West Virginia Forging a Latino Community at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
As the United States enters the twenty-first century, the ethnic composition of the nation is rapidly changing; Latinos are becoming the fastest-growing minority
group in the nation. Much of the growth among Latinos is the consequence of recent transnational migration from Latin America and the Caribbean. While states like California, Texas, and New York have been greatly affected by migration (especially since the mid-1960s), West Virginia has been one of the least affected states. In fact the state’s foreign-born population which, according to the latest census, is estimated at 1.1 percent ranks the lowest in the nation.5 Despite this low census (less than 1 percent Latino), the number of Latinos in the state is on the rise. In fact, Latino migration accounted for 40 percent of the population increase the state revealed in the 2000 census. By way of comparison, in 1990 there were 8,000 Latinos, and 12,279 in 2000. Many of the newly arrived Latinos came to the state after 1993.6
Though West Virginia has not been a state normally associated with a strong minority presence, Latinos have been increasingly attracted to economic opportunities there. Unlike Latinos at the turn of the twentieth century, today’s Latinos are primarily employed in agriculture, construction, and service work. In the state’s northeastern counties, Latinos have been employed in various farm industries, including apple harvesting, horse maintenance and training, and poultry processing. Apple harvesting provides an interesting example of how Latino migration has accompanied shifts in the state’s local economies. In 1992, after decades of importing contract laborers from the Caribbean and the British West Indies (under the federal H-2 program) to harvest fruit in the orchards of West Virginia, local farmers began to replace H-2 workers with Latino laborers. By substituting contract workers with Latino workers, farmers have been able to forgo the bureaucratic hassles and costs involved with contracting H-2 workers. At the same time, Latino migrants working in farm industries remain increasingly vulnerable and subject to exploitation by their employers as racial and ethnic minorities not to mention as vulnerable undocumented farmworkers.
Not all Latinos work under such tenuous conditions; numerous Latinos work for themselves as professionals and business owners. According to the Census Bureau, in 1997, 940 small businesses were owned by Latinos in West Virginia. The number of Latino-owned businesses declined in 2000, yet the sales receipts generated were higher than in 1997.7 Also noteworthy: between 1997 and 2002, West Virginia was one of the 10 states with the fastest growth in the number of Latina-owned businesses.8 Throughout the state’s eastern panhandle, Latinos have opened up small stores that introduce Latino sundries and edible treats, mostly for Latino consumption. In Petersburg, West Virginia, for example, La Casa en Las Montanas welcomes Latinos with their bilingual sign on the door. While in Keyser, West Virginia, Eliazar and Gonzalo Manuel, who migrated from Mexico, have opened up a grocery store that preserves a Latino atmosphere. Still other Latino businesses include restaurants, mechanic shops, and beauty shops that serve the broader community.