by John Biewen and Tennessee Watson of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
Siler City, North Carolina used to be the kind of town where almost everyone, black and white, had roots going back a century or two. Characters on the Andy Griffith Show mentioned Siler City, and the actor who played Aunt Bee retired there because it reminded her of Mayberry. In short, it was just about the last place a Spanish-speaking immigrant was likely to land. That started to change in the 1990s. Today, thanks to chicken processing jobs that no one else wants, Siler City is about half Latino. It's not an isolated example; North Carolina and surrounding Southern states have some of the nation's fastest-growing Latino populations. Many longtime residents of Siler City say they're not troubled by the fact that many of those immigrants are undocumented. What does make some of them uneasy is the way this new Latino population is transforming the racial and cultural flavor of this and many other southern communities.
Eddie Greene is leading us on a drive through his hometown, Siler City, in the rolling Piedmont region of central North Carolina. Not far from his own house on the western edge of town, Greene remarks that his is a neighborhood of "old families," families that "have been here since, I guess, the town's been here." He gestures at a small bungalow off Airport Road. "I used to cut that lady's grass when I was 10 years old. They've been there forever."
Siler City is a town of houses with porches, plenty of churches, a downtown a few blocks long, and closed-up factory buildings. The town's workers once made furniture, dog food, tool parts, picture frames, and popcorn poppers, among other manufactured goods. Siler City has long been home to chicken processing plants, too.
"In Siler City," Greene says, "we had two options: you either worked at the plant or you drove truck. ... I knew I wasn't geared to work in a plant, so I started driving truck and hauling chickens from Siler City all over the country."
Greene's career as a truck driver ended a few years ago; a rare disease that cost him his peripheral vision put him on disability. But Greene says he sees clearly what's happening in his town and he doesn't mind speaking about it in blunt, even inflammatory terms.
Siler City, he says, has always been a racially divided town. "Out there where I live ... that's like a all-black section." Go east a ways, toward the country club, and soon it's all white. Now, passing through a neighborhood near the center of town that was once largely white, Greene says, "All through here now, all these houses now, are all Mexicans."
Any tour of Siler City is bound to wind up in front of a huge, boxy building of off-white concrete and steel enclosed by a chain-link fence: the Townsend chicken processing plant. Workers in the plant - and, until recently, in another one just about as large - turn live birds by the hundreds of thousands into packaged parts and nuggets.
"Look at the work force," Greene says, watching workers in boots and hairnets walk out through the plant's chain link gate. It's late afternoon on a Friday. "This is a good time; they're changing shifts."
Every worker in sight appears to be Latino.
"I don't mean to say this in a racist kind of way," Greene says, "but if you've ever seen a house overrun with roaches? And you can't stop them? And it's like you look and there's two, and you look again, there's four, and when you look back there's seven? If you notice, you don't see a black person or a white person come out of this plant. At all."
Debra's family arrived in Siler City in 2002. She's a senior at the town's high school, Jordan-Matthews. "I pretty much like here," Debra says. "It's a different experience since I used to live in the countryside in Guatemala."
Debra's family lives in a trailer park near the Townsend chicken plant. Standing in the gravel road outside her family's singlewide home, Debra says she's seen the trailer park grow dramatically since she arrived as a middle-schooler. "I think there were four mobile homes [then]. And then the lady that owns this land, she decided to bring more mobile homes. It's like only Hispanics living here ... mostly from Mexico."
Debra is the oldest of six children. Inside, her family's home bustles with the sound of kids and the clatter of dishes as Debra's mother, Florinda, washes plates in the kitchen. Florinda has put in more than six years for Pilgrim's Pride and the plant's previous owner, Gold Kist.
"I work in the packing department," she explains in Spanish. "I package everything. The breast, the tenders, the legs. We put them in boxes, cover them up and send them down the line."
Florinda's husband, Francisco, works for a builder, making "walls for houses," in a nearby town. He commutes 40 minutes each way. "But thanks to God for bringing us here," he says in Spanish. "And we're here working."
Seemingly typical of Latinos who've moved to Siler City, Francisco says he came with no particular expectations about life in the rural American South. "You come from one country to another not knowing about the culture, what life has been like in a place. We didn't know, I didn't know anything."
What he has found, he says, is that people in Siler City, "like in all places," are good and bad. Some are welcoming, "and there are people who look at others with disdain, as if they're saying, 'You aren't from here. Get out of here.'"
Francisco pays those people no attention, he says. "I came to this country to work and to watch over my family, to see to their future."
Debra's approaching high school graduation marks a major step toward fulfilling Francisco's dreams for his family. "From what I see, she has always worked hard and had honors in her studies." And, he adds, proudly, she likes soccer.
