By the mid-aughts, the Latino population explosion in Charlotte and the Carolinas that had begun in the 1990s had positively changed the landscape, and anti-immigrant hysteria was at a fever pitch. So when reporter Jesse James DeConto came to me with a story idea about an archaeological dig that showed Hispanics had beat Anglos to North Carolina by two decades in the 16th century, I thought it not only ironically humorous, but also that it presented an opportunity to engage the community in a dialogue.
It raised big, important questions about ownership and citizenship. Who owns land? What constitutes a citizen? After all, before Anglos or Hispanics (or any other Eurocentric designations of humanity) arrived on these shores, there were the indigenous peoples, the only citizens of this great land who could possibly make a case for asking others for legal documents. In short, this was the perfect Creative Loafing cover story for the times.
Since coming to North Carolina at 15, [Guatemala native Alberto] Vasquez has laid bricks, sewn socks, assembled furniture and gutted chickens — the same sorts of jobs that attracted Hispanics by the hundreds of thousands during the 1990s, giving North Carolina the fastest-growing population of Spanish speakers in the United States....
"Gringos say, 'No, you're no American, you need to speak English or you are no American,'" he says. "I'm American, too; I'm from Central America."
He voices a common theme among Latino immigrants. "America" is a word in both English and Spanish, distinguished only by an accent mark above the "e" in the Spanish version. To Latin Americans, America spans the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Bering Strait to Cape Horn. America's identity is both Anglo and Latin. In short, America belongs to them as much as it does to English speakers.
"I believe that we are God's children, and I'm here because God wants me to be here. ... Everything belongs to God, so wherever I go, it should be mine, too," says Letty Cortes, who left El Salvador for North Carolina 16 years ago and hosted a Spanish-language radio show in Charlotte before moving to Morganton in 2004. "Everybody from North, Central or South America, we are American, with different languages, different cultures, but I think everybody's included."
Maurine Dougher, a college Spanish teacher and Latino advocate, agrees. "When you learn geography in the States, they talk about seven continents," says Dougher, "but in Latin America, they talk about five."
DeConto's story covered a wide spectrum of issues surrounding the Hispanic presence in North Carolina over the past 500 years, but the issue of some white American citizens believing this country somehow belongs to "us" more than it does to "them" intrigued me most, and my favorite quotes from the story came not from the researchers on the archaeological dig, but from the recent immigrants to this land of paradoxes.
"None of us are the original ones here," Panama native Bill Beardall-Herrera told DeConto. "The original ones here are the Native Americans, and who knows if they were the original ones here? Who truly were the first ones here? Who knows who the first person was?"