- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

Part I

ZEBULON, N.C. —This rural hamlet, like a lot of others around here, resembles a Mexican village. Carlos Ramirez opened his general store, Mi Tierra, on the town's main drag six years ago. "There were no Hispanics around," Mr. Ramirez recalls. "We opened and had very little business. We didn't care, we knew it was coming."
Now he and his wife, Connie, do a brisk business in work shoes and soccer jerseys, Mexican groceries and beer, Latino magazines and religious candles.
Zebulon, 18 miles outside Raleigh, covers only 3.1 square miles. But it is a symbol of the dramatic surge in the Hispanic population that took place across the United States during the 1990s, when the brown overtook the black to become the nation's largest minority.
The Census Bureau last month made official what was increasingly apparent: Hispanics, at 37 million strong, now outnumber blacks, at 36.2 million.
More startling was this finding: Hispanics accounted for more than half of the nation's 3.3 million increase in population between 2000 and 2001, at 1.7 million or 51 percent.
Many U.S. employers embrace what they perceive as the new arrivals' willingness to work hard at menial jobs for low pay. More politicians are trying to engage "the Latino vote," often ineptly.
Meanwhile, tense relations and turf battles between blacks and Hispanics from the streets to the workplace to the political front lines have supplanted old-school rifts between blacks and whites.
In Zebulon, where the Ramirezes are among the wealthiest entrepreneurs, the Hispanic population officially grew more than 20 times larger between 1990 and 2000 from 17 to 348.
The 2000 census said the town of 4,100 was 35 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and the rest white. But the census was wrong, according to residents and town leaders who peg the actual Hispanic population at closer to 30 percent.
"This is the classic undercount," town planning director Michael Frangos says. "Almost all of our new businesses recently have been Mexican businesses."
"First it was a Mexican restaurant that came in at a time when the only restaurant the town had ever had was a Hardee's," says Don Fuller, managing editor of the weekly Zebulon Record.
Mr. Fuller knows, as most do here, that the census count of Hispanics was far too modest.
"For every four you might count, there are probably eight more in that dwelling," he says.
The newspaper editor grew up here when blacks held the farming jobs that these new residents now have. Back then, in the 1970s, Hispanic migrant workers would show up and live in small trailers, enduring crowding unimaginable to most Americans.
"They came here when I was a kid during the growing season, then went back home," Mr. Fuller, 35, says. "Then all of a sudden, they just started staying."
They stayed, but never forgot home. On the front of the check-cashing store, a few doors down from the newspaper, a frequently changing handmade sign is like a beacon for these newer residents: "Cambio 9.30" it says this day, meaning the exchange rate at which earnings can be wired home in pesos.
Walk inside and you won't hear a word of English for an hour.
Down the street, patrons sip tequila con limon at the local bar, El Nuevo Tenampa, a name that jumps out from a blue-on-pink sign over the small, white-frame building.
The restaurant in the back of the Ramirezes' general store has no sign advertising its presence, and no menu. Newly arrived Mexicans soon learn the tacos are made just like in Ciudad, and the enchiladas are as good as those in Torreon.
The mayor of Zebulon, though, still has a hard time believing that this explosion happened in his own back yard.
"Well, they have had an influence of some sort," Mayor Robert Matheny says. "But I don't see that the Hispanic population has grown that much over the years."
At this Mr. Ramirez scoffs.
Clash of cultures
The documented Hispanic growth is bombarding convention in the United States, where voting patterns and race relations long were cast in terms of black and white and where minority set-asides and other "affirmative action" programs were tailored to give blacks a leg up.
The Census Bureau's latest numbers are bound to inject even more urgency into political and cultural efforts to court Hispanic votes and spending power. MTV and VH1 already devote custom music channels to the Hispanic market, for example. BMW recently aired its first commercials on Spanish-language television in the Cuban-rich South Florida market, and Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover North America is preparing a Spanish-language radio campaign.
So-called pinata politics prompts headlines as repetitive as the mantras from the two major parties: "Growing Latino Vote Sought," "Power Speaks Spanish in Texas," "Spanish Enters Political Arsenal."
The Democratic and Republican parties both formed units aimed at recruiting these voters. Party leaders suddenly desired to gain "a better understanding of the issues facing the Hispanic community," as the Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, put it last year in a letter to an activist in Raleigh.
While candidates covet the attention of these potential new voters, resentment festers among established black activists.
A wave of largely unreported black-on-Hispanic crime swept Southern communities in the late '90s, as the immigrants met lower-income blacks who had no use for newcomers who didn't speak English and competed for jobs. Local police departments generally do not keep data on such crime, using the bureaucratic logic that "Hispanic" is an ethnicity rather than a race.
