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Charlotte Observer (NC)

Latinos Grow In Number, Not Influence


June 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Charlotte Observer (NC). All rights reserved. 

For at least 30 years, only a handful of Hispanic immigrants made Lincolnton home.

Now, at 15 percent of the city's population, they've become an active part of the community and want to play a role in shaping the city's future.

The community is burgeoning: Immigrants from Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Peru have opened businesses, are filling schools and participating in community events.

What they don't have yet are representatives elected to government boards.

"We really need a leader," said Eric Hernandez, who owns St. Joseph's Bakery in north Lincolnton. "We need someone to talk to the government when we need help. Sometimes I think they ignore us. Americans and Latin people need to work together to see Lincolnton progress."

The Hispanic community needs to form an association to give it a stronger voice in helping shape the city's future, said Hernandez, who originally is from Costa Rica.

Hernandez is one of only two Latinos among the 500 members of the Lincolnton/Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce, which is planning to reach out to Hispanic businesses by translating its brochures into Spanish.

The Rev. Thomas Stott of St. Dorothy's Catholic Church, which has two Spanish-language Masses each week, said he doesn't see Latinos shaping the city's future politically. Their contributions are going to be felt in other ways, he said.

"People are going to have to come to grips with the presence of the Latino community and say, `Guess what, our life here in what used to be a city of Afro-Americans and Southern whites now is not that,' " he said.

Like residents around for generations, many Latinos want Lincolnton to grow at a reasonable pace while keeping its family-oriented values.

"If it grows too much, it'll quit being Lincolnton," said Lorena Torres, who was born in Lincolnton in 1976, the year after her Costa Rican parents moved here from Amsterdam, N.Y.

"Some of the younger people say there's nothing to do. But they're not family-oriented. I think family people will agree it's a great place to raise kids."

Hernandez said he wants the city to be a place where there is better understanding between Latinos and Americans. Right now, he feels many Latinos are misunderstood and Americans assume some newcomers are uneducated because they can't speak English.

There are attempts to work more closely with the Latino community. The Lincoln Cultural Center is including Latino music in its events, and school officials are trying to let Hispanic parents know about programs at the schools.

"It's not an afterthought," said Cristina Arlow, who moved to Lincolnton from Buenos Aires 31 years ago with her parents and owns a business, Translations Plus. "Before it would have never occurred for anybody to do that."

Community leaders met recently to talk about opening a resource center to teach newcomers survival skills, such as how to fill out job applications, where to find doctors, how to mail a letter and where to find stores.

But the efforts aren't enough, said county commissioners' Chairman Jerry Cochrane.

"The population alone, they're a very important factor here from the work they do in the agricultural and manufacturing industries," he said.

Still, Torres said Hispanics now feel part of the town's history.

"They've contributed to the industrial growth," said Torres, who has lived in Lincolnton since 1994 and runs Hispanica Multi-Services, which offers translations and assistance with legal forms.

"They come from countries where they don't have a lot of opportunities, where they work as hard as they do here but can't make a decent living. And they've contributed to the success of the economy."

She and Arlow, who sits on the boards of directors for the Chamber of Commerce and United Way, sees more political involvement by Latinos as they become more accepted.

"I think that they are more and more getting involved and getting their voices heard," Arlow said.

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