American Renaissance

Hispanics Settling into the South

Hispanic immigrants are increasing their numbers all over the United States, but nowhere as rapidly as in the South.

Audra D.S. Burch, (Miami), Mar. 17

LYONS, Ga. — Juan Reyes spends his days in the dusty trenches of the vegetable fields that populate this tiny southeastern Georgia town. He spends his nights in the commercially seductive aisles of the local Wal-Mart.

After plowing row after row of onions, cucumbers or tomatoes, Reyes goes shopping at the megastore — window shopping, really, absorbing all the pieces of Americana stacked up and waiting to be taken home.

It has been just two years since Reyes moved to Lyons from Oaxaca, Mexico, with his girlfriend and their four children. The job in the field offered hard hours but a decent dollar, enough to pay for bills and a ticket back home.

But once winter came, and the crops and the field work were no more, Reyes didn’t go back to Mexico last year. Instead, he stayed in Lyons for good.

“There is always work to do here, and it’s a good place to raise my children,” Reyes said through a translator. “I love this country. I love Wal-Mart.”

Stories like Reyes’ — simple but telling — are unfolding all over the South, changing the economic and social landscape as they do. Every day, driven by the New American dream, Central American and Mexican immigrants — some legal, some not — are unpacking their bags for good. They are retiring from nomadic existences, leading a different, lasting wave of immigration, the making of house into home.

Unlike some other regions, the South is rich with agricultural and industrial jobs, and migrant workers and other Hispanic immigrants are increasingly taking them. They are headed for decent-paying jobs at poultry processing plants in Shelbyville, Tenn.; carpet mills in Dalton, Ga.; sock factories in Fort Payne, Ala.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs. That is the story of migration in the South, plain and simple,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina. “The South has grown by leaps and bounds economically, and many of those jobs are held by immigrants.”


The New South, once rigidly defined in black and white, is changing in cultural, political and economic ways. Census figures tracked an 87 percent increase in the Southern Hispanic population from 1990 to 2002. And unlike places such as South Florida or California, where Hispanic roots extend through three generations or more, Deep South states are new to this kind of diversity — and the language issue that it raises.

In the 1980s, two million immigrants entered the South. Four million came in the 1990s, swelling the total number to 8.6 million — or about 9 percent of the population. Almost two-thirds are from Latin America.

The South is now home to one-third of U.S. Hispanics, second only to the West and more than the Northeast and the Midwest combined.

North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee have the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the nation, with four — to six-fold increases since 1990. Hispanic populations have tripled in Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky.


“The word got out. People were telling their friends back home that there were jobs, a good living to be made,” said Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer who has studied immigration for 20 years. “So often what you have is people who are working at jobs that others would not take — such as in the areas of agriculture, poultry processing, construction and landscaping.”

The change is being felt on the front lines of public health, social services and educational and cultural institutions.

In Lawrenceville, Tenn., police and other city employees are taking crash courses in survival Spanish. In Lexington, Ky., police take five weeks of Spanish, then head for Michoacán, Mexico, for immersion courses. And in Raleigh, N.C., the diocese has hired a Hispanic priest to serve God in Spanish.

In Reyes’ new home of tiny Toombs County, Ga., and nearby Vidalia, the signs of this new life are everywhere — a Spanish-language newspaper, radio programs, dance clubs and dozens of restaurants and grocery stores, the things that turn strangers into communities.

“Stuff like that makes you feel like you have a little bit of home here,” Reyes said.


At the Taco King in Lyons, a vibrant Mexican tapestry hangs in the window. It’s huge, so huge that it blocks the view out of a diner crowded with Hispanics who are ordering in their native language from their native menu.

At the tiny Teaming Corp Migrant Workers, an employment and training agency, the walls are covered with notes in Spanish. Some are for English-speaking workers to learn the language; others are for Spanish speakers learning to navigate the office.

Most days, the waiting room is filled with Hispanic families looking to stay. Folks in the industry call it ”settling out,” and this nondescript office is ground zero.

“The people coming here are looking for help getting placed in employment so they can settle here outside the traditional migrant work,” said Gloria Shaw, a caseworker at this employment and training agency.


Shaw’s office provides a range of services, mostly to get workers ready for life out of the fields. Among them: English-as-a-second-language, GED studies, lessons in social skills and job readiness.

Frances Gutierrez, who settled out of the migrant system several years ago, has since earned a GED and now works for a community organization. She did it for her children, two boys who want to play football.

“Working field to field, it’s too hard on the family,” Gutierrez said. “Kids need someplace to go home to.”

Same story across town in the rural stretches of Lyons.

For years, Rogerio Hinojosa, a field crew leader, worked the migrant circuit — by the crop, by the month, by the seasons of nature. It began with oranges in the fall, then onions in the spring and pickles and tobacco in the summer. With a wife and three children, Hinojosa decided he needed to plant his own roots. Not necessarily settling out as much as settling in — still working the migrant fields but building a home in Lyons.

It was a move that allowed his children to know the meaning of community.

“I am never leaving here,” Rogerio Jr. said between bounces of his basketball. “This is home.”