Soaring Latino population fortifies North Carolina’s growth prospects

 In January 2020

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Ex-IBM engineer Gerardo Santoyo and his wife, Claudia Casco, are longtime N.C. residents who run a 100-student Montessori school in Durham. Hispanic kids make up a third of enrollment.

Thirty years have passed, but people still come to Siler City to honor Frances Bavier, better known as the beloved Aunt Bee to television sheriff Andy Taylor and son, Opie. On an autumn afternoon, a middle-aged man walks across the dry grass of Oakwood Cemetery to a head-tall tombstone with a Moorish motif. It honors Bavier who, as Aunt Bee in the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, fussed over a homespun family that would personify North Carolina for millions.

In 1972, Bavier retired here, a recluse to be seen mostly puttering around town in her green Studebaker. By the time she died in 1989, the real Siler City no longer resembled native son Andy Griffith’s Mayberry idyll.

“When I moved nearby in 1991, I decided to go into town to see what it was like,” says Brazil-born Ilana Dubester, who heads The Hispanic Liaison, a Siler City-based nonprofit serving Hispanics in Alamance, Chatham, Lee and Randolph counties. Pot-holed streets were littered with chicken feathers from the town’s poultry-processing industry. “A lot of the businesses downtown were boarded up, and back then, there weren’t many businesses out on the highway.” U.S. 421 bisects the east side of town.

Now, Siler City is stirring again, and Leo Davalos and wife, Adiee, are helping. Fewer downtown stores are boarded up. There’s a busy Walmart out on the big road. At the couple’s white-sided Rojo Canela restaurant on East Third Street, they serve diners in the town of 8,000.

“Calidez humana” — which means friendliness and warmth — is the rule here, Davalos says, preparing $5 lunch specials but also chicharrones, taquitos potosinos and fish shrimp veggie bomba. They get customers from as far as Charlotte and Raleigh who often rate the restaurant five stars.

Davalos is among those reshaping North Carolina in an unparalleled social and demographic revolution. Though frequent reports of immigration raids mold public opinion, he and others like him contradict stereotypes and are changing the futures of communities across the nation. Hispanics are reweaving the fabric of schools, businesses and industries rapidly.

A naturalized U.S. citizen and native of Zapotlanejo, Mexico, Davalos raised more than $100,000 to buy and equip Rojo Canela. After moving to North Carolina in 2012, he drove a truck for several years while saving money for the restaurant. “I would like to make my restaurant, my business, successful,” he says. “I would hope to leave it to my children. This is our country now. It is, it is.”

Over the last three decades, the state’s Latino population has soared to nearly one in 10 of its 10.4 million residents, versus one in 100 in 1990. That’s about a 1,300% gain, compared with 50% non-Latino growth, according to Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill. Between 2010 and 2018, the state added nearly 200,000 Latinos, boosting its total to 997,349. By 2035, the group is likely to total 1.7 million.

“North Carolina simply did not have a history of attracting people from other places until the last two decades,” Tippett says. Siler City, which was 44% Hispanic in a 2016 estimate, is one of a dozen communities that could report a majority Hispanic population in the 2020 census.

The vision of many border-crossing immigrants illegally flooding North Carolina is a myth, Tippett says. Nearly six in 10 N.C. Hispanics were born in the U.S., mostly in the Tar Heel State. Much of the rapid growth stems from those families having more children, she says, along with the arrival of second-stop immigrants such as Davalos, who had initially settled in California. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s sprawling 150,000-student school system, one in six students is Hispanic. Enrollment would be declining otherwise.

On a recent morning at Maracas Montessori, a day care center in a tree-shaded Durham neighborhood, a dark-eyed girl of about 3 purses her lips and carefully pronounces the words she’s tracing in a book with a tiny forefinger. “Este es mi gato!” she squeals when finished, holding up a picture. “This is my cat!”

Many Hispanics who say they’ve been accosted by non-Hispanics demanding, “Why don’t you learn to speak English?” now fret that their children are losing their ability to speak, read and write Spanish. To compensate, they are enrolling them in Spanish immersion schools such as Maracas, where about one-third of the 100 children are Hispanic.

“Particularly, lower-income families push their children to integrate as much as possible into the American culture even if they sacrifice their native language,” says Claudia Casco, the school’s founder and executive director. She headed Montessori preschools in Mexico before settling here when her husband, Gerardo Santoyo, an electronics engineer and former 26-year IBM executive who manages the school’s business functions, was transferred to the Triangle area.

The couple represents a thriving community of middle- and upper-class Tar Heel Hispanics. Their personal circle of acquaintances might number 70 families, mostly Hispanic professionals. Santoyo is a board member of the N.C. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has about 4,000 members and associate members, says Ximena Ordoñez Acevedo, executive director. He’s president of Red Global MX, a group of several dozen Hispanics that promotes bilingualism. “Many of our Hispanic families know that once [their children are] immersed in English schools, there’s a tendency to lose their fluency,” Casco says.