It's a warm February afternoon in Siler City, the first official day of soccer practice for the Lady Jets of Jordan-Matthews High School. On the football field next to the high school, the team's coach, Paul Cuadros, whistles his team together to set up a defensive drill. He speaks mostly in English but occasionally slips effortlessly into Spanish to make sure one of the newer immigrants hasn't missed something.
Asked about the demographic makeup of his team, Cuadros appears to have given it little thought. He looks around the field and counts. "We're...a little over half Latina girls. And the rest are white, and we have one African American. So it's a very diverse team."
Debra, the Guatemalan senior, plays stopper. "She is a lioness on the defensive line," Cuadros says. "She is the tiniest person out here, but she brings the biggest game."
Cuadros is an experienced teller of Siler City's story. He's a veteran reporter who teaches journalism a half-hour away at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Cuadros grew up in Ann Arbor Michigan, the son of Peruvian immigrants; he moved to the Siler City area in the late 1990s to explore the lives of Latinos attracted to the American South by the swelling poultry processing industry. In 2006, Cuadros published a book, A Home on the Field, about Siler City and his first three years as coach of the boy's soccer team at Jordan-Matthews.
For a town like Siler City, or indeed for the United States as a whole, Cuadros argues, adjusting to "migration or cultural change" is akin to going through the "five stages of grief."
"Initially there might be denial ... people saying, well, it's not really going to change, it's not happening to our town.... When I got here, I heard a lot of depression from long-time residents ... a real sense of loss. [Loss] of the community and the culture and everything that Siler City was."
You wouldn't know, watching Cuadros's team today, that there ever was racial or cultural tension in Siler City. At the end of practice the girls come together in a close scrum, theirs arms around one another. A captain counts to three and they scream together, "Let's go Lady Jets, whoooo!" Laughing and talking, they head for the locker room.
"Not What It Was"
Communication and understanding haven't come as effortlessly for older people in Siler City. Jenny Pleasants is the mother of another senior on Cuadros's team. She points out her daughter on the field at a Lady Jets game in the spring of 2008. "Meredith Pleasants. She's number 18 and she's a right wing."
Jenny Pleasants has come from work - she owns and operates a gift and garden store in Siler City - to find the Lady Jets leading 4-0 against a conference rival. "Go, Mer!"
Siler City is the hometown of Jenny Pleasants' husband, John; the couple have lived in town for 23 years. Their children are having a multicultural experience unimaginable in small North Carolina towns a generation ago. Meredith and her brother Jay both play soccer on teams heavily populated by Latinos; the boys' team is nearly all Latino, with just a few white kids. Both of the Pleasants teens are studying Spanish in school.
Asked for her observations on the town's demographic shift, Jenny Pleasants first responds like the retail businesswoman she is, marveling that her little Southern town now has "a Hispanic grocery store on every corner, so we've got a lot more convenience stores. They have their own video stores. They have the greatest Mexican restaurants on the back of these grocery stores." With a hint of pride, Pleasants says her family has a favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, one not regularly frequented by white folk like herself. "They [the Latino proprietors] look at you kind of strange when you come in, until they know you."
The Latino boys and girls on the soccer teams have embraced Jay and Meredith Pleasants warmly, Ms. Pleasants says. Speaking of her son, she says, "He loves the kids and his experience has been very positive."
But some barriers are harder to overcome. "The funny thing is," Pleasants says, "when you go to the soccer games, none of their parents speak English. So they all sit on one side and we all sit on the other. I don't understand a thing they're saying and I'm sure they don't understand a thing I'm saying. How do you sit next to someone and tell them your kid's playing really good when half the time you can't even pronounce the name and they don't understand anything you're saying?"
In a bigger city, perhaps, such an inability to communicate with other parents would barely register. In what used to be an everybody-knows-everybody town, it can feel like a genuine loss. Likewise, what Pleasants calls the "biggest change" she's noticed since the Latinos settled in large numbers: the experience of taking a child to the doctor's office.
"I grew up being able to walk in and they all knew who I was, and I saw the same doctor," Pleasants says. "And now when you go in, there's 20 Hispanic families and kids everywhere and the lady up front speaks Spanish. I feel like I'm the minority and that does bother me. In a town that I grew up and raised my children in - it's like, 'Do you have Medicaid, do you have your papers?' I'm like, I've been coming here for 18 years. That frustrates me to sit in a room with all these Hispanic families, and I know their children need healthcare, too. But the change in the environment in the pediatrician's office is not like it was when you could just walk up to the window and say, 'Hey, so-and-so is sick.' It's just not what it was."
Continue to part 2