Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The land of plenty

The land of plenty

A look at how new immigration has revived old fears about race, resources and diversity in North Carolina.
From The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State by Hannah Gill. Copyright © 2010 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Red banners with the slogan “Preserving our heritage, promoting our future” line the streets leading to the Alamance County courthouse. Graham’s downtown resembles that of other North Carolina county seats, with a courthouse at the center of a traffic circle, an old movie theater and a 1950s-style diner where one can imagine cops from the county jail a block away drinking coffee. A number of furniture stores, largely absent of customers, sell dressers and tables that have now become antiques, revealing a bygone heyday when North Carolina companies dominated the national furniture industry. Nearby, textile mills a city block in length are vacant and in stages of disrepair, their owners having closed down or moved operations to Asia and Mexico.

A part of the city that in many ways had been abandoned became ground zero for controversy over immigration in North Carolina. In May 2009, “Lady Liberty” was sentenced to five days in jail and two years of probation for disorderly conduct. Under the long robe, gold crown and torch of the Ellis Island icon was Audrey Schwankl, a woman who had dressed in the guise of the Statue of Liberty to protest the treatment of Latino migrants in Alamance County. On April 8, she had been arrested along with six others for her part in a peaceful demonstration in front of the Alamance County Federal Detention Center that ended after protesters attempted to enter the jail. They were angered about a law-enforcement initiative known as the 287(g) program that resulted in the deportation of immigrants in the county. In front of the jail that day were also counter protesters who held up signs in support of the sheriff ’s “tough on illegal immigration” stance. The clash drew national media coverage.

The root of the controversy that landed Lady Liberty in jail comes to light about a mile west of downtown the street linking Graham and downtown Burlington. On Webb Avenue, amid the ruins of factories, the bright flags of Mexico and El Salvador preserve a different heritage: that of Latinos who have migrated here over the past 30 years. On Webb Avenue, the Latino presence is especially apparent: More than 20 businesses are owned by Spanish speakers, while most other businesses — used-car dealers, thrift stores and money-lending services — advertise in Spanish. One mile to the north on Church Street and Graham-Hopedale Road, there are more than 21 Spanish-speaking businesses, including restaurants with names like El Taquito de Oro (The Little Golden Taco) and La Cocina (The Kitchen). Latino families have bought or rented old mill houses in the residential neighborhoods that connect to the main road with the factories. On a two-mile stretch of Webb Avenue, one can buy chorizo sausage, fresh-baked bolillos (white rolls), jicama fruit or de-spined prickly pear cactus, a favorite vegetable in Mexico. A restaurant sells authentic Salvadorian pupusas, a cornmeal and cheese staple. Stores advertise bands that perform mariachi music at weddings or deejays to play music at quinceañera fiestas. Other stores offer to send an immigrant’s wages back to Latin America through wiring services like GiroMex and Western Union. What was once a declining neighborhood has been revitalized by Latino migrants over the past decade.

In the space of 30 years, Alamance County has become the location of a rapidly expanding Latino population. Migrants arrived first as seasonal agricultural laborers and later as workers in local factories or construction workers in the nearby Triad cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point and the Triangle cities of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. The bulk of migration to Alamance occurred between 1990 and 2005. In 1990, less than 1% (736 people) of the population was Latino. Today, more than 10% (14,000 people) is Latino. The vast majority of Latinos in Alamance (86%) are from Mexico or of Mexican descent, coming from central states such as Michoacán, Guanajuato and Vera Cruz. Salvadorians make up the second-largest Latino group at 7% of the foreign-born, followed by Hondurans. In addition to Latin Americans moving from Mexico and Central America, a number of new residents have relocated from other states with larger Latino populations such as Texas and California. The presence of Latinos is strongest in Burlington, the county’s largest city with 50,000 people, and Graham, where many have settled. In Green Level, a small community near Graham, Latino residents made up 13.5 % of the population in 2000.

