Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Hispanics Reshape Culture of the South They Bring Diversity, Tension to Area Defined in Black and White

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Hispanics Reshape Culture of the South They Bring Diversity, Tension to Area Defined in Black and White

Article excerpt

Ricardo Ramirez sees Little Rock as the land of opportunity. For 15 years, Mr. Ramirez and his family lived in California. In the early 1990s, they moved here in search of a bigger piece of the American Dream - grits and all.

Now the family owns the Super Siete, a popular Mexican market and restaurant that doubles as a social bazaar for Hispanics in a primarily black neighborhood. "Arkansas is beautiful for jobs," says Ramirez. "Starting a business is good. It has great chances for good living."

A world of racial technicolor is exploding in the South as the ethos of black and white that has defined the region for more than a century diminishes. Hispanics recognize the South offers escape from crowded and fast-paced cities, where the cost of living is burdensome and crime often too high. The result is a subtle but significant shift in the politics, culture, and even cuisine of a region that has one of the most distinct identities in the United States. The change is bringing new diversity but also new tensions as Hispanics and African-Americans, in particular, compete for jobs in labor-tight urban economies. "Hispanics are a new factor in the South," says Leah Totten of MDC Inc., a North Carolina group that monitors change in the region. "The opportunity for increased tensions among races is much greater if you don't educate about racial diversity early on." The depth of the demographic change is exemplified in Arkansas, which now leads the nation in Hispanic population growth, according to the US Census Bureau. Indeed, a 1998 report shows that the top six Hispanic-growth counties are all in the South - two in the Atlanta area, two in urban North Carolina, one in the Virginia suburbs, and one in Arkansas. In Memphis, local groups expect next year's federal census to count as many as 100,000 Hispanics in the metropolitan area. Until recently, Hispanics were a temporary phenomenon in the South. Migrant workers followed harvests, staying in the region only long enough to pick crops before returning to Mexico, Texas, or California. Now residents and leaders realize they are becoming a permanent part of the culture. "It doesn't bother me that the Mexicans are moving in," says Robert Johnson, an African-American holding a bag of tacos beneath a piata. "I can see where problems would start with gangs and such if the city doesn't keep a close eye on it." New tensions Still, experts see possible areas of contention ahead. Jim Peacock, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, identifies two concerns. One would be if Hispanics end up taking away jobs from African- Americans - something that has happened in California. …

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