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Hubcap Heaven 

Or ... Dude, wherefore my cars?

Ever noticed how some Latino houses look like small junkyards, with old beat-up cars everywhere? Ever wonder why?

A recent UNC study shows the average Hispanic household in North Carolina has 3.7 people (compared with 2.4 in non-Hispanic households) and brings in about $32,000 a year (compared with $45,700 for non-Hispanics). You can translate that to: "We have low-wage jobs and lots of children."

What's more, our credit history (and this is not in the study) is very new, or bad, or both. That's because before we came here, we didn't need a credit history, or a car, so this stuff is fairly new to Hispanics.

So here's where all the cars come from when a penniless Hispanic family comes to North Carolina seeking job opportunities: They get an old, $1,000 sedan -- a Geo Prizm, Ford Escort or Toyota Tercel -- with way over 100,000 miles on it. And they purchase this clunker at crappy, "dealer wins" credit rates and terms.

The new immigrant family uses this old car to move themselves from point A to point B -- the grocery store, the fast-food kitchen job, the house-cleaning gig in South Park, the kids' school. As interest piles up, the old car gets more and more wear and tear on it. When the new immigrant family finally gets a big break -- a job that pays a little more, like construction, gardening or picking stuff from fields -- they realize they need a truck to tow stuff in. The family buys one on credit in the $1,500-$3,500 range. The old Geo goes to the wife, son, a cousin, nephew or whichever member of the family needs it most.

By this time, some months have passed and word has spread to members of the extended family back home that there are jobs in North Carolina. More family members find ways to come here and work. They stay at the original family's home while they find a place of their own and save enough money for the deposit. But first, the new family members spend money on that basic American tool -- an old $1,000 car.

After about a year and a half, you have a couple of large families and about six driving adults living together, and all of their vehicles -- the old sedans and used trucks -- are parked in the yard. What happens when one of those vehicles breaks down? It will stay parked in the yard until someone has enough money to repair it. But the repair bills for old clunkers cost more than the vehicles are worth. So the family goes and gets another $1,000 car and lets the old ones sit and rust.

Meanwhile, interest on the broke-down vehicles is still going up as the family is now burdened by new interest rates for their new old clunkers. The family might fix one and sell it now and then, but mostly the pile of metal stays in the yard, waiting for a miracle. Since all the adults are busy working to make ends meet, the only hope is that one of the 12-year-old kids riding a bike around the neighborhood has some mechanical abilities.

When family members move on -- to a job in South Carolina, or Virginia, or Raleigh -- they usually leave their vehicles behind. They take a bus or train because it would be too risky to take the old clunker on a long trip. So it winds up sitting next to all the other cars in the yard, maybe to be used by the next family member who needs an old clunker.

And so it goes among the vast Hispanic community, every day, every year, across the Carolinas, the South, across the United States.

Hernan Mena, a native of Mexico, is associate editor of the regional Hispanic weekly newspaper, Que Pasa.

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