Not unexpectedly, Latino business owners face the same challenges as non-Latinos, particularly in attracting scarce labor. Mountaire Farms, the Millsboro, Del.- based poultry giant pumping $170 million into its 40-acre Siler City campus, is hiring hundreds. Its above-average pay lured away three Rojo Canela employees, prompting Davalos’ grumbling that he and Adiee now work 15-hour days.

Hispanic spending power in North Carolina now exceeds $25 billion in economic impact annually, according to a N.C. Bankers Association study. “People must understand that Hispanics are now distributed throughout our economy,” says Jim Johnson, a veteran UNC Chapel Hill business professor who studies immigration. “The popular image of them is that they’re concentrated in landscaping, agriculture, construction and those kinds of fields. But the reality is, they’re widely distributed, including a substantial population of professionals.”

N.C. Hispanics range from small-business owners like Davalos to Cary’s Willy Stewart, a Colombia native, Western Carolina University-educated engineer and founder of Stewart Inc., an engineering and design company with nearly 200 employees and offices in five states.

Another is Winston-Salem’s Robert Garcia, 62, a Texas-born account executive for a Winston-Salem hospice who moved to North Carolina 24 years ago to work in the resort industry. “The common thing is to throw immigrants all into one lump,” he says. “Then you throw in ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — raids and so forth, and it gets confusing. Right here in the Triad, I know [Hispanics] in banking, high tech and other professions, but there’s still that stigma.”

Silvia Rincon, vice president of the 82,000-member Latino Community Credit Union based in Durham, one of the nation’s fastest-growing banks with $450 million in assets, is another second-stop immigrant. She has a degree in financial engineering from Universidad Autónoma de Bucaramanga in her native Colombia and moved to North Carolina from Chicago. “We visited North Carolina and fell in love with it. It’s so beautiful,” she says. Now she sees her credit union undergoing subtle shifts.

Founded in 2000, most members were Mexican, heavily eastern North Carolina agricultural workers unbanked and at the mercy of criminals and unscrupulous lenders. “When they were paid, they didn’t have the option of opening bank accounts, so they were robbed and sometimes killed,” she says. “They were known as walking ATMs.”

Today, about 45% of the credit union’s members are Mexican. “We’re seeing more from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Columbia and countries like that,” she says. “Plus, [there’s] a lot of internal immigration from Florida, the Midwest and elsewhere. They’re coming to North Carolina because of the quality of life and strong economy.”

North Carolina’s modern Latino phenomenon has roots in historic reality. For example, Duplin County’s massive agricultural industry relies heavily on immigrant labor. On a summer day in a field near Faison, several dozen workers stoop and bob over prickly cucumber vines, filling 5-gallon plastic buckets and carrying them to wagons pulled by tractors. When they heave a bucketful into bins bound mostly for Mt. Olive Pickle Co., a crew boss tosses a token into the empty bucket.

They redeem the tokens, typically for 35 cents to 50 cents. A fast worker can earn $50 to $100 a day. At other farms, workers hired under a visa program called H2-A earn a federally mandated $12.25 an hour, returning year after year on buses chartered by Tar Heel farmers.

The number of these kinds of workers in North Carolina varies by estimate, from about 90,000 to 180,000. Counting is complicated because many Tar Heel farmers still bypass the legal visa program to hire cheaper workers living in the country without documentation. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 46% of immigrant farmworkers are undocumented, but former N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten says it could be as high as 70%, or at least 100,000 workers. Regardless, variations of the scene play out in the sweet potato and tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina, the apple orchards of Henderson County, and the Christmas tree farms of Ashe and Avery counties.

Nearly 20 years ago, Hector Vega, owner of Homes by Hector Vega, a real estate affiliate of Keller Williams in Cary, emigrated from Colombia. The 62-year-old helps Hispanic clients, usually first-time homebuyers, overcome financial and other hurdles. “Some didn’t have Social Security numbers and worked only with tax IDs,” he says. He learned end-runs, such as steering them to the Latino Credit Union, which tends to be more willing to overlook language and financial-documentation barriers than traditional banks.

Vega, driving to a call through southern Wake County, lists $40,000 fixer-uppers to $500,000 mini-mansions to clients ranging from construction workers to small-business owners. About 70% are Latino. “I don’t want to grow really big and just make money,” he says. “I want to have a life for me and my family.”

On Charlotte’s Central Avenue, afternoon rush-hour traffic clogs the road. It’s the street where a family grocery store that neighborhood natives called “Mr. Harris’” grew into the Harris Teeter chain. Today, Central Avenue is Charlotte’s most acclaimed international artery, the home of Latino lawyers, accountants, tax preparers, ubiquitous restaurants such as Tacos El Nevado and El Pulgarcito De America, and busy Latino pastry shop Manolo’s Bakery, one of several businesses owned by Manolo Betancur.

“For most of our history, North Carolina has been a nativist state with population growing modestly from whites and African Americans,” says UNC Charlotte’s Owen Furuseth. “Our research shows [Hispanics have] played a key role in moving North Carolina forward in terms of economics, from rural parts of the state that would be losing population if not for Hispanic immigrants, to the largest cities where they participate in everything from the highest technology and executive positions, to blue-collar labor to cleaning hotel rooms and lawn services.”

