Drawn by jobs, Latino immigrants are moving to small towns like Siler City, North Carolina, bringing with them new diversity—and new tensions.
Originally published in Mother Jones.
THE DAY OF THE RALLY, Ruth Tapia awakes with a feeling of disgust. It’s a drizzly, overcast morning in February, and all is quiet on the street outside her small, white brick home in Siler City, North Carolina. But Tapia knows that a platoon of white supremacists is already gathering under the leafless willow oaks at City Hall, preparing to listen to David Duke rail against the influx of thousands of Latinos to Siler City. And she knows that when the former Klansman is introduced to the crowd, she has to be there. “I want to look him in the eye,” she thinks. “I’m not scared of him. This is my country.”
Five years earlier, Tapia had moved to Siler City so her husband Israel, a Mexican-born Baptist preacher, could minister to the immigrants who were pouring into this Southern town of chicken factories and textile mills. It was nothing like the Texas Panhandle where Tapia grew up. Latinos were still a novelty here, and locals didn’t know how to react to the newcomers crowding into apartment complexes and trailer parks throughout the town of 8,000. At a health clinic one day, a well-meaning employee approached Tapia and asked very slowly, “Do you speak-ee English?” “No, I don’t speak-ee,” Tapia shot back. “I speak English.”
As the immigrants continued to arrive, eventually comprising 40 percent of the population, the reactions grew more hostile. Last year, when Tapia tried to renew her driver’s license, a clerk accused her of forging her U.S. birth certificate and threatened to have her arrested. Tapia, big and tough-talking, arrived home in tears.
Now David Duke is holding a rally less than a mile from her home, and Tapia knows most of her Latino neighbors are too terrified to go. Immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, many arrive without proper documents and live in constant fear of arrest and deportation. They are drawn by the promise of work—difficult and often dangerous factory jobs that pay less than $15,000 a year—and by a friendly, slow-paced life that reminds them of the rural communities they left behind. But they worry that the racial resentment that hounded them in places like Los Angeles and Houston has followed them to their new home in Siler City.
As soon as Tapia arrives at the rally, she starts trembling. Cordoned off with yellow police tape, organizers are unloading dozens of carefully lettered signs. “To hell with the wretched refuse,” says one. “No way, José!” says another. As they distribute the pickets, Tapia takes out her camera and starts documenting the hate surrounding her.
A man in a black suit takes the podium and lashes out at the local factories recruiting Latino workers. “Ladies and gentlemen, you all are here today because you share a deep feeling about what is happening to your city,” declares Sam van Rensburg, a leader of a neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance. “Your city is being sold out for a quick buck by unscrupulous corporations, who are willing to ruin the town your fathers founded. Folks, there is no such thing as cheap labor. You and I will pay for this labor for the rest of our lives.”
As van Rensburg goes on about “mongrels” and the “sewer of immigration,” Tapia drives home to fetch her husband. Enraged, she vents about what she has heard downtown. “Ruth, calm down. I’m not going if you’re like that,” Israel tells her. As they drive back to City Hall, he warns, “Don’t yell anything out.” But when David Duke starts speaking, Tapia can’t restrain herself. “Siler City is at a crossroads,” says the former grand dragon and Louisiana state representative. “Either you get the INS to kick the illegal aliens out, or you’ll lose your community and your heritage.”
Tapia yells, “We’re staying!”
Behind her, a man shouts, “Go back to your own country!”
“I was born here,” she snaps back.
One immigrant stages a more civil protest, hoping to model for Duke and his followers the Christian values they claim to hold dear. When the former Klansman finally winds down his hour-long speech, he raises his arms in a wave and walks toward the crowd of almost 500 people. Above the cheers comes an accented voice: “Mr. Duke! Mr. Duke! David!” The white supremacist leader looks around until he sees a large Mexican man with brushed-back hair and a jutting jaw. The man has inserted himself between Duke and his admirers—a defiant and risky stance—and his arms, too, are raised. “Mr. Duke,” says Israel Tapia. “Jesus loves you.”
UNTIL RECENTLY, SILER CITY was best known to fans of The Andy Griffith Show as a shopping destination for the citizens of Mayberry. A village of Protestant churches and tractor dealerships, it’s where Frances Bavier, the actress who played Aunt Bee, retired in 1972 because it so much resembled her fictional hometown. A decade ago, when Bavier died, Siler City was a study in black and white, with no colors in between. But today the town, like scores of others throughout the South and Midwest, is being reworked in shades of brown. Disillusioned by high rents, low wages, and racist backlash in border states like California and Texas, many immigrants have set off for communities where Spanish surnames were rarities 10 years ago.