The arrival of people of a very different heritage than that of white and black residents has generated mixed reactions among the general public, service providers, law-enforcement officials, educators and local officials. For those who rely on their labor, Latinos have been indispensable. Businesses such as Wal-Mart have acknowledged a new market and aggressively courted cash-carrying Latino customers. Farmers have embraced the H-2A guest-worker program that provides a reliable and cheap source of labor, season after season. Scholars have taken note of how a growing population has boosted the economy as Latinos have bought homes and started businesses in an economically depressed part of town. At the same time, migrants have faced negative sentiment from residents who have pointed to the challenges of a Spanish-speaking demographic for schools and health-care providers already struggling in low-income towns in the eastern part of the county. Elected officials have contributed to this by vocalizing beliefs that the arrival of undocumented immigrants has been detrimental to the county. Rhetoric has been followed by action as officials adopted aggressive deportation programs. In short, many people are worried about change.

Immigrants are the public face of change, despite the fact that change is arriving swiftly to Alamance in other forms. Mirroring the rest of North Carolina, the county has been the site of significant economic development over the past 20 years in which rural towns have transformed into bedroom communities in proximity to the rapidly growing cities of Greensboro, Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Demographic shifts are also generated by the arrival of nonimmigrant newcomers from other parts of the country who bring different values, political perspectives and visions for the county’s development. Negative reactions of residents toward Latino migrants illustrate how the county is attempting to hold on to an identity as a rural locale of farmers and millworkers, an identity that is threatened as agricultural land that once provided the cotton for textile production is increasingly developed into housing subdivisions and shopping centers. Textiles’ legacy of tight-knit, insular communities still endures, manifested in the ambivalent reception of outsiders. Given the long-term implications for community relations between newcomers and natives, understanding why Latino migrants have arrived is an important step toward addressing fears about demographic and economic transformation in Alamance County and the state as a whole.

The story of the arrival and settlement of Latinos in Alamance County is an appropriate introduction to issues at the heart of contemporary demographic change in North Carolina and other states in the Southeast. Alamance County has gained national notoriety as events there have sparked statewide debates about how new Latinos find their place among communities that stake historical claims to land and resources. The story of Alamance County is one of how native North Carolinians have reacted to demographic change and attempted to manage growing diversity. These reactions, which have galvanized policymakers to attempt to halt demographic change, reveal that immigrants have become scapegoats for larger social problems. There is much at stake in North Carolina for Latinos, who often trade desperate situations in a homeland for new hardships in North Carolina.


The story begins in the tobacco fields. Ricardo Contreras, a Mexican immigrant now retired in Burlington, moved to North Carolina in 1979 to harvest tobacco after two seasons in Florida orange groves: “We left the gators in Florida for the tobacco dust up in North Carolina. And then there was more work, and they welcomed us to the farms. There were cucumbers, sweet potatoes and peaches. And if you didn’t want to work in the fields, you could catch the bus east and work in chickens or pork. They would always ask us to invite our friends and told us there would be work for them as well.” Job opportunities in agriculture resulted in the recruitment of some of the first Mexican and Central American immigrants to Alamance County in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Tobacco and dairy have traditionally been the main farming outputs in the county; in 1983, Alamance County had 56 dairy farms and more than 4,500 acres of tobacco fields. Both are labor-intensive: Dairies require milking twice a day, and tobacco must be transplanted, picked and processed by hand. Since the 1980s, many small farms have closed, their owners faced with financial pressures or less risky professional opportunities. In Alamance and in North Carolina as a whole, starting a farm has become prohibitively expensive over the past half-century, making inheritance one of the only ways farming continues. The federal government has provided farmers with incentives to phase out of growing tobacco, the primary crop of Piedmont farmers for more than a century. Between 1983 and 2007, tobacco acreage declined by a third in the county. In the same time period, Alamance dairies decreased by 75%.

