On the rare occasion when I can engage Anglos in serious conversation about the future of the half million Latinos--mostly Mexicans--that now live in North Carolina, the discussion invariably leads to two questions: Do I believe that Mexicans will eventually assimilate into American culture in the same way that immigrants from other parts of the world have assimilated in the past? Will a majority of Mexican immigrants become part of a disenfranchised minority population that will cause an increase in crime rates, overwhelm social spending and strain budgets for many years to come?
Considering that this year is already pregnant with rumors of war and fears of economic stagnation, this special issue may turn out to be the best window available to columnists like myself to share with readers some reflections on where we are and where we may be going on the issue of Latino immigration into North Carolina. Informed reflection is, I am afraid, the best tool we have to attempt to answer questions such as those often posed to me and others: Hard data on Latinos is seldom available and when available it is often inaccurate. What will eventually come to pass in North Carolina, however, will most likely be the result of trends that are already, slowly but surely, asserting themselves. Let me identify some trends and offer a few predictions.
Demographics & Immigration
Latinos are the fastest growing demographic group in the country and in North Carolina. Mexicans are by far the largest group--perhaps as much as 90 percent--within the Latino population. The potential growth among the Mexican population is even higher because: There is a relatively high birth rate among Mexicans already living here, plus Mexican arrivals from other parts of the country. Additionally, many Mexican immigrants living here are single men that came to find work and are now looking to settle down and start a family where every child will most assuredly be a U.S citizen. "In this area," a friendly priest recently told me, "we are baptizing almost four Latino children for every Anglo child. The future of this community is going to involve heavy Latino participation." It is very likely that if existing trends continue, Mexicans and other Latinos will make up 15 to 20 percent of North Carolina's population in less than a decade. This population block is becoming so large that the state cannot continue to ignore it simply because many workers are presently undocumented.
Unfortunately, the immigration agreement between Mexico and the United States that would have allowed Mexicans already in the United States to obtain proper work documentation (and help regulate future immigration flows as well) has been, initially due to Sept. 11 and now Iraq, in a deep freeze. During my recent trip to Mexico, however, every single person involved in emigration issues told me the same thing: Because of the state of the Mexican economy at the start of 2003, immigration flows to the United States will increase this year. It may be harder to cross the border these days, but it is being done every day.
It never ceases to amaze me how Mexicans and other Latinos have been able to find jobs even in North Carolina's soft economy and actually do well at them. Whether it is in factories, in construction, cleaning, landscaping, retailing or services, Latinos are moving into more skilled positions. "The future of the trades (plumbing, electrical, carpentry) in this part of North Carolina," an experienced Anglo electrical contractor recently told me, "depends on whether Latinos will be able to start and operate their own small businesses. Anglo contractors are retiring in large numbers and many educated African Americans do not want to work in the trades. It will be up to the Latinos to fill the gap."
The problem we are facing in North Carolina has to do less with lack of jobs for immigrants and more with the fact that most undocumented immigrants are unable to fully participate in the formal economy where economic opportunities come with clear rights and responsibilities. Hard-working immigrants who could be solid employees and eventually become small business owners are being forced to operate in a shadow economy full of false identities, cash transactions, tax evading schemes and lots of uncertainty. We are sliding into the same problem that Latin America has had for decades with a large, unregulated and corrupt informal economy.
Social and Political Organization
In just under a decade, the increase of the Latino population in North Carolina has brought a dramatic increase in the number of nonprofit organizations, state agencies and programs that are attempting to assist the Latino population. Up to now, however, there is still a serious disconnect between the Central and South American Latino leadership that emerged in the mid-'90s and the Mexican majority that arrived later and remains, up to now, grossly under-represented in nonprofit and state organizations. Up to now, the Mexican population remains to a large extent voiceless, with this being a particularly difficult issue among undocumented Mexican workers who do not seem to experience a sense of solidarity from those other well-established Latinos that have monopolized the microphones.
The social organization of the Latino population in this area has also been hampered by the fragmentation that Latinos face in terms of where we live and work. There is no defined Latino barrio in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill or Carrboro, and gathering spaces are few and far between. Not long ago I was invited to an event near Hillsborough and no immigrants showed up because there had been two arrests made by the local sheriff earlier in the week and the people were afraid "la migra" (the INS) had been tipped about where to grab immigrants. A false rumor but fear often seems present wherever Latinos gather in an urban setting.
The institution around which Mexicans and other Latinos have most often attempted to gather seems to be the church. However, a recent study conducted by the Catholic Diocese in Raleigh found that, in spite of being the fastest growing group within the diocese, Latinos do not feel welcomed at Catholic churches in North Carolina. In many churches, including my own parish, Latinos are treated as guests and not members of the community, and although some progress is being made, a steep hill remains ahead in terms of getting to a point where immigrants are accepted. Other Christian churches also have taken an interest in Latino immigrants and are actively involved in facilitating the formation of communities of faith led by Latinos, although in terms of organization and self-sufficiency most are still struggling.
