Levine Museum exhibition tells the story of Hispanic growth in the South

New Latino Exhibit at Levine Museum of the New South

New Latino exhibit opens at Levine Museum of the New South
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New Latino exhibit opens at Levine Museum of the New South

In what it is calling the most ambitious exhibition in its history, Levine Museum of the New South is preparing to examine Hispanic growth in the region and the seismic demographic changes it has wrought.

Opening after three years of planning, “Nuevolution! Latinos and the New South” will also be a stage for a year’s worth of lectures, dialogues and a film series.

“This is the largest, most complex project we’ve ever undertaken,” says Emily Zimmern, president of the Levine.

In a single generation, Hispanics have become a powerful minority in the Southeast. Excluding Florida, Hispanics have risen from about one percent of the population in 1990 to more than 20 percent in some places today.

From 2000 through 2013, Charlotte was the fastest-growing major Latino market in the nation.

“In the South, the biggest story since civil rights is the influx of Hispanics,” says Tom Hanchett, the Levine’s staff historian.

Hanchett says the shift has influenced everything from music and food to sports and politics.

Census tells the story

Charlotte and Atlanta are the nation’s fastest-growing metro areas in Latino residents, up more than 400 percent since 2000, according to Nielsen.

Census data shows that Latino population continues to surge in the Charlotte region:

▪  Mecklenburg County’s Hispanic population grew 15 percent between 2010 and 2014, more than double the white growth rate.

▪  20 percent of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are Latino.

▪  Monroe’s population of 33,343 is about 28 percent Hispanic. In all, 28 North Carolina cities have a Latino population over 20 percent.

▪  York County saw a 22 percent growth in its Latino population since the 2010 census, the third-highest rate in the Carolinas for counties with at least 10,000 Hispanics, behind only Harnett and Onslow counties in North Carolina.

▪  In Cabarrus County, Hispanics account for 10 percent of the population. Cabarrus also saw a double-digit growth rate for Hispanics between 2010 and 2014, as did Iredell, Union and Gaston counties.

Climbing the ladder

Oliver Merino, a coordinator on the exhibit, has helped gather stories that illustrate the demographic shift.

About half the Hispanics in the region, he said, are established U.S. citizens, many of them second- or third-generation whose families have followed the typical immigration path with each successive generation rising in education, stature and wealth.

“I see there are two communities – one is the immigrants, but it is important to understand there are people living here, second or third generation, people who came years ago, and are already established with a certain status,” he says.

“Not just immigrant status, but economic status. They’ve started their own firms and had success.”

Merino says there is a growing Latino middle class in the region, helped in part by the influx of well-educated Hispanics recruited by the banks, information services and other industries.

Some of the surge is because of people coming to join in the Sun Belt’s economic boom.

“In the exhibit, we have a story about a business entrepreneur in Alabama who went there because it was fertile ground for someone with a business idea,” Merino says. “He created a small restaurant and then moved into his own grocery store and now has his own construction business. His business grew because the South grew so much.”

His own path

Merino’s path to Charlotte followed typical milestones. His father, a textile worker in Mexico, emigrated to Monroe, and the family followed a year later in 1999, when Merino was 10.

“We had the opportunity to go to Chicago, New York or Florida, but my dad heard North Carolina was where the opportunity was,” Merino said.

His father now works at a Monroe hardware company, and his mother works is a housekeeper. She is planning to take business classes because she wants to start a company providing health assistance to the needy.

Merino entered elementary school without knowing English, and was given English as a second language classes. He was fluent in two years.

“I learned English by watching ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Friends,’ ” Merino said. “I would repeat whatever they said.”

Matt LeBlanc’s character Joey Tribbiani on “Friends” made a major impression by greeting everyone with “How ya doin’?”

“I thought that was how you should greet everyone,” Merino said. “I went to school and would say it to my friends and teachers. I learned later it had different connotations. You learn along the way.”

He was sometimes picked on for being different, but as the Hispanic population rose in Monroe, the bullying fell off. Monroe High School was about 20 percent Hispanic when he graduated and is 47 percent Latino now.

