Shift in NC Latino demographics creates new needs, new opportunities
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The explosive growth in the Latino population in North Carolina and Mecklenburg County presents both an array of new opportunities as well as shifting needs as more Latinos are born in the United States.
Over the past five decades, the state’s Latino community has been growing consistently and now represents a population of more than 1 million people, according to the census. In the past 10 years, Mecklenburg County’s Latino population has grown by more than 60,000. Since 2010, half of the state's Latinos have been born in the United States. And the 2020 census showed even more growth in this section of the population. Today, 6 in 10 Latinos in North Carolina were born in the United States.
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Carolina Demography Director Rebecca Tippet says part of this demographic shift reflects Latinos on average being younger than other populations here.
“That was mainly because people who are already residents in North Carolina were having children,” Tippett said. “And that's growth in the second and the third generation population in the state.”
Musician Tony Arreaza is one of those Latino residents who immigrated here and has since had children. He moved from Venezuela to North Carolina in the early ‘90s. His siblings had moved to Charlotte a few years prior for school. But Arreaza moved, hoping to pursue a career in music. He wanted to play in an American rock band.
“I didn't come because of political reasons or because I was looking for, you know, escaping for something,” Arreaza said. “I came to pursue my passion. That is music.”
He started taking English classes at Central Piedmont Community College and says he could count the number of Latinos in his classes with one hand. He remembers having to drive to New York or Florida to listen to live music in Spanish because Latino bands wouldn’t stop to play in North Carolina.
But that quickly changed. Arreaza saw the growth of North Carolina’s Latino community firsthand.
“Through music we started seeing, you know, we used to play for 100 people. Now we're playing for 300 people,” Arreaza said. “We used to be the only band and now there are five or six different bands. So that, you know, it changed really, really fast.”
Arreaza and his wife, who is Cuban, have two sons who are part of the growing second-generation Latino immigrant population in North Carolina.
“If you ask them where they're from,” Arreaza said. “They're going to say America and Cuba and Venezuela.”
Arreaza says they eat traditional Venezuelan arepas with Cuban and American fillings.
“I think that's just beautiful because that's a mix of where we are,” Arreaza said. “They were born here. They speak English better than Spanish. It’s just beautiful. Like, I think they’re really a melting pot. ”
This blend in cultures as well as the English language skills of second-generation Latinos is part of why UNC Associate Director, Institute for the Study of the Americas, Hannah Gill says this shift in the Latino community makes representation more accessible.
“We're now in the second and third generation of U.S. born Latinos, who are now completely bilingual and bicultural and are starting to fill positions of leadership. And heading organizations and companies and businesses,” Gill said.
Federico Rios is an example of this. He moved to Charlotte from New York, where he was born, but his parents are from Colombia and Puerto Rico, making him a second-generation Latino immigrant.
He now works as the assistant director of the Office of Equity, Mobility and Immigrant Integration in the city of Charlotte.
Rios says as the second-generation population grows, the future for the Latino community in Charlotte looks bright.
“I think you're going to see our talent pool increase dramatically,” Rios said. “You're going to have those people that can balance between both cultures that are fully Latino, fully American.”
He says companies have to recognize the importance of the skill set Latinos bring as employees.
“Corporations, public entities and businesses will understand that it is to their benefit to hire individuals with bilingual skill sets, with a cultural understanding, with the ability to really traverse things that you can't see,” Rios said.
Even though reaching positions of power is more accessible for bilingual and bicultural second-generation Latinos, Jose Hernandez-Paris, the director of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition says a lack of representation of Latinos in positions of power across different fields persists.
“There seems to be a professional glass ceiling that has been created,” Hernandez-Paris said “And we are becoming more and more aware of that. And it's a bit disturbing to see.”
A glass ceiling that is apparent for minority communities across the U.S. A New York Times report from 2020 found that only 20% of the country’s 900 most powerful people identify as a person of color despite these groups representing 40% of the population.
Having this representation is key, says Hernandez-Paris.
“We used to be thought of as a new community, a community that is newly arrived and I think we have overcome or surpassed that,” he said. “We are now, I think, more of an emerging and established community in Charlotte and as such we need to be represented as an emerging or established community.”
He says one way of doing this is receiving additional support from local government.
Hernandez-Paris explains that The Latin American Coalition has 14 employees serving 7,000 people a year with a variety of needs. The nonprofit supports new immigrants with navigating the health care and education systems. It also provides legal assistance and professional development.
“We are having such a difficult time keeping up with the need,” he said.
A collaboration between community organizations and government leaders is the best way of supporting Latinos and other immigrants in Charlotte, he says.
“We have the network to do it, but we can't do it by ourselves,” Hernandez-Paris said. “And so we are reaching out to the city and the county to say, ‘Help us. Help us, help you integrate and continue to make Charlotte a welcoming city for immigrants.’”
Gill, from UNC, agrees with Hernandez-Paris about the need for government support. She says one way to achieve this is improving Latino representation in government.
“Recruiting people from underrepresented backgrounds, including immigrants from Latin America to boards and commissions in towns and cities, so that the people who make decisions at the local level reflect the communities they serve,” she said.
Although there are more than 1 million Latinos in North Carolina, the state only has six Latino elected officials, based on a report from the NALEO Educational Fund. Nationally, the U.S. has 60 million Latinos and only around 7,000 are elected officials.
Gill says bridging the communication gap between immigrants and local government is one way to encourage participation and eventual representation.
As a government employee in Charlotte, Rios agrees. He says regardless of how many resources a city has available, if community members don’t know about how to take advantage of them, they’re obsolete.
“With any individual, not just Latinos, but all of our immigrant groups, all other communities that struggle with poverty,” Rios said. “There's an inability to really stay on the cusp for the information that is most pertinent to them when it comes to government.”
Rios says the city of Charlotte is working to improve this communication gap with the Language Access Policy, a plan to ensure all government communication is provided in more than one language.
He says the hope is to share this new communication process externally once the city has solidified it internally.