Diego Graglia is documenting the lives of Latinos during this presidential election year as he travels from New York City to Mexico City. For more on La Ruta del Voto Latino-The Road to the Latino Vote visit www.newyorktomexico.com.
Wednesday and Thursday, we visited a couple of small towns in North Carolina to get a sense of what Latinos in rural areas think about the elections and what issues matter to them at the moment. I had the feeling that we always hear a lot about Mexicans in Chicago and L.A., Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, Cubans in Florida… but we seldom get news about the people who live in small towns across the country.
In the South, those small towns have been changed radically by the arrival of Mexicans and Central Americans – from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador – who work in agriculture, manufacturing and construction. The Pew Hispanic Center said in a 2005 report,
“The Hispanic population is growing faster in much of the South than anywhere else in the United States. Across a broad swath of the region stretching westward from North Carolina on the Atlantic seaboard to Arkansas across the Mississippi River and south to Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico, sizeable Hispanic populations have emerged suddenly in communities where Latinos were a sparse presence just a decade or two ago.” [Go to the report.]
Our first stop, Siler City in Chatham County, is a clear example of this. Marcia Espínola, a Chilean who is the associate director of community organization El Vínculo Hispano/The Hispanic Liaison, told me most Latinos there -50 percent of the county’s population- come from rural areas in Mexico and Central America. Here, they work in poultry processing plants, agriculture and construction work.
Poultry is a sensitive issue, though. In June, over 800 people were left without a job after a local Pilgrim’s Pride plant closed. This has left not only Latinos but the whole town in crisis — many businesses are suffering (from the farms outside town which supplied the plant to the WalMart to the tire shop and the gas station who counted truckers as regular customers.)
Pilgrim’s Pride, Siler City, NC: the plant that closed in June [More photos · Siler City]
Add to this the fear of Immigration raids (see my post about the checkpoint rumors that invaded North Carolina’s Latino communities this week), and the atmosphere doesn’t seem very upbeat right now.
Neighboring counties have entered the same Section 287g partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as we saw in Northern Virginia and many people are afraid of leaving Chatham County or going out at all. In fear of being arrested and deported, some people have signed over power-of-attorney documents to other adults so their children will be able to stay in the U.S. no matter what. The tension is palpable, Espínola says: domestic violence cases have gone up; so have high school dropout rates (the state’s attorney general recently tried to ban undocumented students from community colleges.) The presence of Latino gangs has been noticed recently, too.
Due to the economic downturn and lack of jobs, families are doubling up in homes so that some houses can be put up for sale or rent (we saw many of those.) The Hispanic Liaison has seen an abrupt increase in the numbers of people who seek help at its three-times-a-month food pantry, with over 50 people waiting for food outside the office in the hot and humid Carolinian summer. Another area plant has a wait-list of 190 job applicants but is not hiring right now. Many immigrants are packing and leaving, most for other counties or states, a few for their home countries.
Even in this climate, Espínola says, people are interested in the outcome of the presidential race. Watch:
After the summer, Espínola says, it will be known how many people have left town. Their kids will not be attending school, and that’s the best way to count the absences.
When we left the Vínculo office, I talked to Mario Calderón, 42, a Guatemalan legal resident who works at a grocery store down the street. “If this situation goes on like this, people will leave, because they see doors closing for them,” he told me. The store’s business is down 30 percent, he said, and most other shops in town are going through the same.
“If it goes on, I will have to move somewhere else, too. Maybe even my own country.”
The next day, I visited Kinston, in the Eastern and most rural part of the state. I met Juvencio Rocha Peralta, a longtime Latino activist in the area who was among the pioneers of the migratory wave that has changed the face of the South in the last couple of decades.
On my way there, I saw a couple of guys working hard under the midday sun, hoisting tobacco leaves onto a truck in the middle of a field by the side of the road. We drove into the field and I walked up to them and started talking.
“We think he can be the change,” he went on. “We don’t want more war and we want the economy to get better. With McCain, it would be the same story as with Bush.” As I explained here, Diego had to leave when his grumpy boss arrived and I didn’t get to the part where I asked him whether he was a citizen and was planning on voting come November 4.
Then I finally met Peralta. He arrived from his native Veracruz, Mexico, 26 years ago, when there were few Latinos around, and worked in the fields and in construction. But he also went to college, got a degree in Business Administration and has been involved with community organizations for two decades. He founded the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, among other reasons, because he felt the voice of rural Latinos was seldom heard.
Peralta said the mood in Eastern North Carolina reflects what is happening in the rest of the state. Although the feared Section 287g hasn’t reached these parts yet, he said, “we’re concerned that [its implementation in nearby regions] is going to influence other counties.” Sen. Elizabeth Dole is using this as a platform proposal as she seeks reelection, after all.
“What I’ve seen in North Carolina,” Peralta said, “is that unfortunately the percentage of those [in the general population] who actually vote is small. Those of us who worry about these issues do not go to the polling booths to try to oust these people from office.”
His group, AMEXCAN, is working on registering voters, but Peralta said rural areas don’t see intense campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of voting.
“The problem is, people don’t go out and vote,” he said. “People feel comfortable and do go out to exercise their rights. We’re a very conformist people: ‘I have documents and my family is OK, then let the others be damned.’
“Making our people aware is a challenge.”
Probably playing against activists like him is the fact that candidates have not deeply addressed some of the issues Latinos in the area care most about. “Immigration, education, the economy,” Peralta checked off. “We haven’t seen clearly what their policies on immigration and education will be. They talk a lot about the war and what’s going on with energy.”