Latinos transform N.C. communities

This is the third story in a five-part series about Latino issues at Duke and in North Carolina.

Roam the couple of streets that make up the downtown of Robbins, North Carolina, and know that it didn't used to be like this. Tienda Mexicana was once a drug store. The Iglesia Ispanica Jerusalem, where Latino families attend Sunday church these days, was Dr. Vanore's office. And Johnny Freeman used to sell his produce where La Diferencia now carries Mexican groceries.

The two-stoplight Piedmont town of Robbins is not alone. Across the state, Latino workers and their families are immigrating to North Carolina's small towns, and natives are adjusting to their arrival.

"It's really changed the landscape of what Robbins was," said mayor Mickey Brown-"it" being the arrival of Latinos. "Robbins was sort of self-contained, but that has faded away."

Like Carlos Allá, 22, they come for money, work and opportunity. When Allá was thirteen, he crossed the frontier from Mexico to Texas with his family. Three years ago, he walked and hitchhiked to North Carolina with a friend and was hired to work tobacco fields in Biscoe, a Montgomery county town half an hour's drive from Robbins.

Juan Rodriguez followed his adult daughter Erma to Robbins five years ago. Rodriguez was a farmer back in Mexico, but now he works at the H&H Furniture Factory in Seagrove, lives in a mobile home and sends money back to his wife and his four children.

"This," Rodriguez said in Spanish, pulling a dollar from his wallet, "is equal to a hundred pesos in Mexico."

Indeed, the $6-$8 dollars an immigrant can make on the farm, or in the factory, or several other bottom-rung jobs, is far above what one could hope for in Mexico, where the average wage is four dollars a day.

Latinos have played a dramatic role in North Carolina's economic expansion, moving into jobs that native workers do not want, concluded two North Carolina State University sociology professors in a report released last month. For Latino residents of Robbins, those jobs include work at the Perdue chicken processing plant, the Klaussner upholstery factory or nearby H&H Furniture.

Kevin Hill heads up manufacturing at H&H. "It's hard to find help," he said. "I'd hire more white people if I could."

The N.C. State study contradicts concerns that immigrants are taking natives' jobs. Instead, said co-author Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Latino workers are entering low-wage jobs in stagnant or declining industries, or in growing industries where blacks and whites are leaving or moving into higher-skilled jobs.

But Scott Cockman, a Robbins native who worked for ten years at the Perdue chicken processing plant as a chicken catcher, said the Latinos' arrival has hurt American workers. As the workforce at Perdue became more and more Latino, Cockman said, conditions at the plant worsened, and bosses treated their workers with less and less respect.

"This here is paradise to them," Cockman said of Latino immigrants. "But we just get treated like s---. They want to treat us like the damn Mexicans. Why should I be treated like them when I know better?"

Cockman quit his job in June. He believes the government should limit the immigration of Hispanic workers. "The company's using them against the white chicken catchers," he said.

The Census Bureau estimates that 17,500 Hispanics lived in the state in July 1999, a 129 percent increase over the 1990 census. The bureau estimates that Moore and Montgomery counties, both checkered with mill and farm towns, have seen a 163 and 110 percent increase, respectively, in Hispanic residents over the past ten years.

For natives of these small towns, the population explosion of Latino residents can be tough. In 1990 Robbins' population was a meager 970 people. "You can't get up and down the street, there are just so many of 'em," said C.P. Chalflinch, 81, a Robbins native. "They give 'em everything they want.... It's not right for us to pay taxes and then they go to school, and we're paying for their education."

Many Latinos seem unaware of the tensions. "I like it here," Lionel Sanchez said in Spanish as a Mexican ballad drifted out of the small house he shares with his sister and her husband. "The people are very friendly. They help us a lot."

Mayor Brown, who is the chief executive officer of a law firm in town, said most of the town's natives don't understand Latino culture.

"They haven't bothered nobody much," said Rosa Teagues, a Robbins retiree whose family used to farm tobacco. "They aren't too friendly. Some of them are, but we're different people, don't ya reckon?"

If the landscape of Robbins had not changed since Latino immigrants, mostly Mexicans and El Salvadoreans, began arriving fifteen years ago, it was bound to change without them. Robbins was a mill town for decades, with most of its residents connected to the town's textile mills. But the mills started closing in 1990, and Brown said that since then the Perdue plant, whose workforce is largely Latino, has been Robbins' biggest economic drawing card.

"They've definitely helped the economy as far as buying stuff," said Donald Marley, a businessman who has lived in Robbins all his life. "I don't think they're a complete liability to the town, but like I said, you have to lock your houses now."

The town has made some efforts to bridge the gap between the Latinos and native residents. Last summer, the town co-sponsored a day camp which Latino residents helped plan and attended, and the police force has a Spanish-speaking officer.

And Gabriela Lopez, a teacher's assistant at Robbins Elementary School, said she and others are planning to construct a "Centro Hispánico" that might include day care and English classes.

For now, there's still work to be done. "My personal opinion is that they're here and they're human beings like us, and we have to learn how to live together," Brown said.


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