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The new Latino South

The new Latino South

(NJ.com – Apr 4, 2024) – On Super Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, Gabe Esparza watched the primary election results roll in alongside his father, a man who once worked in agricultural fields and then shattered ceilings when he became the first Mexican American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan. They were surrounded by family, waiting — and hoping — that the young Esparza would take a decisive step in the race for state treasurer and toward potentially making history as the first Latino elected for statewide office in North Carolina.

Like his dad, Esparza, 51, is a pioneer. As an operations manager at the Walt Disney Company, his first job out of Stanford University, he started a Latino affinity group that still exists today. He went on to obtain an MBA from Harvard Business School and hold leadership positions in global business development at American Express and other companies. More recently, Esparza held a senior role in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of International Trade.

As a fully bilingual Democrat, Esparza embodies the new South, a traditional Republican stronghold that is being reshaped — culturally, economically and politically — by its rapidly growing Latino population. The region proved itself crucial to Democrats in 2020, when Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992, thanks in part to Latino voters. The shift underscores the South’s crucial role in the country’s political future, with Latino political participation taking center stage.

In North Carolina, where Esparza settled with his wife and children six years ago, the number of eligible Latino voters has more than doubled in recent years, from 160,000 in 2010 to 388,000 in 2022, according to Nathan Dollar, director of Carolina Demography, a unit of population scientists housed within the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Latinos have been the fastest growing demographic in the state since the 1990s and they are expected to account for 14% of the state’s population by 2050, making the North Carolina of the future very different from the North Carolina of the past.

“There’s an inevitability that the North Carolina population is going to be considerably less white moving forward,” Dollar said.

Esparza carefully navigated this theme of past and future throughout his campaign, weighing Latinos’ rising strength in numbers against their still-precarious position in North Carolina’s political landscape. Early on in his campaign, he said he settled on going by “the Americanized Gabe” rather than his actual first name, Gabriel, though he still wondered, “Would they see ‘Esparza’ on (the ballot) and think, ‘Well, I’m not going to put a Mexican in there?’”
Motivating Latino communities while ensuring that non-Latino voters didn’t see him as “too much change,” as he put it, proved to be a difficult balance. He didn’t raise as much money, receive as many endorsements or benefit from the same amount of support from the Democratic Party as his opponent, Wesley Harris, a 37-year-old economist who has served in the North Carolina House of Representatives since 2019.

“I have found this in my own campaign, that there’s a little bit of insider-outsider status that can be challenging for Latino candidates,” Esparza said.

Harris ultimately received more than twice as many votes as Esparza to clinch the nomination. Esparza sees a silver lining in his defeat, however: Just the fact that he made it onto the ballot, he said, proved inspiring to Latinos across the state.

“There is no doubt that the Latino community was motivated by my campaign,” Esparza said. “There will likely never be enough Latinos to carry a race by ourselves, so the acceptance and support from the broader community is what will ultimately make for a successful campaign and I think we are on our way to making that happen. While statewide office might still take a while, you already see evidence of local Latino candidates breaking through. Step by step — it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Making the Latino South

In the 1980s and 1990s, the poultry industry became one of the first to recruit Mexican workers in North Carolina. There are now 1.1 million Latinos in the state, including recent arrivals from Central and South America. The Mexican community’s roots are now several generations deep. Of particular political importance is that this demographic not only skews young, but that the majority are U.S. citizens.

Voting-eligible Latino citizens are the fastest-growing segment of North Carolina’s population; an estimated 50,000 Latinos turned 18 between 2017 and 2020. Cecilia Márquez, an assistant professor at Duke University and author of Making the Latino South: A History of Racial Formation, said “the $100 million question” is not only how these Latinos will become politically activated, but who will politically activate them.

“Where the South is headed is one of our most important political questions,” Márquez said, “and Latinos are a big part of the answer.”
North Carolina is now an entirely different place than when Ilana Dubester first arrived in the early 1990s. As an immigrant from Brazil living in Chatham County in central North Carolina, Dubester watched over time as the poultry industry transformed the region, attracting workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America to Siler City, a rural community of just six square miles eclipsed by a giant poultry processing plant in the center of town. During her early years in the region, Siler City was “a vacuum” for Latino leadership and community-based services.

Dubester joined forces with other people who wanted to do something about it.

“When we just started here in 1995, none of us really knew what we were doing,” Dubester laughed. “We just started building our own thing.”

Her “thing” became El Vínculo Hispano, one of the first organizations in the state devoted to addressing the needs of North Carolina’s growing Latino community. The organization currently has two offices, one in the city of Sanford in Lee County and another in Siler City, where more than 50% of the residents are Latino.

In the beginning, much of the population El Vínculo Hispano served was undocumented. Dubester says that’s no longer the case. The first generation that came “empty-handed and rebuilding a life from scratch,” as she put it, now has children and grandchildren who are born-and-raised North Carolinians — young people who have different opportunities and aspirations than their parents. They are first-time voters and some say they want to run for local office.

Civic engagement has become a major focus for El Vínculo Hispano. Staff and volunteers engage with voters at events, knock on doors and hold voter registration drives. They also educate voters about ballot measures and referendums, translate voting materials, and sometimes, help members of the community find transportation to the polls on election days. They are also present at two voting precincts that have a large number of non-English speaking voters, in case any of them needs translation or interpretation.

In a swing state where a few thousand voters can decide an election, Latino voters carry a lot of weight. Of North Carolina’s more than a million Latino residents, more than 440,000 are eligible to vote and some 293,000 are registered to vote. Dubester said that trying to increase Latino participation in elections “is a huge challenge,” in part because “almost no candidates in the state cater to an electorate that includes people whose first language is not English.” Mobilizing them is mostly left to grassroots organizations, she said.
El Vínculo Hispano has made a calculated decision to focus on youth civic engagement through education about local, state, and federal governments and programming that includes meeting with local elected officials, addressing school boards and boards of commissioners and providing information on how to run for office.