But this sometimes violent clash of cultures, in addition to language barriers and a formidable crime rate among Hispanics, is one reason police departments continue to hire more Hispanic officers and make rudimentary Spanish a part of recruit training.
These new residents do not use banks, fearing paper trails that could tip off immigration officers as well as honoring a tradition in their home countries of being cash-ready.
"They are the perfect target," says Jay, a black man in his mid-20s standing outside a low-rent apartment complex in Memphis. "They carry lots of cash, and they never call the police."
Bidding for jobs, a slice of the economic pie and political power, Hispanics are a threat not only in the eyes of impoverished blacks but to the agendas of some well-heeled black activists, who worked for years to solicit governmental favor and a sympathetic public ear.
"I still think that we are going to see this tension fulminate," says Sgt. Brenda Elmore of the Raleigh (N.C.) Police Department. "The biggest fear we have here is civil unrest between the two groups, as they start to form gangs and the crime against the Hispanics continues."
'Their' language
On its face, parts of Memphis still resemble the old South. Vintage signs, that endearing trademark of the city, flog traditional goods and services: Love's Seafood and Chicken; Don-Don's Wings; the Bee Hive Lounge; Festival Wigs.
Now these are joined by signs of a newer South: Chua Pr Da, a child care center sporting the Mexican homeland colors of red and green, and El 7 Mares ("the Seven Seas"), a Mexican eatery at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Orchi Road.
Last spring, Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton put up a campaign sign in Spanish along Orchi, just west of El 7 Mares, asking for the vote of these new residents.
A few miles to the south, the Barnes & Noble on Winchester Avenue devotes two shelves of books to Spanish translations of best sellers by Stephen King and John Grisham along with books on Hispanic issues.
The percentage of the Memphis population made up of Hispanics officially is 2.7 percent, a figure questioned by academics and locals alike. In 2000, Hispanic enrollment in the Memphis and Shelby County public schools tripled.
"We came here from Chicago. I told my husband that this is where things are going to happen," says Maria Saa, the Colombian owner of a nightclub, restaurant, grocery store and other businesses that cater to Hispanics.
The League of United Latin American Citizens will hold its annual convention in 2005 in Little Rock, Ark.
''We chose it because the mid-South is in the middle of an area of rapid growth," explains Gabriela Lemus, LULAC's director of policy and legislation. ''And it brings attention to an area that nobody thinks about in terms of Hispanics."
In the Hispanic magnet that is North Carolina, where race so long has meant black and white, the change is more than dramatic.
In this culture, an automobile is a vital sign of economic success. Sunday after church in Zebulon is a Southwestern auto show, with tricked-out trucks and cars sporting vanity plates ("Luptia 1") and polished sideboards.
Proud, cowboy-hatted Hispanic men pose and preen around their vehicles. One leans against a metallic-blue GMC minivan with a wind scoop on the back and shiny chrome custom wheels. His wife takes a picture.
"That is the most important thing for these new people, that car," says Federico van Gelderen, publisher of the Raleigh edition of Que Pasa, one of two Spanish-language newspapers in the Triangle region. "They send those pictures back home so people can see how good they are doing."
'Already vibrant'
Around the corner, a small group gathers outside Mi Tierra under a welcoming sign ("su tienda Mexicana" "your mexican store"). Some stand near a pair of pay phones, waiting to call home. The rates are calculated easily with the help of green and white stickers posted there.
The construction laborers, the truck drivers and the field workers send thousands of dollars home each month to parents or wives, providing Connie and Carlos Ramirez at Mi Tierra with their largest profit source.
"They feel like they make so much money, some of them $700 a week, and this is what they have come here for," says Mrs. Ramirez, who, with her notary license, seems to many Hispanics like the mayor, postmaster and judge all rolled into one. "We make between $6,000 and $7,000 in money-transfer fees every month."
Zebulon and other nascent immigrant towns are trying to figure out what makes Hispanic commerce tick, the better to tap an estimated annual spending power that Hispanic Business magazine estimates at $540 billion and growing at 10 percent annually.
When Dallas Mayor Laura Miller was running for the City Council in 1998, she made a campaign stop on busy Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, which is dotted with Mexican-owned restaurants, hardware stores, legal offices and markets.
Cross the Trinity River into her old district, and enter a world apart from the corporate strip mall that is most of Dallas. The viaduct over the Trinity spans about a half-mile from downtown to Oak Cliff on the south side, but it may as well be a border crossing.
E-Z Loans and Angelo's Car Repair are booming commerce here, while Restoration Hardware and Banana Republic are for those white people.
And like so many other earnestly do-gooder white politicians, Miss Miller made a gaffe that day.
"I stood there and promised them a Starbucks and a Gap," she recalls, "and they all just stood there looking at me kind of blankly."
After her speech, a woman came up and tugged on the sleeve of the candidate's sweater.
"She told me, 'This is already vibrant. This is what big business is here.'"
