Twenty-one years ago, she left her native Argentina and came to Western North Carolina to find a new life only to leave the United States after a year because she felt so isolated, a Latina immigrant in a mostly white, rural community.
When she returned six years ago, it was a whole different scene. Now as a legal U.S. citizen, she works with Latino families in Haywood County to help “fill in the gaps” between local agencies, schools, and businesses to ease the transition as immigrants become working U.S. citizens.
“I think Haywood County is responding to the needs of the Latino community,” she says, adding that there is a growing need for more services such as public transportation, translators and child care. Brown is planning to meet with local county agency representatives later this month to build a better network of social services for the Latino community in Haywood County, which has one of the largest Latino student populations among the 11 westernmost counties in North Carolina.
Though still a relatively small number — Latinos make up less than 2 percent of the population in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, according to the latest U.S. Census data — their numbers are rising enough so that local agencies, churches and school systems are responding with more staff and programs to work with Hispanics.
Earlier this month, the Haywood County Public Library kicked off its first once-a-month Latino/English storytime hour for parents and children. Library organizers counted about 80 people at “Fiesta de los Ninos,” which included a pinata, puppet show, stories, and homemade tamales. The bilingual program will be held the first Sunday of the month from 3-4 p.m. at the Waynesville library branch.
Once a week, Norma Brown meets with Latino mothers at various locations in the county to share information about topics such as cholesterol screenings, blood pressure check-ups, fitness programs and social activities.
On a Tuesday, May 9, evening — the day before Mexicans celebrate Mother’s Day — a group of a dozen or so mothers meet around a conference table at the Armory in Waynesville. All are originally from Mexico. Many have children in Haywood County Schools. Some have been here for as few as several months, some as long as 9 years.
They talk about challenges they’ve faced, learning to speak English, working their way through low-paying jobs, and issues surrounding immigration.
According to a show of hands, most of the moms work and about half have legal documentation.
“It’s not that people don’t want [to have legal documentation],” Brown says. It just takes so long to weed through the bureaucracy and waiting lines to become a U.S. citizen. Meanwhile, Brown says, the mothers she sees weekly are paying taxes into a system that doesn’t recognize them as citizens, so they won’t be eligible for Social Security or Medicare benefits.
While Congress seeks to overhaul immigration laws, more than 1 million illegal immigrants enter the U.S. each year. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 6 million of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico.
North Carolina’s Hispanic population is among the top five fastest-growing in the country, with an estimated half million Latinos — a number that quintupled over the 1990s as thousands of all races moved to North Carolina for its booming high-tech, construction and farming jobs.
It is difficult to estimate the number of Latinos living in Haywood County since immigrants (primarily Mexican) come and go with the farming season as migrant workers, Brown explains. Estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000; Brown puts the figure at around 4,000.
While services have gotten much better for Latino families who work and live in Haywood County, there’s still a need for more comprehensive public transportation, child care for working parents and translators.
Sometimes not knowing the language gets you in trouble. Just ask Maria Elena, who recently had to have a hernia surgery. When she went to a Western North Carolina hospital, she used a family relative as a translator. Apparently in the language exchange, the doctor thought she had a pain on one area of her body while she felt it was on the other side. Rather than wait through further tests, she flew to Mexico to have the operation when she could have had the surgery here. It’s not that the hospitals doesn’t have available translators, Brown said. They do. Using a family relative isn’t always the most reliable form of communication, Brown explained. Just because a someone speaks Spanish and English doesn’t make that person an accurate translator.
While Hispanic families come to the United States seeking jobs, a good education and a better life, it doesn’t always work out that way.
Alejandra Hernandez, who worked at a factory in Asheville seven years ago, explains a particularly frustrating story using Brown as a translator. Hernandez said that while working at the factory, another lady employed there had the same name. Hernandez received double the amount for her payroll check, and when she figured out what was wrong, she went to her boss to get the matter straightened out. Lacking the English skills to explain herself at the time, she said the company took her paycheck and promptly fired her. She never did get her fair share of the paycheck.
In other instances, mothers in Brown’s support group who work as housekeepers speak of unfair labor practices — losing out on tips and work breaks, and having to do extra work for the same pay. When they go to pick up room tips that guests have left, there’s no money. Apparently the supervisor picks up the tips. This is a common occurrence and it happens in different hotels, Brown explains. One day, when the supervisor didn’t show up for work, the Latino housekeepers suddenly found their room tips, Brown said, translating the story from one of the mothers.
Despite some of the challenges Latino mothers face in Haywood County, one mother in Brown’s support group — Teresa (she did not wish to give her last name) — said it was much more difficult for Latino mothers a decade ago. There was no Spanish-speaking interpreter at the Health Department and no child care at the community college for working mothers taking English classes. Now, Teresa says, there are more translators, more child care services and more availability of English classes for Spanish-speaking people.