Hannah Gill’s journey into the
growing Latino community of North Carolina is an intelligent and perceptive contribution to the debate on immigration reform
The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots
in the Old North State
2010, University of North Carolina Press
224 pages, plates
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
IT IS REFRESHINGLY fitting that Hannah Gill starts her journey into the burgeoning Latino communities of her native North Carolina in a bus station.
The author was, as a wide-eyed adolescent in the early 1990s, surprised to be able to hop on a bus in Bulington in the Piedmont region of the state and travel to central Mexico in a day.
At the other end, she was equally surprised to learn when she looked at the timetables in the terminal that there were daily departures to a host of other cities in North Carolina – Greensboro, Carrboro, Goldsboro.
The traffic reflected a new demographic reality in this part of the US but also the entire country, and how intimately connected it has become with Mexico and Latin America more generally. North Carolina’s Latino population grew faster from 1990-2000 than in any other US state, and it has more agricultural guest workers than elsewhere. By the time she went to college, Alamance county where she lived had become the home of the fastest-growing Latino population in the state, and visible signs of a growing community were everywhere – from churches that advertised services in Spanish to the sound of merengue and cumbia coming from car windows, to the increasingly hostile tone of letters to the local newspaper drawing attention to issues of language and cultural difference.
Gill builds on this reality without fear or favour to paint an informative picture of the Latino dimension of change in North Carolina. Her aim is simple, clear and commendable: to give North Carolinians from all walks of life a better understanding of their new neighbours.
It is a timely contribution to an unfolding debate about the best way forward on immigration reform, which continues to divide the main parties in the US as well as fuel intolerance and even violence among extremists. In Arizona, for example, there have been a number of high-profile cases recently involving violence against Latino immigrants, not least the murder in May 2009 of nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in their own home in Flores by a group of vigilantes set up to target Mexican immigrants.
Gill also point out that her book – which explores the human face and social processes behind demographic change – also has regional relevance because of the growing importance of the US south-east as a new frontier for Latin American migration into the country. Most of the perspectives in the book come from Latinos themselves, whom Gill describes as “underrepresented voices in larger immigration debates in the United States”, and in turn most of the Latinos portrayed are of Mexican origin, reflecting the demographic within the demographic, so to speak.
Nonetheless, a key point made by the writer from the outset – and one that goes to the very heart of the debate about immigration – is that a growing percentage of Latinos in her state are neither immigrants who have arrived directly from Latin America nor migrants relocated from another part of the US, but individuals born in North Carolina itself. As Gill states:
“It is the permanence of these second and third generations that makes this book particularly relevant in present and future conversations about identity in the state, region, and nation.” [p x]
That permanence, and the sheer size of the Latino population at half a million people, was much in evidence in 2006 when local Hispanics gathered in support of immigration reform. It was a moment at which, Gill recalls, their presence was noted by a larger public, partly because prior to that Latinos had got on with their lives almost invisibly. Gill writes:
“The places in which most Latinos work – in the back kitchens of restaurants, during night cleaning shifts in office buildings and hospitals, in remote tobacco fields, and behind factory walls in rural towns – are out of the public gaze. In their living spaces in apartment complexes, in migrant housing on isolated farms, and in low-income, high-crime parts of cities that many people avoid, Latinos have lived unobserved. Not only have migrants not been seen but they have not been heard, as the majority of Latino newcomers speak little English.” [p. 3]
It is that lack of a political identity in the US that distinguishes the Latino community from comparable minorities such as African Americans, whom Hispanics now outnumber. As the Latino community gains a louder voice and becomes ever more prosperous, its political role and influence is likely to become key dynamic in US politics. There is no doubt that the presence of a growing Latino community and immigration were factors in the emergence of the rightwing Tea Party movement that has had such an influence on Republican politics.
Gill provides a fascinating and well informed picture of the official response to immigration in North Carolina, how laws are applied and the impact of immigration policies upon the Latino community. She explores the challenges posed by immigration to traditional conceptions of identity, and how these can fuel tension and, importantly, considers the potential consequences of how native communities choose to respond to demographic change.
But one of the most important objectives of this book and what distinguishes it is “to present the stories of Latinos in North Carolina in order to amplify their voices and acknowledge the authority of the agents of demographic change in the state” [p. 9]. Gill does so by taking up the story of contemporary Latin American immigrants to the state since the 1970s, exploring processes of integration, and examining the place of Latino youth within the broader theme of social change.
Culture has been at the heart of the integration process, with migrants making a positive contribution to the social and cultural life of their new communities. In Chapter 4, for example, Gill hears the stories of immigrants who have settled in the state and how they have enriched their new communities with cultural practices and products, from Dominican music, merengue and bachata, to dancing and food.
This is an important book that should be on the reading lists of many a Latino-studies course. The author has taken a highly relevant topic and dedicated herself to understanding and explaining it. She has also made it highly readable, taking us into the homes, events and schoolrooms in which the immigrant communities play out their lives.
Gill ends as she has proceeded, on a highly positive note, with her intelligent and reasonable contribution to the debate on immigration reform that has been so uncomfortable for so many Americans, and that will be recognisable to those engaged in similar debates elsewhere in the developed world. She writes:
“… the solutions to the challenges of undocumented immigration lie not in enforcement of policies targeted only at individual migrants but in reforming the larger social and political frameworks that shape or force their decisions… The last reform failed to create what experts and immigrants claim is key: a temporary worker program that offers a sufficient number of visas to accommodate the demands of the labour market, now and in the future.” [p. 177]
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books