North Carolina historical overview
When Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived in what is now North Carolina, he was on a treasure hunt. He and his soldiers were in search of gold, as they had heard of a great gold treasure among the Cofitachequi people. When the explorers arrived, they found not gold, but copper and a few pearls. Several of the Cofitachequi villages were raided and burned along the way, and their princess was taken hostage. De Soto built a legacy as a conquistador, leaving in his wake a path of death and destruction. But he also left another legacy one of Latino presence that would not be fully realized until approximately 450 years later, when migrants from all corners of the Americas would begin to change North Carolina’s landscape.
As a British colony, North Carolina’s encounter with the Spanish in 1741 was nearly as hostile as the first encounter. In April of that year, two Spanish privateers appeared off the coast of the Outer Banks. Within a month, they had captured six vessels, three of which were registered within the colony. The success of the invasion brought the Spanish to land, where they established a tent town and base of operations in Ocracoke. By August North Carolina merchants and shipowners had joined together to engage the Spanish. When the North Carolinians reached Ocracoke, the Spaniards left the coast. But they would return for periodic invasions until the early fall of 1748. This final Spanish attack against Brunswick brought about a brief occupation by the invaders. A prisoners exchange between the North Carolinians and the Spanish marked the end of the invasions.
The next time North Carolina would interact so closely with Spain, the North Carolinians would be the aggressors. During the Spanish-American War, North Carolina recruited three regiments of soldiers two white and one black making North Carolina one of only three states to send an all-black regiment to fight in the war. The state established several camps in the Raleigh area, including a temporary camp at the state fairground. Within a short time, half the troops were sick and
released from duty. Several other problems such as wanted criminals appearing in the ranks, desertion, and disease whittled away at the troops’ morale and reputation. One exception was the 3rd Regiment, the all-black regiment.
Though many African Americans had viewed the start of the Spanish-American War as a distraction from more important issues, such as racism and repression in the United States, North Carolina’s 3rd Regiment troops felt that the war against Spain gave them an opportunity to further black identity while proving themselves to be able fighters loyal to the United States. History shows the 3rd Regiment to have been overly optimistic. The end of the war marked the end of North Carolina’s interaction with its neighbors to the south for nearly a century, though it did little to change the plight of the state’s African American population. Even after proving their patriotism and loyalty, the black troops returned to a civilian society that continued to marginalize them as second-class citizens. Within 100 years, North Carolina’s demographics and race relations would no longer be black and white. A third group Latinos would begin to muddle the race lines and leave an indelible mark on the state’s identity.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the Latino population in the United States began to grow exponentially in places such as the Southwest, New York, and Florida the Southeast remained relatively untouched by the changing demographics. But in the 1980s everything began to change, especially in North Carolina. What has made the growth of the Latino population so remarkable in this state is not the size of the population per se but rather the speed with which it has grown.1
Social and political unrest in Central America throughout the 1980s brought to the United States large groups of refugees and migrant workers seeking the ever-illusive myth of the American Dream. Being an agricultural state in need of a strong workforce, North Carolina proved an enticing choice, and the state’s Latino population grew 26 percent throughout the decade. At the beginning of the growth period, most Latino migrant workers moving to North Carolina sought out the rural, agricultural areas. Typically, the move was temporary, as migrant farmworkers would seek out the harvests up and down the eastern seaboard.
The 1990s brought with them the tech boom, and North Carolina entered a period of extreme growth, as did the influx of the Latino population in the state. The research industries moving into the area brought with them a need to build. New homes and office spaces needed to be built throughout the state, especially in the Research Triangle, set between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Suddenly, there was a desperate need for construction workers, and Latino migrants rushed in to fill the void. In 1994 there were 153,488 Latinos living in North Carolina.2 By 2004 that number had grown to 506,206, a 300 percent increase.3 Between 1970 and 2004 the national average of Latino growth stood around 355 percent, but in North Carolina the increase in the Latino population was an astonishing 1,066 percent.4 In the
1990s North Carolina experienced a Latino population growth rate larger than any other state in the United States.5 Although the Latino boom in the state has been exceedingly rapid, it has also occurred against the backdrop of overall growth across many groups.6 In the same way as the Latino population was growing faster in North Carolina than in any other state, the population of African Americans and whites was also increasing faster than the national average.7 Nevertheless, the Latino growth in North Carolina has proved nothing short of remarkable.
Though the vast majority of Latinos arriving in North Carolina come from Mexico, other Latino migrants come from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, among others.8 Contrarily to the 1980s, most of the Latinos settling in North Carolina during the 1990s and early 2000s began to occupy the area along the urban crescent the I-40-I-85 corridor that runs through the heart of the state.9 Currently, 70 percent of the North Carolinian Latino population is settled in urban areas, most of which along the urban crescent.10
As the number of Latinos in the state has reached a critical mass, a recent trend of permanent settling has begun. Hispanic-oriented services are on the rise as families settle permanently. Such services seek to meet the needs of the Latino community through the formation of tiendas, eateries, and financial services. One indication that Latinos had arrived to stay came with the creation of the Cooper-ativa Comunitaria Latina de Credito (Latino Community Credit Union, LCCU) in 2000. After noticing that invasions of Latino homes and muggings of Latinos were on the rise, local community members, spearheaded by noted activist John Herrera, sought to create a financial institution where Latinos would feel safe and comfortable depositing their money. The credit union was founded in downtown Durham and quickly grew to six branches throughout the state. According to the Credit Union Magazine, the LCCU has become the fastest-growing credit union in the United States.11 More importantly, it serves as a symbol of the increasing permanence of the Latino community in a state that had grown accustomed to the coming and going of Spanish-speaking migrant workers. Today, nearly 21 percent of the Latinos in North Carolina were born in the state.12
The growing presence of Latinos in North Carolina has also led to a greater civic engagement of the community, a phenomenon reflected in the 2001 election of John Herrera as alderman in Carrboro. The election made Herrera North Carolina’s first Latino elected official, and it seems fitting that it happened in a town where 12 percent of the population is Latino.