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They: Latinos in North Carolina
A Personal Essay
By Bob McCarthy

Senora Gavilan arrives with her baby at the hospital business office where I volunteer. Mounting medical bills have driven her here. She appears tired, the twists in her single, black braid loosened, perhaps a visual into her state of mind. She responds to my efforts when I greet her, guide her to the office, and assist her in filling out the application for aid, each time with a smiling “gracias.”

I serve as a Spanish interpreter, “mas o menos” (more or less) I always say, adding, “mas menos que mas.” It usually draws a smile, if not a laugh, from nervous lips. Three years before I retired, I decided to learn Spanish. More than an oft-deferred life goal, I wanted to help. Latinos are a community presence in Henderson, North Carolina, many of them speaking little or no English.

Sra. Gavilan’s handshake is mild, she wears a floral perfume, and her voice is low-pitched, slightly hoarse, and warm. It is the voice, as it always is, that tips me over, that cinches the meeting of individuals. Whatever I might be for her, she is a distinct person for me, one who leans forward and engages my eyes when she speaks. We go from there, working together to complete our complementary tasks.

Learning she is eligible for help, her eyes tear. Her gratitude swells when I insist upon carrying her daughter as I escort Sra. Gavilan back to her well-traveled Chevy Blazer. A quick glance at the baby reveals two staring black eyes over a puddling brown smile. Teeth lie in the future. I wonder if the baby senses her mother’s relief?

I am always amazed at the burden of trust people like Sra. Gavilan must shoulder even to come to the office. The overwhelming majority are indocumentados who don’t speak English. Discovery has to be a constant fear.

I’ve often heard Latinos dismissively referred to as they. But for me, Sra. Gavilan is no longer (if she ever was) a part of a faceless grouping. She is who she is, a human being with a unique personality and an intelligence ready to engage. And in that, she enriches my life even as I try to make hers a bit less burdensome.

Pass a construction site in Henderson, you will likely find Latinos working. Where at one time there were set-asides excluding Latinos—masonry conceded to blacks, finish carpentry to whites—that is changing. They increasingly do everything that involves labor, what I call real work. Agriculture, lawn and property maintenance, manufacturing (what little there is) —they are there.

My wife and I contracted to have the exterior of our house painted. Jorge—“call me George”—and his crew, Latinos all, arrived and went to work. Between reversed ball caps and trimmed mustaches, their eyes rarely strayed from the task at hand, even when conversing.
The white contractor told me, “I’ve been in the business over twenty years, tried all kinds. These guys are the best.”

By the time the paint dried, they had prepped and painted two interior rooms while repairing cracks in inner walls, a damaged ceiling, and a rotted threshold. They also added mortar to gaping brickwork, and replaced warped decking. All of this in addition to the exterior painting, and the work was exemplary. More importantly for my wife, they removed a snake that fell off the garage door as they were painting it.

In brief interludes—a water break, a breather from intense North Carolina heat, general clean up—I spoke to Jorge in Spanish. I never pass up an opportunity to practice. He complimented my “acento.” In turn, I expressed my satisfaction with his good work.

With the increasing presence of Latinos in Henderson, I’ve heard occasional sniping comments about “the language,” as in they don’t speak “it”—it, of course, English. In Henderson (as I suspect is true elsewhere), the children of Latino immigrants learn English rapidly, even when Spanish is solely spoken at home. But if the barrier of language is what primarily separates some residents of North Carolina from others, then I want to help dismantle it or, at the very least, help them negotiate it. It was for this reason I underwent the hospital’s volunteer orientation.

As far-fetched as the anglo fear of a Spanish conquest strikes me, it might be more conceivable if everyone who spoke Spanish was culturally similar. Descriptors like “Latino” falsely suggest a single people, providing only a telescoped they. At best, “Latino” loosely clumps culturally diverse peoples who speak many languages derived from Spanish. Moreover, when we overcategorize, does this not blind us to the individual? If I say “Latina” rather than “Senora Gavilan,” am I not forcing her into a them, leaving me subservient to a bias I might fail to recognize?

