It’s Friday morning, and boxes and bins fill every available surface at Las Delicias Bakery on Charlotte’s eastside.
Shell-shaped concha, brightened with slashes of colored sugar. Torpedo-like loaves of bolillo bread. Empanadas filled with pineapple jam. Piglet-shaped puerquitos. Oreja, like little elephant ears, crisp and mildly sweet to go with coffee. All are carefully packed for transport.
Jose Eric Flores is loading the 2001 Toyota van for his twice-weekly run up Interstate 77 and into the little towns where Latinos are now a sizable presence.
He’ll visit Esmeralda, a Mexican tienda (general store) in Mount Airy. The model for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, Mount Airy is now nearly 10 percent Latino. Then he’ll swing over to Dos Rosas in Sparta, where Hispanics are the second largest ethnic group, 15 percent of the population, far ahead of African-Americans. Crossing the border into Virginia there’s a stop at Jarochita in Galax, also 15 percent Latino.
All told, he’ll hit over a dozen spots this morning. They’re part of a transformation quietly taking place across the South, according to John Chesser of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. Small towns, losing population for decades, “have seen surges of Latino immigrants over the past decade that are changing their demographics, sometimes dramatically.”
Manuel Betancur runs Las Delicias Bakery. Educated as a navy engineer, he fled his native Colombia during its decades of unrest. He met and married Zhenia Martinez, whose Mexican immigrant parents had started Las Delicias in Charlotte in 1997.
Betancur began the rural bakery run in desperation when the 2008 recession pushed Las Delicias to the brink. He knew the territory from a stint as an AmeriCorps worker teaching English and farm worker safety. He gave away baked goods, hoping skeptical store owners would see that they could sell. “I made $40 the first week,” he remembers with a rueful smile. “Not even enough to cover gas.”
Today, regional sales comprise half of Las Delicias’ business. And Betancur is hoping to line up a loan to buy a second van.