Contradicting the rural migrant-worker image, one in four of the state’s Hispanics lives in two urban counties — Wake and Mecklenburg — with many others in Forsyth, Guilford and Durham counties. Proportionately, Duplin County has the highest percentage at about 20%, trailed closely by Sampson and Lee counties.

Since 2010, 10 counties, including Wayne, Sampson, Duplin and Wilson in the east, Randolph and Person in central North Carolina, and western Alleghany, Yancey, Polk and Alexander, grew only as a result of Latinos. Such numbers are destined to grow. “Do the math,” says Johnson, the Chapel Hill immigration researcher. “Most Hispanics began arriving about 1990, which means their children are 29 years old or less. In fact, the median age is 23, while the median age of the non-Hispanic white female is 45, so we know where the growth is going to come from. The Hispanic population is the only one in the country that has above-replacement fertility because most are in prime child-bearing years.”

North Carolina is transitioning from “a graying population to a browning population,” he says. “You have to connect the two to understand how important this is. We’re going to need 1.2 million senior-care workers nationwide between now and 2025. Where are we going to get them?” The implied answer is the Hispanic population.

While Hispanics gain in numbers, however, their influence in North Carolina business and politics lags. The group’s limited clout is evident on Charlotte’s east side, at a poll in Garinger High School in one of the city’s first neighborhoods that shifted from blue-collar, non-Hispanic to Hispanic in the 1990s. Before daybreak, checking names and squirming in hardback plastic chairs, poll workers began logging voters in last September’s City Council primaries, many of them African Americans and some Vietnamese. By nightfall, few Hispanics have voted.

As the ballots are counted, Jorge Millares, one of three unsuccessful Hispanic candidates in this year’s Charlotte primaries, is disappointed but not surprised. Born in the U.S. to Cuban parents, the former sales manager with high-tech marketer Red Ventures is president of the local Hispanic Democrats and nonprofit Queen City Unity.

“In order for Latinos to have a seat at the table, we need them to step up and vote at a higher rate,” he says. About 29,000 of Mecklenburg’s 148,000 registered voters are Latino, but few vote, still bearing a cultural yoke inherited from their parents and grandparents in their heritage counties.

“In a lot of countries where Latin Americans come from, politics [are] a dirty thing,” Millares sighs. “It corrupts. You see it on the news every day. It’s even dangerous. We explain that sure, there are some cases of corruption here, though it’s not the norm. But we still have a lot of work to do with that.”

Few Hispanics have been elected to local offices, according to the N.C. League of Municipalities, while the 170-member N.C. General Assembly lost its only Hispanic senator, Tom Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican and a sixth-generation Mexican-American, in 2016 after he didn’t run for reelection. In November, Raleigh voters elected their first Hispanic city councilor, Saige Martin, who is of Puerto-Rican descent.

Garcia, like many Latinos born in the U.S., is conflicted by undocumented immigrants. “I’m a full-blooded American but came from a full-blooded descendant of Mexico,” he says. “If you or I were to move to Taiwan, we’d have to abide by their rules to make money and live in their country. The same principle applies here.” After a pause, he adds: “They want to live their lives and prosper, not live in the shadow of, ‘Oh, my goodness. Nobody wants me here.’ They come from that already. They deserve better.”

One factor in the Latino business community’s relative lack of influence is a conservative approach borne of their experience in their home nations. “I know Mexico very well, and with all the ups and downs there, it’s scary to get a loan or mortgage,” Santoyo says. “Once they’re here, I joke with my friends that the more debt you have, the more likely they will lend you money, but they are reluctant to borrow.”

One Hispanic restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous, relates his struggle of dead-end attempts to finance his startup through conventional channels such as mainstream banks, hampered by lack of credit history and other common requirements. He obtained financing through the Latino Community Credit Union, plus credit cards and sweat equity. Now, five years later, he proudly says he’s debt free.

The result of such fiscal conservatism, says Acevedo, is that most Hispanic businesses remain small, often with sole proprietors. But they still pack a wallop. A study by the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs concludes that more than half of new businesses launched in the last four years were Hispanic, and they employ 34,000 people with $4.2 billion in annual receipts.

Some of those receipts come from Siler City, the town that Mayberry and Aunt Bee helped put on the map 60 years ago.

On one of the first cool mornings of fall, customers browse the local Ace Hardware store on Raleigh Street, a few blocks from where Leo and Adiee Davalos prepare for the lunch rush at Rojo Canela. “Puedes encontrar cualquier cosa aqui,” says a woman as a clerk rings up a sale. “You can find anything here.”

Outside, one wall of the aging brick building is covered with a bright mural showing shoppers in an old-fashioned hardware store that would have seemed at home in Mayberry. But there are obvious differences. It shows several white customers, along with an African American man at the register waiting to pay for his purchase.

A Latino woman in denim overalls leads a child by the hand. They have matching pigtails and brown skin.

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