Craig Ferguson, comedic host of The Late Late Show (I TiVo it), ends each night asking, “What did we learn tonight?” a humorous lead-in to signing off. But the question is more broadly relevant to my experiences with Latinos in Henderson. What have I learned thus far?

I’ve become more aware of the humanity, collectively and individually, of people striving for a better life. Rather than ennobling them (the Dances with Wolves effect), the humanity I detect is human, and in that, warts and all, it brings them closer to me. To us.

I’ve also become increasingly aware of North Carolinian generosity through our programs to keep the undocumented from drowning beneath waves of unremitting medical bills. The experience has increased my sense of pride in North Carolina. Behind the public grumbling against them, we do care.
And I’ve learned the Spanish word for “disrobing,” i.e., quitarse, as in “Por favor, quitese su ropa.” Please remove your clothes. Perhaps I should explain.

I was asked to assist Senor and Senora Camarillo in her preparation for an endoscopy, an outpatient procedure designed to visually examine the upper gastrointestinal tract. An attractive couple, they seemed a good match, her quiet assertiveness balancing his courtly reserve. She asked the questions, then, they would confer. Their hope was that her doctor might finally be able to explain continuous GI distress; mine—that I might alleviate her presurgical anxiety by explaining the procedimiento and guiding her through each stage of the process until the OR nurse took over.

I accompanied her to the surgical-prep bay, interpreting the nurse’s instructions up to the moment she was to disrobe and don a surgical gown. In the middle of my instructions, I forgot the verb for disrobing. Without flinching, Sra. Camarillo reminded me it was “quitarse.”

Let me quickly add: when I asked Sra. Camarillo, per the nurse’s instructions, to disrobe, I also requested that she immediately put on a hospital gown. I experienced no difficulty remembering the verb “to put on.” I thanked her for her assistance and left.

I then returned to the husband in the waiting room, and explained where his wife was in the process—omitting the part about disrobing.

What else have I learned?

I’ve learned we’ve experienced an influx of people much like our ancestors—possibly the most desperate but likely the bravest. Would I, in similar straits, have the courage to uproot myself to, say Brazil, no matter the opportunity, where I’d become a foreigner without the language, social connections, or cultural acceptance? Where at the caprice of economic downturn I become suspect, perhaps viewed as a drag on native advancement, especially if I’m undocumented?

North Carolina is experiencing an economic downturn. In Vance County, the unemployment percentage is high and rising with the loss of major industries (tobacco, textiles, and manufacturing)—the industries that initially attracted Latino workers. Faced with the impact of this recession, some Latinos will leave; others have already left. To succeed, one must first survive. But the stouthearted, the ones with fiber, will abide. Sra. Gavilan and her bebe, Jorge and his campaneros, Sra. Camarillo and her husband—all of them are still here, seeking to find and fit a niche. They will remain, eventually becoming fully fledged Americans.

They will become we.

(The names in this piece are fictional; the individuals exist.)

In Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, Oliver Gant, after learning stonecutting in Baltimore, moves to the Reconstructed South and stays sober long enough to meet his first wife. Eighteen months later he’s relapsed, and she’s died of a hemorrhage. Rootless, adrift, and scared of dying of tuberculosis, he sets out westward seeking anonymity and ends up in the mountain-valley town of Altamont (Asheville, North Carolina). He wonders: Why here?

I immigrated to North Carolina thirty-three years ago after I was laid off during New York City’s financial crisis and my girlfriend was moving here to be closer to her mother.

I helped her move, driving a big U-Haul full of her belongings from the Long Island town of Sagaponack to Durham and then down Rt. 1 (the Jefferson Davis Highway) to Southern Pines in the Sandhills, a rural region of ancient dunes near Pinehurst, the famous golf resort.