Merino went to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black institution with few Latinos.

“There were some tensions there, but as people learned who we were and where we were coming from, they saw the commonalities rather than the differences.”

Cultural divisions

Even in the Hispanic culture, Merino says, there are divisions, a fact addressed by a corridor of the exhibit called desencuentros, the Spanish word connoting tension or friction – in this case, between Latinos, whites and blacks, and even clashes within different Hispanic communities.

A study by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute shows that half Charlotte’s Latino population is of Mexican descent, followed by 10 percent Salvadoran, then other Caribbean and Latin American sources.

“There are stereotypes within the Latino community that don’t get talked about,” Merino said, such as skin color and national origin.

Other parts of the exhibit confront problems with immigration and gaining citizenship, the political debate about it and child labor issues.

“We talk about those things in the exhibits, the classism that exists among people in Latin America,” he said. “It’s supposed to be uncomfortable, because if you don’t recognize these things, you can’t move forward.”

Linguistic challenge

Dialects in Latin America vary the same way accents do in the United States, which presented a challenge for writing the Spanish texts ingrained in the bilingual exhibition.

Working with the Charlotte multicultural marketing firm AC&M, the Levine created texts that are language appropriate to various Latino communities, mindful of nuances in language to different dialects.

Development of the exhibition, Zimmern said, was driven by the rapid demographic shifts in the Southeast in the last 25 years. It also addresses the museum’s goal of serving diverse communities.

Nationally, only 10 percent of visitors to museums are people of color, Zimmern said. At the Levine, that number is above 30 percent, she said.

Hanchett says the exhibition focuses on the Southeast, but Florida and Texas were not included because their immigration history is so different.

Influence on Ron Rivera

Merino says many people don’t realize how some prominent members of the community spring from Hispanic backgrounds and the impact it has had on their careers.

One exhibit has Panthers coach Ron Rivera discussing how his heritage – his ancestors came from Spain – influences his coaching technique.

“He talks about how proud he is of his heritage, how he brings the family atmosphere into the Panthers,” Merino said.

“He saw that as one of the goals to have here in Charlotte with the Panthers. Families are important in all cultures. He talks about how his own roots influence how he looks at the world.”

Adam Bell contributed to this report.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

Want to go?

NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South” opens Sept. 27 at Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St., Charlotte, with a free-admission day that includes special activities.

Regular admission: $8 adults, $5 children.

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday: noon-5 p.m.

More info: 704-333-1887; www.museumofthenewsouth.org.

About the exhibition

Nuevolution! Latinos and the New South has been developed over the last three years by the Levine in partnership with the Atlanta History Center and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Through videos, interactive exhibits and more than a dozen artworks, the show explores the complex issue of identity and historic tensions accompanying immigration. It looks at how music and culinary norms are influenced by blending cultures and how in-migration is breathing new life into declining Southern towns.

A series of community dialogues will be held over the next year, including “Exploding Canons: Nuevolution!” on Oct. 27 with experts from Davidson College, UNC Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools exploring the Latino impact on the New South in demographics, politics, art, poetry and the lived experience.

Nuevolution! will be on display at the Levine through October 2016, then travel to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Atlanta History Center.

Presenting sponsors are Belk, Wells Fargo and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Citizenship obstacles

As part of the development of the exhibition, listening sessions were held across the Southeast. Among key issues identified by Hispanics and non-Latinos was that of undocumented immigrants. Among the findings from the discussions:

▪ People in receiving communities often ask, “Why don’t immigrants just obey the law” and work toward legal citizenship? A common negative reaction is, “They don’t want to learn English.”

▪  Quotas and complicated regulations often make legal immigration difficult. At best, it is a lengthy process requiring expert assistance. One Charlottean from Mexico said it took 19 years for her to become a citizen.

▪  Children born here can suddenly find their parents sent back to the country of origin. Children born elsewhere yet raised here can suddenly be deported to a country they have never known.

▪  Post 9/11 fears and “show your papers” laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have increased confrontations with Latinos and others who “look” Hispanic who can be jailed until they prove their legal immigration status.

Levine Museum of the New South