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The News & Observer

Axel Lluch Fosters Links To Latinos At Crucial Time

By Michael Easterbrook

March 21, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The News & Observer Pub. Co. All rights reserved.

The man chosen to link the governor to the state's surging Hispanic community is sure about one thing: Spanish-speaking immigrants would fare better if they learned English. But on other issues that matter to Hispanics, the public may never know Axel Lluch's personal views.

"It's not about me. It's about the governor," said Lluch, 46, who was appointed director of the governor's office for Latino/Hispanic Affairs by Gov. Mike Easley earlier this month. "My own personal opinion doesn't matter."

Lluch's arrival comes at a low moment in relations between Hispanic residents and state government, which last month angered many by making it more difficult for immigrants to obtain driver licenses. Lluch declined to comment about the new licensing rule, saying that his job was to act as bridge between Hispanics and the governor.

"If I take a side, I lose half the battle," said Lluch, who earns a $75,000 salary in his new position.

His predecessor, Nolo Martinez, resigned last month and is now working as a senior policy adviser for the advocacy group El Pueblo.

Lluch was born and raised in Puerto Rico. There, he attended a Catholic school and a military academy before earning a bachelor's degree in environmental science from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.

He arrived in North Carolina in 2002 with his wife and two children, now ages 15 and 11, as human relations manager for a food-manufacturing company in Asheboro. He quickly became a recognized leader in the Hispanic community.

At the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, he was a member of the diversity committee and helped the business community understand Hispanics by producing a 15-minute video and organizing seminars to bring the two groups together.

"He was a very important factor in helping us reach into the Hispanic community," said George Gusler, the chamber president. "I hate to see him go, but it's always nice to have a contact at the state level."

Lluch was also treasurer of the Latino Coalition of Randolph County, a resource center in Asheboro.

Victor Dau, vice president of the coalition, credited Lluch with helping to redirect and organize the group. "He's got a very easy way of communicating things," Dau said. "I don't think I've ever seen him get upset."

Created in 1998 by former Gov. Jim Hunt, the Latino/Hispanic Affairs office helps create and run programs for Hispanics. One of its projects was, a Web site with information on housing, education, health services and other matters.

Lluch said he'll encourage Hispanics to learn English but didn't offer details on how state government will help. He spent the first two weeks in his new job meeting with state officials and Hispanic leaders, and appears to have made a strong first impression.

At a public meeting his office sponsored March 13, Lluch chatted easily with the small group that had come, and he listened as people talked about what they viewed as the problems confronting Hispanics. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the state's Hispanic population to be about 444,500 in 2002 and growing.

Licensing changes

Lluch has impressed some of the most strident opponents of the recent licensing changes.

The new rule forbids immigrants from using the popular "matricula consular," an identification card issued by Mexican consulates in the United States, and some other forms of ID when applying for a license. Government officials think the matricula ID cards are easily used by criminals to establish false identities.

Ivan Parra, executive director of the Latino Community Development Center in Durham, said the change unfairly targets immigrants and will prevent many from being able to get to work.

"People feel mistrust at this point," said Parra, adding that one of Lluch's first goals should be to repair the damage.

"I think he has what it takes to do it," Parra said, "but he's going to have to rely on sound policies from the governor -- and that's what we lack."

Lluch was appointed to lead Latino/ Hispanic Affairs.

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