Family-run businesses are great commerce in the Hispanic neighborhoods; suburban staples like Starbucks and the Gap have little heft in Oak Cliff.
"It was then that I got it," the mayor says.
Not just visiting
The running joke among immigrants both legal and illegal is the length of their stay in the United States. They agree there is no need to settle here, just make a little cash and go on back home.
"Two years," says Pompeo Dominguez, pushing an ice cream cart on a side street in Oak Cliff, where blacks and Hispanics do their best to avoid each other.
His multi-hued cart is emblazoned with the words "Orgulloso de Vivir en America," or "Proud to Live in America." Two years ago, he paid a smuggler $1,000 and, on a chilly spring night, waded across the Rio Grande.
Mr. Dominguez, 26, has a wife and three children in Hidalgo, Mexico. He sends $400 a month to them while living with five other men four are illegals like himself in a two-bedroom apartment in Oak Cliff.
But it is likely that he won't go back, and that's the crux of the leap in Hispanic population: Things are going well here.
"So many of them come here and say they are going home and so they keep their wives in Mexico," says Ruth Valdverve, a Spanish immigrant who heads the Memphis chapter of LULAC. "But then it turns into 10 years and they are still here. Many of them never become residents and they never go home, either."
Work is why they are here, almost to a man. To a woman, they are here to be with their men or other family.
When the new arrivals are stopped at the border trying to cross illegally, the common refrain is that they are coming to work somewhere, anywhere. They had a job promised.
And they'll work anywhere, anytime.
"I've been here since 1997, and there is so much work," one young man from California says.
He speaks Spanish only and is standing with roommates outside the apartment they share in the Hickory Hill neighborhood of southeast Memphis.
"I can't buy a home because I can't get a Social Security number. So I keep sending money home and visit one or two times a year. And so I work all the time," he says, declining to give his name. ("Federales, I can't have them find me.")
This young man and so many others like him work weekends, after hours. They work when you don't even want them there, some employers say.
"Their work ethic is out of this world," says Jimmy Swinson, owner of J&S; Roofing in Goldsboro, N.C., 20 miles east of Zebulon. "It's better than blacks or whites."
Mr. Swinson says he had several regular Hispanic employees who wanted to work Thanksgiving.
"Thanksgiving means nothing to us," he recalls them saying, affecting a Mexican accent in the telling. "So I had dinner and went out and joined them."
Mexico not home
A kid with a strong back and brown skin is a sure bet for Sun Belt contractors, who will pay $13 an hour for sheet-rock work, $6 an hour for construction to start. If the employee can show up on time and stay sober, the wage moves up fast to $9.
Then there is the overtime, which gives the workers money to buy a satellite dish.
The mark of a Hispanic household in lower-income areas is the dish, which brings in soccer, soap operas and Latino MTV from back home. Drive down the street in any mixed ethnic neighborhood and check for the dishes. Those are the Hispanic homes.
Prudencio and Sylvia Sanchez and their five children settled over the summer into their $103,000 house in Hickory Hill, the Memphis enclave that has become the Spanish Harlem of the South.
He is a greenskeeper at the prestigious Southwind TPC Golf Course. She is a homemaker.
"I take care of my babies," Mrs. Sanchez says in Spanish. "And he works."
The Sanchezes' new neighborhood is racially mixed and working class. Families strive to have a parent at home for the kids, where teen-agers still drive beaters and wear family castoffs and the sidewalks are a little ragged. Iron bars cover some of the doors and windows alongside American flags, throwing a little irony into the dream.
But for Mr. Sanchez, 38, the move to Hickory Hill is a big one, solidifying his status as a full-fledged American. Yet neither he nor his wife can speak much English. Their Nissan pickup has Mexican plates.
The Sanchezes have another home in Mexico that the family visits routinely. The couple have been in the United States for 20 years, 18 of those in California. He was making $5 to $6 an hour there, which made relocating to Memphis a simple math equation.
"More money," says Mr. Sanchez, his blazing green eyes intent.
A 'settlement'
The Sanchezes' real estate agent is Anna Palazola, a Venezuelan who has lived in Memphis since 1981. She deals with an almost exclusively Hispanic clientele, closing on eight to 10 homes a month in pretty much the same southeast sector of the city.
"They come here and know right where they want to live, around other Hispanics," Miss Palazola, 39, says. "This area is really a settlement."
The financing generally is supposed to involve a resident or citizenship status, but she isn't concerned. Many Hispanic business owners conduct transactions of all sorts without regard to immigration status.
Some use illegals as maids, while others solicit smugglers to import cheap labor. They all fall back on the same logic.
"I am not an immigration official," Miss Palazola says. "I let them come to me with money, and I don't have to keep track of anything else."
One of the Sanchezes' neighbors, a black man with three children, is not impressed with the addition to the block.
"Can they speak English?" he asks, raising a bushy eyebrow and pointing to the Sanchezes' dream house.
Welcome to the neighborhood.

Part II: Mutual mistrust

Part III: Suspicious minds

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