The immigrants are being welcomed—and often actively recruited—by meatpacking and poultry companies. Hoping to avoid unions, both industries have set up shop in rural areas, but cannot attract enough local workers with the low wages they offer. Blue-collar Latinos from the border states, by contrast, are eager for the pay—and less likely to seek medical care or protest dangerous working conditions. “I don’t want them after they’ve been here a year and know how to get around,” one supervisor at a North Carolina meatpacking company told a worker advocate recently. “I want them right off the bus.”
The transformation has been rapid and widespread. Workers from Mexico and Central America now debone chickens in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Delaware and slaughter cattle and pigs in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. Over the last decade, census figures show, 800,000 Latinos left California for other states; the state experiencing the fastest influx is Arkansas, where the Latino population has soared by 149 percent. And the trend is just beginning: By 2025, the Hispanic populations of Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, and North Carolina are expected to grow 70 percent or more, compared to overall growth rates of less than 20 percent.
“It’s a very massive and very sudden growth,” says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Ruben Hernandez-Leon. “We call this phenomenon a Diaspora not only because people are moving from the Southwest, but also because people are joining that flow from Latin America, mainly women and children. These destinations are becoming sites for family reunification.”
In Siler City and elsewhere, many of the new residents say their new hometowns resemble the communities they left behind in Latin America: rural, family-oriented, religious, without the eight-lane freeways and rush-rush lifestyle that make places like Southern California such a discordant experience. “This is my promised land, Nebraska,” says Jacinto Corona, a Mexican immigrant who left California in 1994 and drove four days through a winter storm until he reached Grand Island, population 40,000. “Here, we have great opportunities to find a good job, good pay, cheaper houses,” says Corona, who spent his first three years in Nebraska packing gizzards in a turkey processing plant. “More important, the families here have great values. In the cornfields, man, those 11- and 12-year-olds really work hard.”
But as the number of immigrants has soared, many have become walking targets for crime and exploitation. In one of the most outrageous cases, private security guards in Nashville are accused of systematically terrorizing Latino residents of several apartment complexes they were supposed to be protecting. The guards allegedly entered apartments, handcuffed residents, held guns to their heads, and ransacked their belongings. They kicked residents in the ribs, maced their genitals, and warned, “I’m going to throw your Spic ass out of the country.” According to the weekly Nashville Scene, the owner of the security firm encouraged the assaults. “I’m bored,” he told his staff on one occasion. “Let’s go down to taco city and fuck with the Mexicans.”
Even where violence hasn’t erupted, hostility has often trumped hospitality. Not far from Siler City, county commissioners in Burlington, North Carolina, unanimously called for a halt to all immigration—legal and illegal. In Bybee, Tennessee, more than two-thirds of the town’s residents tried to block the opening of a Head Start center for Latino children. In Lexington, Kentucky, residents circulated a petition opposing efforts to make the city “a safe place for Hispanics.” And in one poll, 79 percent of white North Carolinians said their neighbors would oppose living among Latinos.
Such sentiments don’t surprise Lewis Phillips, police chief in Siler City for the past 17 years. “I’ve been asked how long it will take for people to accept them,” he says. “It’s not going to happen anytime soon. A lot of the older people here, they will never accept them.”
“¡UN SALUDO PARA CHIRILAGUA! ¡Un saludo para Veracruz!” Wilfredo Hernandez lugs a video camera on his broad shoulders, filming a succession of immigrants sitting on park benches. A bulky, 36-year-old Salvadoran with a perpetually calm demeanor, he calls out a litany of Latin American towns as he pans from one face to another. “A greeting for Aguascalientes,” he says in Spanish, facing a parishioner from that Mexican town. “A greeting for Tránsito.”
On this cloudless summer morning, members of the Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission are gathered at Jordan Lake, just down the road from Siler City. Today, Israel Tapia will immerse three of Hernandez’s relatives in the Jordan, namesake of the river where Christ was baptized. “Here, in nature, is where God is,” says Tapia. It will be a celebration of individual salvation, but it will also mark the growth of the church and the entire community. Nine Spanish-speaking congregations now serve Hispanics in Siler City, from mainstream Catholics to storefront Pentecostals—a testament to the community’s almost-overnight development. In 1990, there were only 147 Hispanics among the town’s 4,808 residents. Since then, more than 3,000 Hispanics have settled in Siler City.
