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What is the future of Charlotte? 

A growing Latino population is as Charlotte as NASCAR

For a glimpse of what Charlotte could look like in the future, pay a visit to 4405 Central Ave.

The address belongs to Las Delicias bakery. When it opened 17 years ago, Las Delicias was Charlotte's first Latin bakery. Now it's one of many. Manuel "Manolo" Betancur and his wife Zhenia Martinez bought Las Delicias from its founders, Zhenia's parents, in 2011.

With $1,000 in his pocket, courtesy of an education scholarship, Manolo moved from his home in Medellín, Colombia, to the United States in 2000 — first, and temporarily, to Miami. He then moved to Bristol, a small mountain town in Tennessee. He left behind a career as a high-ranking official in the Colombian army — "I commanded 400 soldiers" — to pursue a college degree. He spoke zero English when he arrived, taking 10 minutes to read a page of text because he had to translate everything, and as a result was only qualified for service jobs, like washing dishes. Not that he was complaining. He made $100 a month, which was enough for the essentials: $90 to pay off his student loans, $5 toward laundry and $5 toward phone calls home. He met Zhenia, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 6, married her, and the couple relocated to Charlotte in 2005 after Zhenia's parents lured Manolo here with a job at the bakery.

Manolo and Zhenia and her parents took Las Delicias through the recession (though hardly unscathed; the couple is still paying off the debt they incurred by opening and quickly closing three additional Charlotte locations around 2008) and had two children here; their daughter is just shy of 2 and they have a 4-year-old son.

The Latino population is growing faster in Charlotte than in any other metro area in the country, and is expected to continue growing steadily for at least the next 20 years. From 2000 to 2013, Charlotte's Latino population grew 168 percent.

"All of a sudden, this is becoming what geographers call an 'emerging immigrant gateway,'" said Tom Hanchett, head historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. "Historical gateways have been along the borders — New York, Texas, Florida. Now these gateways are springing up in places like Charlotte," and other cities in the Southeast, he added.

With them comes new food, and not just tacos — Mexico is only one of the 20 or so countries that comprise Latin America — new music, new languages, new traditions and new ways of attaining the American Dream, thanks to an entrepreneurial spirit so fierce in immigrants coming to America that it built cities, moved mountains and connected coasts here.

And as Manolo and the hundreds of other small-business owners prove, that spirit is alive and well in Charlotte. In the 1980s, when Hanchett moved to Charlotte, Central Avenue was one long strip of empty storefronts, he says. "Today ... it'd surprise me if there were six empty storefronts the entire length."

Growing up, Manolo came to know the United States through cartoons and movies and the stories of family friends and friends' relatives who moved here to pursue their dreams. By the time Manolo left for the United States, Colombia had become a war-torn country in the grip of drug lords. The furniture business his family spent 60 years building was reduced to rubble by corrupt government officials Manolo's father had upset by refusing to pay illegal taxes.

Manolo nervously laughs when I ask for his definition of the American Dream. The laughter is his way of masking the genuine tears the question draws.

"If you want to be the best musician in the world, you can come to this country and do it," he said. "You can be very poor and go to Harvard. You can achieve whatever you want here."

But he's not without complaints. He and other small-business owners along Central Avenue, most of whom represent Asian and Latin countries, agree local government officials are good at shaking hands and smiling, but not good on following through on promises to help grow small businesses.

"They and the banks here open the doors for big businesses," Manolo said. "But for us, they don't do a lot."

Still, he'll continue to grow and expand his business here as much as possible. Las Delicias now delivers sweet breads to stores across Tennessee and North and South Carolina, after Manolo thought to turn the business into a wholesale distributor. He and Zhenia own the hair salon next door to Las Delicias, and a few years ago added a drunk-driver pickup service, where Manolo drives around Charlotte collecting the over-served and delivering them home safely.

Hanchett estimates that, in the future, Charlotte will be known for its Latino immigrants like Manolo and Zhenia, and their two children.

"This is a big change in this region that historically has had few immigrants," he said. "Just like we're known for NASCAR and Billy Graham, things from my youth, I think the rise of the Latino population and new energy they bring ... will define us going forward."

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