Last fall, Juan Mufioz would toil from sunup to sundown on golf courses in Brunswick County.

When he finished mowing the grass or blowing off debris on the Crow Creek golf course in Calabash, he would drive to a second job at a nearby golf course.

“From March to November, I worked 70 to 75 hours a week,” he says, describing a long week that is typical for the Hispanic workforce in Brunswick County.

“We can’t pay overtime,” says Joe Jamison, manager of Crow Creek Golf Club.

“So our workers go to other companies after working here to get in an extra 20 hours or so. Mexicans are here to work and go back home with the money. They are good workers and appreciate having a job.”

About 80 percent of the golf course maintenance crews along the North Carolina coast are Hispanic, Jamison estimates.

The immigrants on the golf course and in other industries represent a new workforce for North Carolina’s coastal counties. They also are central to land- and water-use patterns and utilization of health and educational facilities, social scientists explain.

To help communities adapt to working with immigrants, North Carolina Sea Grant researchers David Griffith and Jeff Johnson have conducted a study comparing the immigrants’ use of resources with citizens and retirees who migrate from other states, as well as native North Carolinians. Most of the immigrants are of Hispanic origin. A few are Vietnamese who work in the fishing industry.

“We found that retirees use coastal resources, including fishing,” says Griffith, an East Carolina University anthropologist.

Traditionally, foreign-born immigrants had not used many community resources. “During the 1980s, most of the immigrants were single males who worked a lot and didn’t have much extra time. By the mid-1990s, more families began moving into North Carolina,” Griffith explains.

Expanding Hispanic Population

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the immigrant population in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Hispanic population totaled more than 600,000, or 7 percent of the state’s total population in 2004, according to a 2006 study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. They found that Hispanic immigrants contributed more than $9 billion to the state’s economy in 2004 and cost the state budget a net $102 per Hispanic resident.

“Immigrants from Latin America, authorized and unauthorized, are dramatically changing North Carolina’s demographic and economic landscape,” the report says. “Hispanics live in every one of the state’s 100 counties and contribute to all sectors of the economy.”

Local communities provide most of the resources for immigrants, including health care and education, the Kenan study shows.

In recent years, immigrant families began using more health care centers, enrolling their children in schools, attending church and taking advantage of more community resources, Griffith says. They also are providing key labor services for many coastal industries, he adds.

“It’s a myth that immigrants don’t pay taxes,” Griffith says, adding “so they’re as entitled to community resources as citizens.”

For almost 30 years, Tri-County Community Health Council in Newton Grove has served Hispanic migrant workers.

“About 60 percent of our client population is Hispanic,” says Connie Wooten, marketing director of Tri-County Council. “Out of about 167 staff members, more than half are bilingual.”

Wooten says the staff deals with language and cultural barriers. “Some of the places that our patients come from have very different medical practices than what we are accustomed to in the United States,” she says. “We’ve had patients who had mercury injected into their arms to ward off evil spirits. Some put bags with special herbs and oils underneath their clothes.”

Because of this, the staff must re-educate patients about medicine and healthcare, including managing diabetes.

“Diabetes is at epidemic levels among the Hispanic population,” Wooten says. They often eat a traditional Latin diet rich in rice, flour and corn tortillas, and cheese that can be harmful for a diabetic.

“Our staff must work extra hard to educate the population about lifestyle and diet changes,” says Wooten. The staff members also provide transportation for pregnant women and information on sexually transmitted diseases.

The state’s public school systems are also adapting to the growing Hispanic population. Across North Carolina, there were more than 83,000 English as Second Language (ESL) public school students in 2005 in grades K-12, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI).  About 60,000 ESL students are native Spanish speakers.

“The numbers are larger near interstates,” says Fran Hoch, section chief of DPIs K-12 program areas and ESL.

For example, Hoch says the number of ESL students increased in Duplin County Schools from 1,447 in 2004 to more than 1,600 in 2005.

Hispanic Migration

Large numbers’of Spanish-speaking immigrants began moving to North Carolina in 1986 after the passage of the Immigration Reform & Control Act, which gave immigrants legalized status if they lived and worked in the United States for five years.

“Farm workers from Mexico first went to Texas and California when sugar beets and cotton were mechanized,” Griffith explains. “Then they began migrating to Florida. Once the immigrants were in Florida, they began coming up the East Coast.”

From 1990 to 2000, the number of foreign-born immigrants increased by more than 200 percent in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“However, the actual numbers of foreign-born immigrants are higher because officials overlook many undocumented immigrants and do not include those doing seasonal work such as seafood processing,” says Johnson, an ECU sociologist.

In recent years, Hispanics also have migrated to rural parts of southeastern North Carolina, particularly in Duplin, Sampson, Pender, Bladen and Brunswick counties — where they have been integrated into the poultry, pork and pickle industries. Others have found work in landscaping and related industries.

They also have settled in North Carolina’s metropolitan areas, including Wilmington.

Most move to North Carolina to improve their standard of living.

“I left Mexico when I was 19,” says Munoz, who has lived in the United States for 20 years. “I had a dream of buying a truck and selling cattle. But it didn’t work out.”

Instead, Munoz took a job on a dredge and later went to work at the Crow Creek Golf Club.

Immigrants like Munoz’s wife, Carolina Ramirez, have used their native language to help with research projects, including the immigrant study funded by Sea Grant.

