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The News & Observer
From Minority To Mainstream
By Ray Martinez
16 January 2005
RALEIGH -- Her face was perfectly poised. Her hands rested competently on the steering wheel at 10 and 2. Her straight, dark hair pulled back smartly.
She had that fresh, innocent, unblinking gaze of someone quietly going through her morning routine. She was alone and heading downtown, like everyone else.
It was just her profile that I glimpsed while she waited for the light to change at Hargett and Person. A mental snapshot through the rolled up windows of her immaculate white Honda.
This is an image I'm seeing more and more in the faces of Hispanic immigrants. She has made it, I thought of the young woman. She isn't afraid. She isn't desperate. She doesn't look like she just fell off the tamale truck.
This is a good development. But there is an unfortunate irony in this picture of progress, one that portends a worsening relationship between Hispanic immigrants and the Anglo majority. The more Hispanics achieve middle class status --- the more they become like the majority --- the more conspicuous they become.
Look: They drive the same cars as us. Look: They dress like us. Look: They just bought a house down the block.
As the Hispanic population in North Carolina, made up mostly of illegal immigrants from Mexico, continues to rise and gradually move up the economic ladder, lifelong Americans will begin seriously taking notice and --- perhaps for the first time in 10, 20, 30 years --- start asking: "Who are these people?" or worse, "Who do these people think they are?"
But we're not there yet. The more common images that stand out remain non-threatening: a bunch of short men standing on a street corner waiting for el patron (the boss man); a stout woman at a bus stop holding two babies in her arms; a glum family packed into a clunker.
One need only remember how comfortably familiar life was for many whites when segregation ruled; and how perturbed many of them became when suddenly they had to rub elbows and share public life with blacks.
How a minority group is viewed and received, however, is not a one-way street. It takes skill and careful balance to lead a minority people alongside the majority without appearing dangerous. No one, of course, knew this better than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The challenges and resistance facing Hispanics in North Carolina don't compare to the epic struggle for black civil rights and inclusion, but it will be interesting to watch what organizations, leaders and tactics emerge to help shape the state's Mexican diaspora. While Hispanics are a political force to be reckoned with nationally and in other states, they have had far less pull in North Carolina, where their immigration has a relatively short history. And, although Hispanics have eclipsed blacks as the country's largest minority group, in North Carolina blacks outnumber Hispanics by more than 3 to 1.
Nevertheless, some public policy analysts, including Jose de la Isla, author of "The Rise of Hispanic Political Power," claim Hispanics are destined to shape American politics in this century. What seems more likely in the Tar Heel state for the near future is that immigrants will continue living on the edge, doing the bulk of the dirty work, but gradually rise up from the street corners and the migrant fields and the slaughterhouses. And in that pivotal transformation, they will turn heads, change the way people think, and ultimately triumph.
The natural law of immigration is that if you stay long enough, you will eventually be accepted. It gets easier with each succeeding generation. I, for one, didn't face the brunt of immigration/assimilation; my parents, from Spain and Puerto Rico, took care of that for me before I was born. Now, as a first-generation American, I feel more like a transplanted Floridian in North Carolina than a so-called Hispanic.
Maybe we Americans are wiser, less myopic these days. Maybe when we see a Hispanic man or woman, or for that matter, anyone from anywhere, we can focus and take a clear, unbiased picture that will serve to blur our clannish instincts and lead us to that great, yet elusive, insight: I am the other and the other is me.
It remains to be seen. But change is happening rapidly, right before our eyes. In the time it takes a traffic light to change from red to green.