Latinos play a critical role in the agricultural production of the county, providing labor that has slowed the decline of small farms. “For the agricultural sector, Latino labor is essential. They’d have to mechanize if there were no Latinos,” extension agent Roger Cobb says. In 1982, the U.S. Department of Labor counted 150 Latin American migrant workers during peak harvest time in Alamance County. Reflecting statewide trends, numbers of Spanish-speaking migrant laborers in the county rose through the 1980s and 1990s, reaching a peak of an estimated 305 in 1996. Alamance farmers also participated in the H-2A guest worker program because of the reliability of the labor and the affordability of Latino farm workers under the program. The federal government created the program in 1986 so that farmers could hire foreign workers to fill labor shortages. In 1990, the county had only two H-2A workers, but numbers steadily rose over the next decade as more farmers participated. In 2003, the county registered 75 H-2A workers. In 2007 and 2008, 12 farms were registered, employing 52. Experts estimate that there are many more undocumented farmworkers not included in annual counts.

As farming declined as a viable occupation, Alamance agriculture continued to generate revenue, and Latino migrants played an important role in keeping the industry competitive. There remains a need for handpicked crops such as vegetables and tobacco. Small vegetable farms have increased as the organic-foods movement has gained momentum in neighboring Chatham and Orange counties and the creation of farmers markets in Burlington, Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh and Saxapahaw meet a demand for locally grown products. In 2007, 831 farms and four wineries in Alamance County contributed $36 million to the state economy.

Sergio Guzman, owner of Guzman’s Market on Webb Avenue in Burlington, started his butcher shop and grocery store in 1995 after moving from Chicago. He wit- nessed the growing Latino population in the 1990s, most of whom were his customers because he was one of the few Latino business owners in the county at the time. “I would see farmworkers on the weekends when I first set up my business here. Sometimes they would go to the Catholic church. They were some of the first Hispanos here in the ’80s.” Ricardo Contreras also commented on the early days: “Back in the ’80s, there weren’t any other mojados [wetbacks] in Alamance. Very few people, just a few farmworkers. Our crew leader, Pancho, had a van that he had fixed up — he painted that thing bright red and black! — and we’d go to Mebane on Saturdays or Sunday. Sometimes we’d stop at the farm down the road in Caswell, because we were right on the county line, and pick up Pancho’s brothers, who were also picking tobacco. We bought bread and bologna, beer and tomatoes and Texas Pete. That’s all you could get around here then.”

With the help of the North Carolina Growers’ Association and labor contractors active in Florida, as well as word of mouth and newspaper advertisements, farmers connected to established networks of migrant workers to help plant and harvest crops. As these networks strengthened, farmers developed relationships with migrant workers who returned annually. “Migrants would come back every year, bringing friends and family,” says Roger Cobb, Alamance County extension agent.


After Ricardo Contreras found work on a tobacco farm and spent two years in the county, he bought his wife, Tania, a ticket to North Carolina. She had been living with her family in the state of Vera Cruz, selling tamales in the local market as he saved up enough money. Immediately after she arrived, a recruiter from a sock factory in Burlington visited their trailer park with fliers about jobs, and Tania began working right away. In the 1980s and 1990s, Latinos also were moving to the county to work in factories. Like farming, Piedmont industries such as textiles and furniture have experienced shifts and decline over the past 25 years, and the cheap cost of migrant labor has helped companies stay competitive in a quickly expanding and competitive global market. Factories recruited not only locally; as early as the 1970s, textile employers in Alamance County approached the local Employment Security Commission office about recruiting workers in Mexico. Factories employed new immigrants, Latinos relocating from other parts of the country and seasonal laborers deciding to stay in North Carolina year-round, like Ricardo and Tania.

Latino migrants have prolonged textiles’ legacy in the Piedmont. Driving west through Burlington on Webb Avenue today, one would hardly believe that this was a textile powerhouse in the last century. Textiles have historically been the primary source of employment for residents, who proudly claim the town of Glen Raven as the place where pantyhose was invented. Edwin Holt opened the first major textile mill in 1837, and the industry thrived in the Piedmont through the first half of the 20th century. Burlington Industries, founded in 1923 by J. Spencer Love, was at one point the largest textile producer in the world. Textiles dominated the way of life for many residents in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early days, companies set up mill villages for workers, insular communities that contained company housing, company stores, a church and a fraternal lodge. All facets of workers’ lives were dictated by the rhythm of production, from schooling and social codes to purchasing power. In this way, paternalistic mill owners fostered a sense of identity around mill life that excluded outsiders. Owners’ protectiveness of workers also developed partly as a response to competition from other textile companies.