While working on the project, she had to return to Mexico at least once a year to meet U.S. visa requirements.

“Sometimes, I feel like I am in jail here because I have to go back and forth to Mexico to keep my visa,” says Ramirez. “At the same time, I feel a lot has been done here for me and my husband.”

One of the most difficult adjustments for Hispanic women is dealing with the open culture. “Many women in Mexico are from families who do not allow them to speak out openly about sex and other issues,” she says.

Ramirez lives in a large, comfortably furnished trailer with her husband and stepdaughter.

However, not all immigrants have adequate housing, she says. Some Hispanics share a room with up to seven people in housing provided for workers, Ramirez says.

“Many Hispanic workers are afraid to speak up about living conditions because they think they will get fired from the job.”

Others live on their own, yet crowd into housing in order to send more money home to families.

In coastal North Carolina, many immigrants work in the seafood industry. In crab processing plants, Hispanic workers have H-2B visas that allow them to work as seasonal employees. From March to November or December, they spend their days picking, sorting and boxing crabs.

“We have about 40 Mexican workers who work seasonally along with 12 local ladies,” says Don Cross, co-owner of Pamlico Packing Company. “The Mexican women have been our saviour.”

Without the H-2B workers, he says his processing facility and others would be out of business as far as production goes. “The Mexican workers are the backbone of our workforce,” he adds.

While most of the Hispanic immigrants are from Mexico, North Carolina attracts a growing number of Hondurans who migrated here after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, as well as Salvadorans and Guatemalans, according to Griffith.

The coastal region also draws a few Vietnamese immigrants. Some work as crabbers in Camden Point in Camden County.

“We buy from three to 10 Vietnamese crabbers,” says Mike Taylor, general manager of Quality Crab Company in Elizabeth City. “There are less Vietnamese crabbers than there used to be because crabbing is becoming a bygone business.”

Building Networks

How do the immigrants find out about job openings?

“Once one or two people found out about jobs in an area, they would call friends and family in Mexico or Central America,” says Ramirez.

They also develop networks at Hispanic credit unions, churches and grocery stores. In Brunswick County, Hispanics share job tips and socialize at Las Carolinas store.

On a recent evening, a handful of men and women are buying a variety of items — from phone cards to fresh bread stored in huge tubs.

People come to transfer money to relatives, says owner German Diaz. “We sell a lot of tortillas and calling cards,” he adds.

The tiny store is stocked with a variety of Mexican specialty food, including trays of fruit, plantain chips, red beans and spices.

Catholics can buy an assortment of religious objects — pictures of the Virgin Mary and statues showing her as “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” Mexico’s patron saint, along with rosaries and votive candles.

Almost every home in rural Mexico has an altar with images of saints, candles and flowers, says Ramirez.

For men and young boys who want to maintain a Mexican style of dress, cowboy boots and hats line the shelves.

White boots are made from ostrich leather, and yellow boots are from a crocodile hide, says Mufioz. “Both are popular with Hispanic men,” he adds.

For those who embrace Mexican customs, pinatas that hang from the ceiling are filled with goodies, then broken up by guests during special celebrations.

In the tiny community of Ash, near the Green Swamp, Griffith recalls a baptism celebration.

A Mexican couple invited more than 100 families from around the country and served two cakes with “sugared flowers and borders like braids that were nearly a square yard.”

The party illustrates the extremely common practice among Mexican families of maintaining ties with their communities of origin in Mexico. They keep similar ties with others from that community now living in North Carolina, Texas, California and Florida, Griffith writes in a book proposal developed using the Sea Grant study.

The party guests spun around on the dance floor like they would back home in Mexico, he recalls.

While the men drew bottles of beer from coolers around the grandparents’ home, the women in the living room danced together, tired of waiting for the men to join them, he adds.

“One woman observed that the dance floor was almost like it was in some of the communities of Michoacan or Guerrero, where the men of working age have left, traveling north to live and work in places like this.”

Future Prospects

Immigrants will continue to play an important role in the future of North Carolina communities, Griffith and Johnson conclude.

To encourage the successful integration of immigrants into communities, the researchers will develop a “best practices manual” citing examples of successful immigrant programs around the country. One model program is the University of Northern Iowa’s (UNI) Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration.

“Because Iowa has an aging population, state officials have been trying to attract and keep immigrant workers since the late 1970s, when Gov. Robert Ray welcomed refugees from Southeast Asia,” Griffith says. Since then, the UNI Center and other state programs have been involved in welcoming immigrants.

At UNI, center director Mark Grey and colleagues have developed manuals for employers, church leaders, city managers and others on how to incorporate immigrants effectively into communities and increase their civic participation.

The center also provides bilingual safety information about how to respond to tornadoes that are common in Iowa.

“We hope to produce similar materials about hurricanes for North Carolina immigrants,” says Griffith.

To improve communication with the Hispanic population, Griffith also recommends that the state’s medical facilities increase the number of Spanish translators.

Also, companies and organizations need to educate current U.S. citizens about the culture brought by arrivals from Mexico and other Latin American countries. “These people bring vital cultural traditions to our state that many employers, community leaders and others have already recognized,” Griffith says.

“I have interviewed dozens of North Carolina natives who work closely with immigrants and praise them for their work ethic, dedication to family and high moral character.”

This article was published in the Holiday 2006 issue of Coastwatch.

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