“Siler City is our city,” said Dubester, “but we have no political representation even though we are half the population.”

Building from Scratch

Ricky Hurtado, 35, is familiar with the challenges that come with being a Latino candidate running for office in North Carolina. He grew up in a rural area of the state as the son of working class Salvadoran immigrants, graduated from Princeton University, and became the first Latino Democrat elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in 2020, representing a district in Alamance County.

Many wondered if his win made him “the vanguard of Latinx electoral power,” but Hurtado lost his reelection bid two years later against Republican Steve Ross. One of the hardest lessons he learned, he said, is that the people most resistant to his candidacy weren’t the residents of his district, but local officials in his own party.

“There was this kind of general belief that the Latino vote is essentially inconsequential or doesn’t really matter,” Hurtado said.

The Democratic Party’s lack of support for Latino candidates and communities in North Carolina presents an opportunity for Republicans. Hurtado and other Latinos working on electoral issues in the state have cited the LIBRE Initiative as a group the Democratic Party should be wary of.

LIBRE, an arm of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity that has worked to advance conservative candidates and causes in traditionally Republican states, bills itself as an organization that amplifies “the voice of the Hispanic community.” Whether one agrees depends on which side of the aisle they stand on. Six years ago, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada denounced LIBRE in a speech on the Senate floor, saying in part that the organization deceives Latinos to support “the very same politicians who are working against Latino families.”

Recently, LIBRE held a community event at a Dominican restaurant in Raleigh, the state capital, that focused on how “Bidenomics” hurt Latino families.

“I don’t align with their politics,” Hurtado said, “but I think their work here is testament to the reality that there’s a competition to be had over our votes.”

Hurtado wears several different hats these days, with most of his work focused on growing and supporting Latino leadership in the state. He is the co-founder of LatinxED, an organization devoted to advancing educational equity and opportunity for North Carolina’s Latino students through a yearly educational summit and by providing training, resources and fellowships. He also serves on a number of state task forces and commissions, including one focused on racial equity and criminal justice.

“At most of our public meetings, there are maybe five people in the audience, 10 if I’m being generous,” Hurtado said. “At a recent meeting for the governor’s advisory committee on Hispanic and Latino Affairs, we had over 250 people signed up to attend. I think this speaks to the demand and the longing of the Latino community for any sort of political representation because since my loss, we don’t really have any visible Latino leaders at the state level.”

Hurtado said political institutions “have a long way to go” to engage Latinos — and that the work can’t just be tied to specific campaigns and elections.

“There needs to be an ecosystem and political infrastructure around Latinos in the state,” he said. “We need education programs, pipeline programs, leadership development, and more initiatives that can help identify leaders in North Carolina and get people engaged outside of the formal political arena.”

Nikki Marín Baena agrees. She is the co-director of the grassroots organization Siembra NC, the local arm of the national Latinx rights organization Mijente. Siembra was founded in 2017 to resist the Trump administration’s war on immigrants. Over time, electoral work has become a bigger focus.

It was watching grassroots groups like Mijente “throw down” in 2018 in an effort to help Stacey Abrams be elected as governor of Georgia, Marín Baena said, that led to an important realization: Voting is a tool for community defense and safety.

Democrats have long floundered in the South and Abrams’ later efforts in Georgia helped them win more races. Politically, North Carolina is positioned differently; historically, it’s a state where Democrats have found more success in the governor’s race while Republicans often prevail in federal elections. But organizers say similar power plays for progressive candidates could be made in local elections. Part of the challenge is that to make this a reality, organizers like Marín Baena have to “build everything from scratch.”

“We get a lot of questions about whether we’re going to run anyone for city council or other local offices, but we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Marín Baena said. “What would the candidate pipeline be? What would the candidate training program be? How do you make a Ricky Hurtado or a Gabe Esparza?”

Stepping into Power

While Esparza didn’t win his race, politicos, advocates, and organizers across the state agree that North Carolina is entering a new chapter — one in which Latino candidates and voters have the potential to emerge as a powerhouse.

Last year, Liz Monterrey became the first member of the Latino community elected to serve on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board. The board is anchored in a city that has the largest Latino population in North Carolina and serves a district where 34% of the students are Latino. Still, according to Monterrey, fewer than 5% of the people who voted for her were Latino.

Monterrey said she isn’t interested in representation for the sake of it. Her concern is that the absence of Latino leaders in areas with large Latino populations means that the needs of Latinos may be overlooked. In Mecklenburg County schools, students who speak English as a second language perform the lowest when it comes to career and college-readiness.

“Having the representation of one Latino on the school board isn’t going to change this overnight,” Monterrey said. “But I think having a voice in this conversation is very important because it means being able to ask pertinent questions about accountability and our plans for supporting this growing community of kids. It means I have a platform to speak to the state superintendent and the governor about issues impacting these students. That’s what drove me to run in the school board race. I wanted to be a squeaky wheel.”

Monterrey said she feels privileged to be third generation and not have to “play catch up” or “be in survival mode” like her parents and grandparents. But being “the first” in 2024 when other states have expansive Latino political representation is also “kind of sad,” she added.

“I’m going to choose to see this moment as sort of an awakening,” the school board member said. “Latinos in North Carolina are just now stepping into their power and, in a few years, the landscape will be totally different. With more of us in leadership positions we can be the voices saying: ‘Hey, what about us? What about our communities?’”


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