Traces of the industry’s heyday are still present in the places and people of Alamance County. The remnants of mill villages are a prominent part of the landscape. In Glencoe, Glen Raven, Haw River, Saxapahaw and Swepsonville, one-bedroom mill cottages that once housed entire families have been renovated into fashionable rentals for students or young professionals working in Chapel Hill or Greensboro. The old Glencoe Mill has been turned into a textile museum. Retired millworkers still gather for reunions annually in Saxapahaw, a small community in the southern part of the county. People still refer to the land on the western side of the Haw River across from the old Jordan mill village as “free Saxapahaw,” because it was the side where more farmers than mill workers lived, implying that the life of a farmer was easy compared to the life of a millworker.

Ambivalent attitudes toward outsiders remain in many of these places, reflecting the tight-knit, insular communities that dominated the 19th century landscape. In Saxapahaw, where rebel flags fly over businesses and homes, hand-painted yard signs make it clear that immigrants are not welcome. In 2008, an anti–illegal-immigration group formed in Swepsonville, a neighboring town connected to Saxapahaw by a road that was recently spray-painted with swastika graffiti.

Reflecting trends throughout the state, the textile industry has steadily declined over the past century, facing recession in the 1970s and increasing competition from foreign markets in the 1990s. Textile companies have been forced to diversify, outsource labor to developing countries or close down. Some survived because they have opened plants in Mexico, where labor costs are cheaper and the regulatory environment is less burdensome, or they have managed to find a niche in a specialty industry, as in the example of Glen Raven Mills, now the largest sailcloth producer in North America. Ironically, the new sites for production in developing countries in Latin America and Asia operate in under-regulated and labor-intensive conditions that characterized the American South in the 19th and 20th centuries, when North Carolina’s textile industry dominated the global market.

Given the challenges that companies have faced over the last three decades, new cheap labor of migrants has been sought after and welcomed. Latin American immigrants were recruited in the 1980s and 1990s at a time of crisis for the industry. Companies such as Gold Toe Brands, Carolina Hosiery Mills and Kayser-Roth Corp. — three of the top 20 employers in the county — hired Latinos and have relied heavily upon them for labor in manufacturing, warehousing and shipping. In 2007, a third of sock manufacturer Gold Toe Brands’ 800 employees in Burlington were Latino, according to industry representatives. In the same year at Kayser-Roth, the company that makes No Nonsense panty hose, 13% of its 1,400 employees were Latino.

Silvia, a Burlington resident who has worked in textile factories in Alamance County for 21 years, recounted why she came: “I moved to California when I was 16. I lived there for six years, and then moved out to North Carolina with my husband. We came out here because my sister said there was work.” Silvia spoke about her co-workers and working conditions, which were difficult, as they have always been for millworkers. She also spoke of the exploitation that many workers faced in the factories when they were paid less than minimum wage. “In the mills, it didn’t matter if your documents were legal or not; most of us Hispanos at the factory do not have documents. Being un-documented was hard, though, because we weren’t paid like the other [native] workers. When they paid us through what they called the ‘company bank,’ they always took a percentage of our paycheck off the top; they said it was for uniform supplies or other things that I never understood. My check was less than the hours I worked a lot of times. My husband worked in the laundry room that was over 100 degrees. He had to iron and bundle up the linens.”

In the textile and hosiery mills, new Latino migrants worked alongside white and black employees whose families had labored in the mill for generations. The arrival of a Spanish-speaking workforce, eager to earn dollars not accessible to them in Latin America, had a number of reactions. Some of the longtime workers resented the enthusiasm of the younger newcomers and work ethic that resulted in higher pay (as some workers are paid by production, not by the hour). In a place where everyone knew each other and their families, lack of communication between migrants and natives made it difficult to establish relationships.

