Hispanics changing the face of N.C.

Influx is forcing governments, schools and churches to adjust

149,000 Hispanics in state

Schools have to deal with an increase of students who don't speak English

October 03, 1999|By Eunice Moscoso | Eunice Moscoso,Cox News Service

CLAYTON, N.C. -- They're sprinkled among the barbecue joints and decrepit gas stations: an occasional Mexican bakery, or a store window plastered with movie posters in Spanish.

In Raleigh, Durham and nearby rural areas, Latino faces are everywhere -- landscape workers trimming bushes, construction workers pouring concrete, field workers hauling endless yellow bundles of tobacco leaf.

North Carolina's large cities, small towns and rural areas are being transformed as Hispanic professionals, entrepreneurs and laborers become a growing part of the state's booming economy.

Along with the positive economic effects, the influx is forcing governments, schools, churches and health-care systems to make rapid and sometimes costly adjustments.

In this central North Carolina town, Jose Juan Mendez stops by a store called La Michoacana, which sports a plastic banner resembling the red, white and green Mexican flag.

Inside, Mendez finds an assortment of Spanish-language compact disks, Mexican action movies, imported sweets, fresh-baked tortillas and other products with familiar brand names such as Tia Rosa and El Charrito.

The 23-year-old Mexican house painter from San Luis Potosi smiles with a hint of melancholy.

"I've worked only 10 of the last 14 days. It's not enough," he said. "But coming here makes me feel a little bit better."

Jobs and a peaceful environment are attracting Hispanics such as Mendez to North Carolina in record numbers, though officials disagree on what those numbers are.

While the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 149,000 people of Hispanic origin live in North Carolina, state officials say the Hispanic population has doubled since 1990, to more than 200,000. Meanwhile, Latino advocates and business leaders put the number much higher, between 350,000 to 500,000.

With a nationwide population of about 27 million, Hispanics are projected to surpass African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group in about eight years. While highly concentrated in California, Illinois, New York and Florida, Hispanics have increasingly been moving into other Southern states.

A better place

In North Carolina, Hispanics are mostly settling in urban communities along the Interstate 85 corridor, in western Piedmont counties, in eastern farming areas and near military bases.

They occupy an increasing number of jobs in the food and hotel service industries, as well as in construction, landscaping and livestock slaughterhouses.

While Hispanics cite jobs as the top reason for venturing to North Carolina, there is a clear second reason many refer to as "tranquilidad," or "peace of mind."

"It's a much better atmosphere," said Pedro Aguilar, 34, who worked in Los Angeles for seven years cleaning office buildings before moving to North Carolina with his wife and four children.

"There is more discipline in the schools compared to Los Angeles. People there live without order. There are gangs everywhere. I don't want those values to stick to my kids." he said.

Norma Herrera also came to North Carolina from Los Angeles in search of steady work and a better environment for her teenage son.

"It's a thousand times better," said Herrera, who is Guatemalan and works at a turkey processing plant in Mount Olive. "There is too much violence in California. Too many bullets. They sell drugs in the schools. They get into it so quick. They forget who they are. Forget about God. They finish dead or in jail or as invalids in a hospital."

Ebrahim Melendez, 47, who came to the United States from Honduras in 1989, lived in New Jersey for five years before coming to Raleigh with his family.

"I like the smaller cities, smaller towns," he said. "I like the open spaces, the countryside. It's a state with a lot of opportunity and above all, a lot of tranquility."

Facing problems

While many Latinos sing the praises of their new, adopted state, they also face many challenges.

While not nearly at the levels of cities like Los Angeles or Houston, crime is also a problem in North Carolina.

For example, in the first half of last year, nearly 100 Hispanics were victims of violent crimes in Durham, a number that accounted for 15 percent of all violent-crime victims. That number is roughly twice the percentage of Hispanics in Durham's population.

Police say Hispanics are victims of a disproportionate number of crimes because many have settled in low-income, traditionally high-crime neighborhoods. In addition, many are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, distrust police and speak little or no English.

Hispanics in the state are also more likely to suffer accidents.

In 1997, Hispanics made up about 2 percent of the state's population, but accounted for 9 percent of its workplace deaths. In addition, 25 percent of Hispanic deaths from 1995 to 1997 came in motor vehicle accidents, as opposed to about 2 percent of white deaths and 2.5 percent of African- American deaths.

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