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North Carolina Sees Growth in Hispanic Population - 2002-10-10

Most of America's 35 million Hispanics live in the southwest: California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. When the on-line Hispanic listed the top 10 cities for Hispanics 7 were in those 4 states. The magazine rounds out its list with the well-known communities in New York and Miami and one that may surprise you North Carolina's Research Triangle, between the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

Over the past 20 years, as the high-tech research hub grew, so did the need for workers. Tens of thousands of Hispanics migrated there to fill jobs in construction, factories and hotels. And they're still coming 10,000 new arrivals are settling in each year.

This may sound like a celebration in the middle of Mexico City. But no, this mariachi band is performing in downtown Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. The party is for Carolina Zaragoza Flores. The Mexican government sent her here almost two years ago to open a consulate because the region's Hispanic community was growing so quickly. "When I came I was surprised I found 80 to 85 organizations, Hispanic organizations in the state," she said. "The first thing was to talk to them and see how they were working and the needs of the Hispanic community."

If you ask someone of Hispanic decent why he or she moved to the Triangle, answers would range from, wanting to live near family to the vast educational opportunities. But most would answer jobs.

That's what brought the Alvarez family here. For the past decade, they have lived in Carrboro, a small former mill town next to Chapel Hill. Maria Alvarez says she plans on spending many more years in Carrboro. "In the beginning, we thought that we would be here for not too long, but now, we have settled and we plan on staying here for a little longer and we bought a house and we're paying for it," she said. "And also, some of the rest of the family is also staying we're not alone here."

Magdaleno Alvarez actually moved to America from Mexico several years before bringing his wife and daughter her, a common practice among Hispanic immigrants. And like many Hispanics, he started out painting houses and working in construction. Today he owns his own house-painting and power-cleaning business.

According to Hispanic, jobs are only one factor that's kept a steady stream of Hispanics coming to the Tar Heel State. Another important draw is the welcoming atmosphere - from the mild weather to an affordable cost of living, compared with cities like Los Angeles and New York, which also made the top 10 Hispanic cities list.

Even before making the list, though, this Spanish-speaking community was growing. According to the Pew Hispanic Center and the Brookings Institution, between 1980 and 2000, the Hispanic population in the Triangle jumped more than 1,000 percent.

John Herrera, the first Latino immigrant elected to municipal office in North Carolina, says the state's economy would crumble without the great influx of Hispanics. But Mr. Herrera says it's time for them to grab an even bigger piece of the pie. "We're fully accepted in the labor force but we also need to struggle to be fully accepted in the political arena, in the economic arena, the housing arena and the other sectors where all residents of the state should have equal access," he said.

One area in which Hispanics have not had equal access is in North Carolina's banking arena. Mr. Herrera says language barriers and culture play a big part in this inequity. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 native Spanish-speakers live in the Triangle and 75 percent do not have bank accounts. Two years ago, the state's first Latino Community Credit Union opened its doors in Durham.

Flags representing Spanish-speaking countries from Spain, to Nicaragua, to Puerto Rico and Mexico hang from the ceiling of the new credit union. The tellers are all bilingual. Many are immigrants themselves.

The goal was to establish a comfortable, safe place for the Triangle's immigrants to open checking and savings accounts and handle their money. It was quickly becoming known that many Mexicans, cashed their paychecks at neighborhood check cashing centers, wired some of the money back to loved ones in Mexico, and kept the rest at home. They were prime targets for robbery.

To combat that problem, in September the U.S. Treasury announced it was giving the Latino Community Credit Union nearly $2 million to open more branches. A second branch is already operating in Charlotte. A third credit union is due to open in Raleigh in November, with two more to follow.

The region's Hispanic community is continuing to move forward. Their growing economic and political clout has fostered Spanish-language radio stations and area newspapers, like La Conexion and Que Pasa. They tell a story of change and presence that's re-shaping the landscape of North Carolina into a more diverse place to live.