In the political arena the Democratic Party has begun to take notice of the potentially large pool of Latino voters that may eventually exist in North Carolina. Furthermore, the party has begun to support a few Latino candidates for public office and seems to have grasped the leadership void that exists in terms of the Mexican majority. Not too long ago I had a chance to talk with a party organizer at the national level who is firmly convinced that the Democratic Party will eventually embrace Mexican-Americans as the most important segment within the Latino population in this state and in many parts of the country. If that comes to pass, the long term future of North Carolina and other states may be more Democratic that most people realize. As for the Republican Party, it seems to me the party continues to have to deal with the Wilsons and Lotts in their ranks, and while Republicans may have a solid beachhead with Florida Cubans and some Puerto Ricans, their standing among Mexican Americans seems quite low. One has to wonder how Republicans will handle a North Carolina with a large Latino population.
One of the most exciting political developments for Mexicans living in North Carolina during 2003 may be the granting of voting rights in Mexican elections to those of us who were born in Mexico but now live in the United States. Everyone I talked to in Mexico believes that before Presidente Fox leaves office, a law granting voting rights to Mexicans living abroad will be operational. This means that the next presidential election in Mexico will be heavily influenced by voters residing in the United States and Mexican political parties will have to better understand what happens here. Many Mexican Americans may get to vote in both American (2004) and Mexican (2006) elections!
What can one discern from these trends that are now well-established in North Carolina as a result of Latino immigration? Will the state have assimilation of Mexicans and others in the same sense that we have had with European or Jewish immigrants? Or will Latinos follow a trend of limited or no assimilation at all?
My own sense is that Mexican-Americans will never fully assimilate into American culture in the same way as Europeans and others. The fact of the matter is that Mexico--the Mother culture--is very close and relatively accessible. When Mexicans get the urge to go to Mexico they can jump on a bus or plane and be there in a short time. This is a far cry from the difficulties that European immigrants faced in staying in touch with their mother cultures in Europe and a huge difference from the forced isolation from their mother cultures that African Americans have had to endure for centuries.
Other forces are conspiring to promote the preservation of some kind of Mexican identity among recent immigrants living on this side of the border: The availability of Spanish media, music, movies and soap operas. The popularity of Spanish as a second language in the United States. The large number of stores, restaurants and service outlets where Spanish is the first language. In the case of the children of immigrants, however, the identity issue will be a whole different matter. The real struggle with assimilation will come in the second and third generation of Mexican children born here. By that time, it seems safe to say, the relationship between the United States and Mexico may well have changed even more dramatically than in the 10 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed.
More than assimilation in the old-fashioned way, what I believe we will end up getting is a new kind of blending. America is going to be more Latin American (and Latin America more American), which is to say both will be more truly American in the continental sense. This is not, in spite of the white supremacist mantras and the bitter complaints of less strident racists, something to be afraid of but something that we should celebrate. It will be healthy for a global power like the United States to be more truly diverse and integrated into the continent. And diversity, it is important to remember, is just as much our heritage as the American flag or national anthem.
Will Mexicans remain at the bottom of the economic pyramid in places like North Carolina and become a heavy burden on the state's economy? There is no question in my mind that of all the Latino groups in this state and in the country, Mexicans face the highest risk of economic stagnation, but I do not believe Mexicans will stay at the bottom for a long time. This eventual outcome will have less to do with the educational initiatives and loud noises made by our progressive friends--and limelight-loving Latino leaders--and more to do with the traditional strengths of the Mexican family and the support network that revolves around it. I am firmly convinced that the initiative and entrepreneurship of the Mexican worker and small business operator will be fully unleashed in this state and in the country whenever the immigration/documentation issue is finally resolved.
The arrival of Latinos has been appropriately heralded as an opportunity to increase diversity in North Carolina, strengthen the tax, labor, consumption and investment pool and increase ties with Mexico and the rest of Latin America. However, few North Carolinians have yet grasped the full meaning of having 10 to 15 percent of the state's population be Mexicans, and the truth is that our state government, nonprofit sector and Latino leadership have yet to set a proper course because they have focused and continue to focus on the wrong issues--such as Latino unity--and choose to play along with Anglos and disguise the raw facts of who is here and what those Latinos that are here are really about. My hope is that in the next 10 years, the momentum of what has already been set in motion will take care of casting a bright light on major pending issues such as: Mexicans and other Latinos have come here to stay, contribute to the economy and be part of the North Carolina landscape for many generations to come.
Enrique Gomez Palacio moved to North Carolina about eight years ago from Alabama, lives in Hillsborough, and writes frequently about issues involving the state's Latinos.