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Southern Amistad

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"Isn't America great?"

The question hung in the air for a moment as the interpreter glossed it into Spanish, followed by a mild patter of applause from the audience. We weren't quite sure where he was going with this.

"There's no place better to live than good old Siler City," he went on. The heavyset man in a tropical shirt and cowboy hat was speaking Saturday afternoon as one of the local government officials invited to address Siler City's annual Fiesta Latina.

A parade of town commissioners filed past the mic to testify again and again on the themes of "harmony," "diversity" and "brotherly love" on this modest stage set up in a municipal park with tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool. They all thanked Chatham County's nonprofit Hispanic Liason/El Vinculo Hispano for inviting them and expressed the hope to be asked back next year. You'd be hard put to find a finer show of Southern neighborliness.

An NAACP official was there, welcoming new immigrants with "open arms" to visit his office with any civil rights complaints. Chatham County's new sheriff of 18 months, Richard Webster, proudly announced the addition of the first Spanish speaking officers to his staff, and said he was still looking for more if anyone at the fiesta was interested in a career in law enforcement.

Second District U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge was there, too, bravely speaking Spanish without an interpreter ("Soy tu candidito, necesito tu voto"), and Univision was there to take footage of it all for the evening news.

It's hard to believe that just four years ago, in February 2000, the national media were gathered in Siler City for a very different reason: to cover the appearance of David Duke at a private citizen's anti-immigration rally. Obviously, a lot has changed in a town where the chairman of the county commissioners, Rick Givens, once wrote an angry letter to the INS. A lot of hearts and minds have been changed since then (including Givens'). It's a good sign that local government is embracing change and wants stay in on the conversation with the Latino community.

Hence, the focus on respect and diversity at this Fiesta Latina 2004 is no accident--a hip hop DJ, gospel choir and step troupe were scheduled alongside Mexican folk dancers, mariachi wearing the traditional trajes de charo, and a nortena band in satin shirts. Little girls in sparkly frills, looking overdressed for a hot, August day, swarmed the stage for a "Reinas" pageant between the welcoming ceremonies and musical acts.

The formula for these nonprofit festivals is pretty pat by now. Educational outreach is the main focus, with just enough cultural icing (food, music and kids' activities) to keep everybody happy. Increasingly, it is also a way for cable TV and cell phone companies, media organizations, political parties and local business owners such as restaurateurs and even soft drink wholesalers to vie for the attention of the Hispanic market. It's a healthy development that the cultural and economic contributions Hispanics make to North Carolina, both as consumers and as a workforce, have come to the attention of town fathers and mothers, right here in Siler City.

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