After arriving I stayed a couple of weeks and then returned to Brooklyn. Over the winter my girlfriend and I talked about our future. I didn’t know if or when I’d get my job back; we missed each other, so I decided to join her.

I’d never lived anywhere else and, unprepared for provincial small-town life, I went into culture shock. Within six months, although my girl wasn’t happy about it, I decided to go back home. So I packed, rented a car, and was driving back to the city on I-85 on a clear, starry October night when I had what can only be described as a mystical experience. Something, I think it was God, told me to go back to Southern Pines. I did and I’ve been here ever since.

Living here has brought me both gifts and afflictions. The Lord giveth and taketh away, works in mysterious ways, and it’s said that everything happens for a reason, but sometimes I’ve wondered if Descartes was right when he posed God as an evil deceiver. God’s gifts come with strings attached.

Every spring the thick, brittle leaves of the magnolia near my driveway drop, hitting the asphalt with a crack. When the wind blows you hear them scraping, and if you step on one it crunches. After a shower, piles of leaves heaped all over town emanate brown liquor reeking of primordial swamp. When the trees bloom they have large, white blossoms most people find attractive but I see as ungainly. They’re short-lived and languishing under their own weight; they’ll yellow, flop over, and die.

It’s also the time of year my windows are open before the heat sets in, and the large Presbyterian church around the corner sometimes broadcasts hymns after tolling the hour and I have no choice but to listen to them. My parents were French-Mexican, Catholic and Russian, Jewish. After living here for a decade I found a job I loved and started attending conferences. The proceedings always started with a prayer to Jesus, common in the Bible Belt, but that I never found appropriate.

I met my girlfriend at the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan, but after we married—she was raised Episcopalian—we made a foray into local religion. It was a social initiative, an attempt to blend in to the community, but I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. There were fewer immigrants in those days, and what appeared on the surface as a friendly community was also set in its ways, class bound, and parochial.

North Carolina was a red state until Obama, although historically more progressive than the rest of the South. It has some of the largest military bases in the country, and I live a short distance from Fort Bragg. I’ve been apolitical most of my life, except during the Vietnam War and since the advent of the Iraq War, the onslaught of flag-waving, and the local military buildup. I found myself dispensing antiwar, liberal views in a forest of conservatism. Years ago I wrote a wry letter to the local newspaper, The Pilot, complaining about the 82nd Airborne’s cannons rattling my windows. The responses to my letter characterized me as little less than a traitor.

I want to say this without sounding bigoted. There are good people living here and even if they don’t know you they have a seemingly benevolent need to wave at you from their cars. In New York City you never made eye contact on the subway and never waved or smiled at anybody you didn’t know.

Recently, on my way back to North Carolina from northern Virginia on Amtrak, as we approached Rocky Mount, I experienced an internal smile as I looked out on the familiar countryside. When we stopped in Raleigh I observed a family from Boston on their way to Orlando. The dad, covered in Celtics logos, affectionately called his son stupid, and I winced; the people appeared so crude. When I lived in Brooklyn years ago they would have sounded like everyone else but living here has changed me.

It took a long time, but I was inoculated with a slow-drip titration of Southern culture and civility and fell in love with North Carolina and maybe even this illiberal, hybrid resort town. Along the way, I’ve developed a yen for iced tea and bourbon, and given a choice, would eat a biscuit as soon as a bagel.

These days I want to put a wall around North Carolina. The heavy immigration started in the 80s but attracting tourists to the state has been developing since the late 1800s. North Carolina, formerly known as the “Rip Van Winkle” state, has become urbanized, suburbanized, and more diversified. As Thomas Wolfe believed about his beloved birthplace, Asheville, degrees of native charm and culture have suffered, and much of the prime land in the state continues to be broken up for upscale resorts and developments.

There are things I admire about Southern culture and things I don’t, but I don’t want the South to lose its stubborn, inimitable soul. Right now I’m working hard to understand North Carolina, its history and people, because I want to come to peace with living here, but I still wonder. Why here?

 
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