to attend college, was once lonesome for the sound of Spanish voices. Today, he ministers to more than 300 families, a small section of North Carolina’s growing Hispanic population. In the past 10 years, North Carolina has seen a 394 percent increase in its Latino population, making it one of the fastest-growing states for Hispanics in the country. The congregation of the Iglesia Cristiana Wesleyana, the majority of whom are recent Mexican immigrants, mirrors the state’s Hispanic population, which is 65 percent Mexican. In fact, according to Nolo Martínez, director of Hispanic Affairs for the Office of the Governor, the Mexican population in North Carolina is growing at 600 percent, faster than anywhere else in the country.

The first generation of Hispanics to come to North Carolina were single males, who worked in the agriculture industry. "It was a temporary mission to send money home," says Martínez. Now the new population is more permanent. "Families have joined those single males," he says, "everyone from wife to grandpa."

As the population has grown, Hispanics have branched out to work in other areas of the economy–jobs that don’t necessarily require proficiency in English, such as manufacturing, textiles, and construction. And as more Hispanics have landed those jobs, word has gotten out that there is work in North Carolina.

Roberto Camacho, 28, came to the United States four years ago from Mexico, but has only been in North Carolina three months. He moved to Charlotte from New York after he heard about a construction job from his cousin-in-law. Today, he is working for Formco Concrete Forming helping to build a new science building at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He gestures to the men around him. "Everybody here is from Mexico," he says. "Everybody here came here because they heard from someone else [that there were jobs]."

Greg Troutman, 22, a supervisor at Formco and an American who’s been working construction since he was 14, says he has definitely seen an increase in the number of Hispanics, especially in the past four years. "These guys will work," he says. "You can’t get [Americans] black or white to work, but these guys will work."

The demand for workers, and particularly construction workers, has grown with the increase in the overall population in North Carolina, ranked the nineth fastest-growing state in the 2000 Census; its total population increased 21.4 percent between 1990 and 2000. Hispanic workers have become vital to North Carolina’s economy and workforce; 95 percent of the construction jobs in Charlotte, and 90 percent of the construction jobs in Raleigh, are held by Hispanics, according to Martínez.

"Originally, they took the jobs no one else wanted," says Claudia Main, a member of the Hickory Community Relations Council. Main says Hickory has attracted Hispanics for jobs in textiles, fiber-optics and furniture manufacturing. Mark Sills, executive director of Faith Action, a non-profit advocacy group in Greensboro, tells the story of a man who traveled to North Carolina from where he’d been working in Alabama. "He spent his last penny getting a bus ticket to Greensboro because he heard there was work," Sills says. "Word has been out all over the country–and I mean that literally–that there are jobs here."

But the job growth in North Carolina may be slowing for Hispanics. With recent downturns in the economy, Sills anticipates a slowing of the growth in the Hispanic community statewide, but not a shrinkage.

"The population that is already here has put down roots," he says. "They’ve purchased homes, started businesses." Add to this the fact that borders are now more tightly regulated than ever, and many people–both documented and undocumented–who would normally head home in times of economic slowdown are staying, Sills says, because they’re afraid they won’t be able to come back.

And those who are staying are contributing to the growth. The 2001 Latino Legislative Agenda report, put out by El Pueblo, a non-profit community-based organization in Durham, suggests that because so many Hispanic women in North Carolina are at peak childbearing age, the potential for population increase is "enormous." Experts at Faith Action estimate the Hispanic population in 2001 to have climbed 28 percent from the 2000 Census figures, which Sills says is due to both new births and new arrivals.

But despite the tremendous growth, North Carolina’s Hispanic population is only 4.7 percent overall, still nowhere near states like New York (15.1%), Florida (16.8%), Texas (32%) or California (32.4%). But it is the growth that’s caught some North Carolinians off-guard.

A Beacon of Hope

"The problem is that North Carolina wasn’t prepared for such a huge increase in the Hispanic population," says Cristina Roche, a board member of the Hispanic League of the Piedmont Triad, and a native of Argentina. "We never thought we’d have to learn a second language. [Hispanics] were always here, but in the form of migrant workers. Now, they’re in the hospitals, having babies, getting sick. They’re in the workforce–they’re starting their own companies."

Roche, a middle-school Spanish teacher, recently started her own company, Language Links, which provides Spanish lessons to the corporate world. She works with companies like Sara Lee, a major employer in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina, who want to train employees supervising a large number of Hispanic workers. At first, Roche held on to her middle-school teaching job, but as the demand for her corporate language classes grew, she soon realized it was a full-time venture. Today, she employs four Spanish teachers, and has recently branched out to teach classes outside of the corporate world, which are frequented by policemen, healthcare workers–anyone exposed to Spanish-speaking populations.

North Carolina’s Hispanic population is also very young; one-third are under 18. In the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School System, María Zazzarino coordinates the Newcomer Center, opened in 2000 with a federal grant in response to the increased number of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students that area was seeing. The first year they were open, the Newcomer Center enrolled 1800 students in the 68 schools in the system. "People wanted to help [the parents]," says Zazzarino, "but often they couldn’t–they didn’t have anyone who could communicate with them."

Back at the basement of the Iglesia Cristiana Wesleyana, Pastor Bocanegra holds free dental clinics after Sunday services. He got a good deal on dental chairs and equipment from a retiring dentist, turned a former women’s restroom into an X-ray room, and found local dentists to donate their time. But because none of the volunteering dentists speak Spanish, Bocanegra often runs back and forth, translating for the patients. Last week, he says, they saw 43 patients, and he translated for all of them.

Still, Bocanegra doesn’t plan to stop there. He hopes to open a daycare, build a soccer field, provide pre-natal and pediatric care, and start a family resource center for the area’s Hispanics. His vision, he says, "is not just to preach, but to change their life."

And life is changing for both Hispanics and non-Hispanics in North Carolina. The state has recently seen its first Latino elected to municipal office. John Herrera, founder of El Pueblo and co-founder of the Latino Community Credit Union (see sidebar) was recently elected to the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, and is the highest-ranking elected Latino Democrat in North Carolina. "I want Latino kids in North Carolina to start thinking of having the privilege of dreaming," he says. "Now, our kids can dream of being senators, or even President."

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