Growing Latino Population Redefines Small Town

Siler City, N.C., used to be the kind of town where almost everyone, black and white, had roots going back a century or two.

Characters on The Andy Griffith Show mentioned Siler City, and the actress who played Aunt Bee even retired there because it reminded her of Mayberry. It was just about the last place a Spanish-speaking immigrant was likely to land. That started to change in the 1990s. Today, thanks to chicken-processing jobs that no one else wants, Siler City is about half Latino.

Siler City is a traditional Southern sports town, long proud of its football and basketball teams. But because of the influx of Latino students, the town's high school added soccer teams a few years ago. The girls' team — the Lady Jets — is about half Latino and half white.

"But the funny thing is, when you go to the soccer games, none of their parents speak English," soccer mom Jenny Pleasants says. Pleasants is white and a native North Carolinian. She says her daughter gets along well with her Latina teammates, but the parents have a different relationship.

"So they all sit on one side and we all sit on the other," Pleasants says. "How do you sit next to someone and tell them your kid's playing really good when half the time you can't even pronounce the name and they don't understand anything you're saying?"

Siler City is not an isolated case; southeastern states have some of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country. But this town has one distinction: In 2000, David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard turned Louisiana politician, led an anti-immigration rally in Siler City, putting the town uncomfortably in the national news.

In fact, though, the response was not what Duke hoped for. Several dozen supporters showed up to cheer for the former Klansman, but most locals stayed away. And if Duke hoped to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment in town, his appearance seems to have had the opposite effect.

"This was not representative of the mindset here in Siler City at all," says Barry Hayes, owner and operator of the town's radio station, WNCA-AM. "And we kind of hung our heads when that happened and couldn't wait for it to go away."

Duke forced residents and their leaders to take a position, says Paul Cuadros, who coaches Siler City's high school soccer teams and teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Were they going to stand down there with David Duke and the Klan against the Latino population, or were they going to try and find some other kind of accommodation to be able to live [together] in [this] town?"

Eight years later, while tensions and resentments remain, most everyone in Siler City agrees that the racial climate is calmer than it's been in years. The embarrassment of the Duke rally led local leaders to step up efforts to accommodate the Latino population. And with time, many longtime residents, black and white, have begun to find common ground with their Latino neighbors in the meeting places of small-town life.

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