When José Hernández-París moved to Charlotte almost four decades ago from Colombia, a social studies teacher pointed him out to the class as an example of “olive skin.”
Charlotte was part of a much more black-and-white world, with few immigrants and only a smattering of Spanish speakers. For 13-year-old Hernández-París, it was a strange place – a quiet, leafy counterpoint to bustling, crowded Bogotá.
“I remember when the teacher mentioned olive skin and pointed at me, I felt green, because all the olives I knew were green,” said Hernández-París. “It sounds crazy, but they hadn’t seen olive skin.”
Now, Hernández-París is preparing to start a new job as executive director of La Coalición, the Latin American Coalition. It’s the largest immigrant advocacy and Latino cultural organization in the state. He’s led Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ diversity office for the last 10 years, a position that’s afforded Hernández-París a front-row seat to the changing demographics in the city and state.
He’s taking charge of the group at a time when immigration has become a major issue in the 2016 presidential race, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump promising to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border with México.
Locally, the fast-growing Hispanic population has changed the makeup of both CMS and the county. They now make up 21 percent of the school system’s students, and the growth in their enrollment has accounted for almost the entire increase in CMS’ population recently. And Mecklenburg County’s population is now almost 13 percent Hispanic, according to the most recent census estimates. The county’s Hispanic population surged about 15 percent between 2010 and 2014, more than twice as quickly as its white population grew.
“We are at a critical crossroads,” said Hernández-París. “When I see the trends, I think what would our community look like in five, seven, 10 years?”
Now, he said he plans to translate those numbers into greater political power. There isn’t a Latino elected representative on Charlotte City Council, the Mecklenburg County Commission or CMS’ Board of Education.
“We have the numbers to be influential. We have the allies and partners to be influential. But we haven’t taken advantage of that,” said Hernández-París.
He replaces Jess George, who had been executive director of the Latin American Coalition since 2009. She left in April for a job with Google Fiber.
The Latin American Coalition has a $1.2 million budget, according to the most recent finance disclosures, from fiscal year 2014. The group, founded in 1990 and headquartered on Central Avenue, provides services such as an immigration law clinic, educational programs and workforce training. The group also holds events to celebrate Latino and Hispanic culture, such as an annual Latin American Festival, and advocates for immigration reform.
“He’s one of the Latino pioneers here in Charlotte,” said incoming board chairman Omar Jorge, who is a partner and general counsel for Compare Foods. “He knows everybody. He knows the neighborhoods, he knows the community.”
Hernández-París said that in addition to advocacy on immigration, he plans to emphasize the need to serve Latino students in CMS and partner with the district to provide bilingual education and translators.
“I’m an education person,” said Hernández-París. He said he will consider pulling together a Latino Educators Association for Latino and Spanish-speaking teachers in CMS.
And as he advocates for overhauling the immigration system to help the undocumented, Hernández-París wants to shift the conversation.
“For immigration reform, the message has been, ‘We need immigration reform because you need someone to cut your grass, fix your cars, clean your houses,” he said.
“We’re much more than that,” said Hernández-París. “We are the future business owners, the future presidents, the future legislative folks, the future of this country.”
“Like it or not, that’s who we are.”
Time in Charlotte: 38 years
Family: Six children
Background: Hernández-París came to Charlotte in Colombia when he was 13 years old, immigrating with his mother. They joined a sister who had already settled in Charlotte. He’s lived in the city since, except for a five-year period when he returned to Colombia as an adult. He has a degree in educational leadership and applied psychology from Belmont Abbey College, and previously worked for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and as executive director of the nonprofit International House.
Why he’ll make news in 2016: Hernández-París is the new director of the Latin American Coalition, an advocacy and immigrant rights group. He starts his new job in January. With the presidential election in full swing, as well as elections for governor and U.S. Senate in North Carolina, 2016 promises to be a year when immigration is one of the prime issues locally and nationally.
About the series
The Observer is highlighting Charlotteans who are poised to make news in 2016.