As the Baptists gather at the water’s edge, Hernandez puts the camera down and joins the congregation in hymns whose melodies are borrowed from the rhythms of tropical music and bolero. An ecstatic smile fills his face. Six years ago, Hernandez was just squeaking by in Southern California, trying to support his family on a cook’s paycheck. Today he owns a mobile home and makes $11 an hour building trailers for other Latinos moving to town.
Hernandez had been pondering a move to Siler City for years. Fleeing civil war in El Salvador, he had arrived in Los Angeles in 1981. “From what I had heard, California was a wonderful land, a place for opportunities,” he says. But those opportunities proved scarcer than Hollywood images had led him to believe. Hernandez found a $3.35-an-hour job washing dishes from 5 p.m. till 3 a.m. In the mornings he walked 45 minutes to a language school—he couldn’t afford a bicycle—and stayed awake as long as he could in class. He shared a house with 13 others.
Things improved when he married Blanca, a fellow Salvadoran, and the couple moved into a one-bedroom apartment and started a family. But even with two incomes, they could barely afford the $525 rent. And when their oldest girl entered elementary school, Wilfredo had new concerns. “I worried about my daughter,” he says, “that she’d try to get involved in gangs in order to survive.”
Meanwhile, his relatives had moved to Siler City and were singing its praises with a missionary zeal. Every weekend, the phone would ring in Los Angeles, and it would be his mother, extolling the plentiful jobs and the safety of her new community. “When can you come here?” she would ask.
The question was answered in 1994, when the mammoth Northridge earthquake hit Los Angeles. Hernandez and his family were among 30,000 left homeless by the disaster. So Blanca and the girls rode a Greyhound bus for three days until they reached Siler City, where they moved into her mother-in-law’s house. Wilfredo followed a month later in the family Honda. As with other immigrants, the move represented a shift in thinking as well as location. “California might have been the promised land 20 or 30 years ago,” Hernandez says. “Not anymore.”
When Hernandez, a lifelong city dweller, arrived in North Carolina, Siler City seemed like a ghost town. Even today, five years into the influx of Hispanics, Siler City looks at first glance like a typical Southern town. A four-lane highway runs from east to west, studded with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Golden Corral, and a brand-new Wal-Mart. Off the main road, nondescript ranch homes mingle alongside gracious two-story houses with wraparound front porches. Punctuating the landscape are the poultry plants and textile mills, low-slung concrete and metal buildings whose hunger for workers has fueled the town’s rapid transformation.
It’s only downtown that the demographic changes become apparent. The window of an insurance agency sports two flyers for the town’s spring cleanup, one in English and the other in Spanish. Nearby, a business called Latin American Services promises help with plane fares, income tax forms, and traffic tickets. On a side street, Tienda Diana sells rice flour and dried fish, saffron and Salvadoran cheese. Colorful cardboard posters on telephone poles advertise Latin dances at a nightclub in Greensboro, 35 miles away. Like many small-town business districts, this one was dying a decade ago. Now it’s springing back to life in two languages.
“The reason is plain and simple: jobs,” says Ilana Dubester, director of the Hispanic Liaison, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants make the transition to American life. “Local industries were desperate for labor. Word got out—let’s put it that way—that they needed workers. The word from clients is that there are signs on the border that say, ‘Come to Siler City.'”
Like many of the town’s new arrivals, Blanca Hernandez found a job on the midnight shift at the Townsend poultry plant. For $250 a week—more money than she had ever made—she stood on an assembly line, cutting and deboning chickens as they came by on a conveyor belt. The cavernous room was cold and noisy, but at least she could usually work at a manageable pace. But then the plant would fall behind in production, and the line would suddenly speed up. “When they really needed the chickens quickly, they just turned the button and the belt would go faster,” she says. Sometimes the carcasses would pile up in front of her. Her arms hurt much of the time.
