For the first time, Latinos represent the biggest minority population in Catawba County, eclipsing blacks.
Area leaders expected the historic milestone to happen, since Latinos continue to move to the Catawba Valley for work or to live near relatives already established here.
The change occurred despite continued job losses in the manufacturing sector, in which many Latinos have worked.
“They're the fastest-growing ethnic group in the region,” said Taylor Dellinger, data analyst with the Western Piedmont Council of Governments in Hickory. “We would expect that they would continue to be the fastest-growing group.”
Random U.S. Census Bureau surveys conducted annually show Latinos numbering nearly 1,000 more than blacks last year in Catawba. Other nearby counties' Latino populations also continue to grow.
Maria Luisa Abreu moved from Mexico to Hickory with her husband eight years ago for opportunity. She values the education her sons get here and all the chances for success her family has.
“We have a great community here,” she said on her way from her church, St. Aloysius Catholic, to pick up one of her sons from soccer practice.
St. Aloysius, the biggest Catholic church in Catawba County, added a second Spanish-language Mass to its schedule about two years ago to accommodate increased numbers of Latino parishioners.
And more local businesses are reaching out to the Latino market.
Some put “Hablamos Español” on signs to let potential customers know they can communicate with Spanish speakers.
Hickory attorney Matthew Poteet, who learned to speak Spanish in college, represents a lot of Latino clientele, many of whom learned about him by word of mouth. He appreciates their business, which represents about 30 percent of his caseload.
“You hate to make stereotypes,” he said, “but they generally pay better than the average client. If they say they're going to pay on time, they always do. I've found them to be very good people, very hard working.”
Poteet said he believes Latino population numbers continue to climb despite economic conditions because many still live here but work construction jobs in other counties.
Rick Knighton, of Knightstaff Inc., owner of Fresh Air Galaxy stores in Catawba and Burke counties, started sending a monthly circular to Latino households about two years ago.
Latinos still make up just about 8 percent of his business, he said, though he stocks items they buy. But he knows many Latinos shop at markets that cater to their tastes.
The cultural shift has changed the Catawba Valley over the past two decades, but this is the first time that a new immigrant population has surpassed blacks in number. What used to be a black-and-white region now includes Latinos and Asians, mostly Hmong in the latter group.
The unprecedented diversification has not come without tensions, say leaders of the various ethnic groups. Still, those leaders also say they're making headway in smoothing over problems and bringing the cultures together.
Jerry McCombs, president of the Catawba County branch of the NAACP, said he isn't aware of overt discontent among fellow blacks about no longer being the biggest minority, though he has heard some say they believe other minority organizations might be getting more public benefits than those for blacks.
“When people come and say that, I say, ‘Give me some proof,' ” McCombs said. “I have yet to get any proof in my hands, so that's just talk…. I think at this point, we can do a whole lot more together than we can trying to fight each other.”
For some time, county manager Tom Lundy has met quarterly with local NAACP presidents to discuss issues. About a year ago, he started inviting Latino and Hmong leaders to join them. McCombs said he thinks the talks are helping bind the different cultures.
Tong Yang, former director of the United Hmong Association, agreed. The Catawba Valley's Hmong population has been flat in recent years, Yang thinks younger Hmong are having smaller families to pursue professional careers, while others have moved away to find work.
Despite a few fights between high school students over the past couple of years, one involving the use of a racial slur directed at black students, Yang said the groups get along well, though he said some conceptions persist that can cause tension.
‘We've been great together'
For instance, he said some Hmong believe that school officials, who are mostly white, sometimes don't treat students of different races equally, while other Hmong blame people from different ethnic groups for breaking up Hmong families.
“Other than that, we've been great together. (Hmong) have been vocal on advocacy efforts on behalf of the Latino community,” Yang said. “I think because we're all minorities that we understand the struggle each of us goes through.”
Laura Garza, director of Hispanic Ministry at St. Aloysius, said she occasionally hears some Latinos express concern that blacks may resent them for filling jobs they could have had. “But on the other hand, she said, “I see Mexicans and black people being friends.”
Luisa Abreu said she believes the language barrier can keep the races apart, which is why she encourages her fellow Latinos to learn English. She did so herself by doing her older son's homework along with him.
“Most people have been nice with me,” she said. “I have a Hmong friend. We are very close. She says our cultures are kind of similar. Our families are always together.”