Pam Aquino, a native of Alamance County who grew up in a millworker family, described her experiences working with immigrants when she was first employed at Dixie Fabrics in Saxapahaw in 1994 at the age of 16. For Pam, who had never lived outside of Alamance County — “I have lived within five square miles my whole life” —meeting Latinos was a new experience. When she went to work at Dixie Fabrics, where her father had been employed for 27 years, the company had been hiring immigrants since the 1980s. “There were a lot of Hispanics who worked at the mills. I think the people who had been working there a long time kind of resented the Hispanics because they were a little faster than most of the Americans — the old-timers who had been working there for years and years. Or maybe it was because they were a different color. Not all of them resented the Hispanics; my dad had good friends who were Hispanic. Most of the time they kind of stayed apart: The Hispanics were in one place, and the whites or blacks would be in a different place.”

As a “frequency checker,” her job was to keep track of workers’ productivity. Because she moved around the mill, she learned about the many stages of textile production. Women and men were segregated by job; women worked in “winding,” the final step in yarn preparation in which it was wound into different forms for sale. Men more frequently worked in “twisting” and “carding,” an earlier step in production that involved feeding bulk cotton into a machine that converted it into loosely compacted coils for further processing. Her mobility allowed her to move between groups and get to know many different people, including migrant workers.

Within six months, Pam met Isidro Aquino. Originally from a small town in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, he had immigrated to California in 1991 and then moved to North Carolina because his sister was here. When Pam and Isidro first met, “we didn’t have very much in common,” she says, though she had taken some Spanish in school and Isidro knew a little English. “I liked Hispanics — I had gone to Mexico with my uncle. He was a missionary. I just went to visit him where they were, and I had an interest in Hispanics.”

After a year, Pam and Isidro were married. They stayed in southern Alamance County, near the mill, and began to raise a family, eventually having three children. Several of Isidro’s siblings moved to Alamance County from Nayarit and started families nearby. After Dixie Fabrics closed in 1995 due to damage from a tornado, Pam went to work for a hosiery mill and Isidro went to work for a company that manufactures gas valves.


The Latino pioneers established networks for later immigrants, who moved for jobs not only in the county but also across the region. Alamance County has been able to survive the decline of textiles and agriculture partly because of economic diversification and partly because of its proximity to rapidly developing neighboring counties. Alamance lies along the I-40/85 corridor that has been growing into a “megapolitan” region stretching from Atlanta to Raleigh. Among the top 10 such regions in the nation in population and economic growth, it has increased significantly over the past 10 years, providing employment opportunities in construction, warehousing, agriculture and service industries. The easy commute from Burlington and Elon to the Triad or the Triangle has made the county a popular place of residence for Latino migrants as well as for newcomers from other states. Alamance County has a lower cost of living, including cheaper apartment rentals and fewer taxes, than Guilford, Orange and Wake Counties, where many residents are employed. Juan, a young man from Vera Cruz who has lived in Alamance County four years, spoke to the availability of jobs: “My cousin was here, and he had organized a job for me working in construction. His boss had asked him to send for more Mexicans, because they were building a lot of apartments and houses. He sent for me and then my two brothers. We all eventually ended up here, and after that construction job ran out, we worked in Durham. There was always work; they wanted to hire us because we worked really hard.”

Algene Tarpley, mayor of Green Level from 1990 until 2007, attributed the increase in Latino population there to proximity to I-85, agricultural work north of the town in Pleasant Grove and mill and factory jobs in nearby Graham and Burlington. He also believed that the growth was a result of cheap housing. Because of the county’s closeness to the cities of the Triad and Triangle, relatively low property taxes and available land, developers constructed low-income housing starting in the 1990s to accommodate newcomers working in Greensboro, Durham, and Raleigh. After water and sewer services were established in Green Level in 1990, developers started building mobile-home parks, which provided housing for new migrants.

As Latinos found work in the area and moved into cheap apartments and the county’s per capita income increased during the 1990s, the retail industry expanded the Burlington mall and built new shopping centers, looking to profit from a growing population. The county built a new hospital and new schools, relying on Latinos not only for the construction but also for maintenance, cleaning, and meal preparation after the facilities opened. At a temporary job agency in Burlington called GCB Staffing (formerly called Gate City), 70% of the nearly 700 people registered with the agency were Latino in June 2007 (increased from only three Latinos in 1996).

For 40 years, sharing the stories of North Carolina's dynamic business community.

Related Articles