Poultry jobs are notoriously debilitating, which is one reason the industry is so desperate for employees. According to the Department of Labor, 9 percent of poultry workers suffer serious injuries or illnesses each year, three times the average for private industry. (The only manufacturing sector with a higher rate is meatpacking, which also has a large immigrant workforce.) By repeating the same action for hours at a stretch—often in extreme temperatures—workers develop painful disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, which make it difficult to perform even simple tasks like picking up car keys. Some, too crippled to work, have been forced to return to Latin America. Others have undergone surgery to relieve the excruciating pain in their hands and wrists.
“Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night,” recalls Javier Gutierrez, a Mexican immigrant who says he was injured by the repetitive motion of cutting and packing chicken wings at the Townsend plant. The company, which was cited for 40 serious health and safety violations during its last complete state inspection, refused to speak with Mother Jones about worker injuries.
After a year, Blanca Hernandez quit the poultry plant and took a job sewing panties at a local textile mill, where again she repeats the same motion over and over. The plant is noisy, and she and her co-workers pass the time by shouting over the din, catching up on gossip and talking about food and cosmetics. This spring, she was forced to go on light duty: The cumulative effect of repetitive factory work caught up with her, and she underwent surgery to relieve the pain in her wrist from carpal tunnel syndrome.
FOR MANY NEWCOMERS, the dangerous working conditions in Siler City are offset by the low rent and bite-your-tongue politeness of rural North Carolina. “Here, we have a more united relationship,” says poultry worker Lidia Lopez, who moved from Guatemala by way of Los Angeles. “I go to the street to get the mail, and an old man comes and greets me and says, ‘How are you?’ There is a policeman, a young man, who talks to my husband when he’s mowing the grass. When I go out, I try to talk, even though my English is not good. I feel they want to be friendly.”
But in recent years, the reception has grown cooler—and sometimes violent. Thieves realized that many Latinos, wary of banks, often carried their savings in their pockets. That brought a rash of street robberies, in Siler City and throughout North Carolina. Walking to work at six o’clock one morning, Wilfredo Hernandez’s father was attacked and robbed by two men who struck him in the face. “I was angry that I couldn’t do anything about it,” Hernandez says.
Local officials have also contaminated the town’s race relations. The Hispanic Task Force, which had no Hispanic members, published a brochure warning immigrants that it is illegal “to have chickens and goats inside the city limits” and “for a man to beat his wife or children.” Those who break the law, the pamphlet warned, “will be arrested and face criminal proceedings.”
Other officials took the threatening tone a step further. Last summer, police officers approached Rick Givens, a Democratic county commissioner, to complain about problems they faced during traffic stops. Coming from countries with different driving laws—and often afraid to visit government offices—some immigrants were driving without valid licenses or insurance. “Can you do anything about it?” Givens says one officer asked him. A retired pilot and Harley rider who is unafraid to speak his mind, Givens responded by dashing off a letter that essentially invited the Immigration and Naturalization Service to come in and clean house. “More and more of our resources are being siphoned from other pressing needs so that we can provide assistance to immigrants who have little or no possessions,” Givens wrote the INS with the approval of his fellow commissioners. “Many of these new needy, we believe, are undocumented or have fraudulent paperwork. We need your help in getting these folk properly documented or routed back to their homes.”
It seemed to Givens a simple solution. “I said, ‘Screw ’em,'” Givens says. “If we have people who are here illegally, why can’t we have these people sent home?”
The letter, which was quickly reprinted in Spanish, filled the town’s newest residents—even those with legal documentation—with fear of mass arrests. Latino leaders tried to reassure immigrants over the airwaves, in Spanish-language newsletters, and from the pulpit. “We don’t come to take away jobs,” Israel Tapia preached in an emotional Saturday night sermon. “We come here to make Siler City the No. 1 town it is becoming, and I want to tell you the church is here to protect you and fight for you.”
But his words did little to reassure residents, many of whom feared what they saw as a government-sanctioned call for a purge. “Some people were afraid to get out of their homes, because they didn’t know if there was going to be a raid at the supermarket, a raid at work,” says Ilana Dubester of the Hispanic Liaison. “Would they be put in jail, and their children would be abandoned? If you’re from Latin America, you’re used to seeing children on the street, just like abandoned dogs and cats.”
The feds never did show up—but it didn’t take the arrival of INS officials to poison the atmosphere. As if his constituents were taking their cue from Givens, acts of discrimination increased dramatically after the commissioner wrote his letter. Ruth Tapia had her run-in with the driver’s license clerk. Several residents reported being threatened with deportation during traffic stops. Local businesses were suddenly demanding that Hispanic customers produce identification. And last fall, the hostility blew into the open when longtime residents packed a meeting and demanded that the county Board of Education do something about the growing number of Latino students in Siler City’s schools. Even though the children quickly learn English, that didn’t seem to satisfy residents like Kay Staley, who complained that her granddaughter began the year as one of only two white children in her elementary school class. “These two little girls were devastated and scared to death because no one spoke their language,” Staley told the school board.
AS THE TENSIONS ROSE, educators at the University of North Carolina sponsored a weeklong trip to Mexico to give local leaders a better understanding of immigration issues. Among those invited to attend was Rick Givens. Suspicious of what he calls “all these die-hard liberals trying to give the world away,” he agreed nonetheless to go along.
From the moment he arrived in Mexico, Givens felt himself growing uncomfortable with his own long-held assumptions. He met the parents of emigrants, visited a health clinic struggling to pay for medical supplies, and witnessed poverty firsthand. The breaking point came when he went to a school outside Puebla, where children attended classes in handmade tents. There, as a disabled teenager read an essay about how much his education meant to him, Givens began to cry. By the day’s end he and his fellow travelers had started a fund to further the boy’s education.
“Sometimes along the way, you forget what humble means,” says Givens, the son of a railroad switchman. “You forget where you come from. It put me right back where I belong.” On the plane home, the commissioner announced that he would disavow his earlier invitation to the INS. “I’m going to eat a lot of crow,” he told his colleagues. “I still think our government’s immigration policy stinks, but I’m not going to make a big deal over legal or illegal. I’m going to help these people acclimate into our community and let the government sort out the work visas.”
By the time he returned to Siler City, however, the poison spread by his original letter was already growing more toxic. A local white supremacist named Richard Vanderford had received a permit to hold the anti-immigration rally at City Hall. It would not be a first in the South: In 1998, organizers of a similar event in Culliman, Alabama, burned a Mexican flag while 60 people looked on. But with David Duke as the featured speaker, the Siler City demonstration was designed to be the first of a series of rallies across the South and Midwest. “We’re focusing on how this is affecting Middle America,” explains Vince Edwards, a spokesman for Duke. “The Southwest is almost lost to us.”
The day of the rally, nearly 500 people turned out—some to gawk, a few to counterprotest, and many to show their support for Duke. Clyde Jones, a 63-year-old tobacco farmer who blames larger operations that rely on cheap imported labor for driving him out of business, donned a Confederate-flag jacket and drove in from the next county. “Mexicans took my job and my family’s starving,” said Jones. “My ancestors fought for this country, and they took it away without a shot.” He turned to his son, who was wearing a matching jacket, and smiled. “Nice-looking Aryan people here,” the father said.
With the county commissioner recanting his INS letter, protesters had a new enemy. “Recall the race traitor Rick Givens,” said one picket sign. In his speech, Duke referred directly to Givens’ new commitment to help Latinos integrate into the community. “We’re not going to solve the problems of Mexico by turning America into another Mexico,” Duke said. “Siler City is a symbol of what’s happening in America. If you don’t do something now, you’re going to be outnumbered and outvoted in your own country.”
Three days later, Duke followed up with a warning letter to Givens. “Our message to you is simple,” he said. “Either change your policies and enforce the law of the land, or we will be forced to organize a recall effort and remove you from office.”
Givens fired off a response. “I know that illegal immigration is wrong,” he wrote the former Klansman. “But if the government of the United States can’t deal with the illegal problem, then what makes me a God or who appointed you?” Explains the commissioner: “I didn’t want to be an asshole. But I didn’t want to cow down to the Hooded Wonder.”
Others were cowed. Several Latino families moved away after the rally, fearful of the spotlight being focused on Siler City. “They just weren’t willing to take the risk of something happening in this town, as far as Immigration coming,” says Dubester. “Why would you stay if you know there’s work elsewhere?”
But hate rallies and racial animosity are unlikely to stop the immigration to towns like Siler City. Work is plentiful, housing is cheap, and local white supremacists can’t match the clout of anti-immigrant leaders in states like California and Texas. In these new border towns, few people are looking for paradise. Just survival.
“All I wanted to do was have a job, have a decent life, and be able to give everything that I wanted to my family,” says Wilfredo Hernandez, sounding like generations of immigrants who have come before him. “I never wanted anybody to like me because of the color of my skin. I just want to have a job and go on with my life.”