Nuestros Vecinos: Growing up Latino in Sanford

The following is my article that appears in Wednesday’s Sanford Herald.
There was much more to the nearly two-hour conversation I had with these five young men and women, but you only have so much room in a newspaper.

I hope to post more for this article later today. Until then, here’s what’s in the paper (the unedited version):

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SANFORD — Jamie Villegas laughed when asked what “Mexican stereotype” he’s most frustrated with.
“I didn’t swim here,” said the 16-year-old Southern Lee High School student. “Not all of us even know how to swim.”
His words are met with laughter from his four friends, young Latino men and women who were eager Friday to share their experiences of “growing up brown” in Central North Carolina.
Unlike the thousands of illegal Latino immigrants who have fueled the fire of debate in North Carolina and across the United States in recent years, these five are legal U.S. citizens.
Because they speak fluent English and come from middle-class families, they’re sometimes made fun of by other Latinos for being “uppity” or “sellouts.” Yet, simply because they are Latino, they’re victims of racism and ignorant stereotypes.
It could be viewed as a lose-lose situation to some.
But Villegas, Rocio Soto, Robert Blanco, Lupe Gomez and Jose Zapata smile through the frustration. For these five, growing up Latino in Sanford has had its ups and downs.
Yet all five share hope for a better future.

From both sides
Blanco, a 16-year-old Southern Lee High School student, is part white/part Latino. He speaks fluent Spanish, but English is spoken mostly at home. A tall, handsome guy, Blanco is living the American dream, driving a nice car and hoping to attend college and major is business.
That “American dream” gets tarnished when he’s teased from both sides.
“Other Hispanics have called me an ‘uppity Mexican’ for driving a nicer car …” said Blanco, “and I’ve heard ‘wetback’ from white people. It gets old. It gets real old.”
Blanco and his friends get the taunts from both sides of the racial divide because of their situations.
Zapata, 16 and a Lee County High student, wears nice clothes and lives in a nice home, yet some of his Latino friends assume his parents deal drugs to afford these things.
“They’ll ask if my parents deal drugs, and I tell them, ‘no, my father’s in construction,” he said. “Middle class is considered rich to them.”
He doesn’t escape it at school either.
“Teachers sometimes are amazed I’m in their honors class,” he said with a smile. “Then at my first football game, I was the only Hispanic kid there, and I stood out big time.”
The next Census figures are expected to show a large spike in the Latino population in Sanford and Lee County. One estimate has the current population at about 20 percent within the city limits. Many of the “new” Latinos are here for the numerous industrial jobs the region has to offer.
But this group, like 26-year-old Lupe Gomez, have been in Sanford for years, long enough to witness the population boom.
Gomez came with her family from California when she was young. In California, she said, Latinos were much more accepted.
In Sanford?
“I never truly realized I was Hispanic until I came to North Carolina,” said Gomez, who because of her light complexion, has been mistaken for a white person on occasion (she’s heard the term “Whitsican” before). “I remember a white boy called me a ‘burrito,’ and I couldn’t understand why.”
Gomez is a mother of three today, and her children are starting to reach an age where they’re learning about different races. All five agreed their friendships were never based on race until their middle school years, where race “all of the sudden became a big deal to everybody,” Blanco said.
Gomez said she will raise her children to be colorblind.
“Don’t listen to people who’ll judge you on your color,” is the advice Gomez said she’ll give. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. A 4-year-old kid will only judge on race if that’s what they’ve been taught.”

Expecting change
Sixteen-year-old Rocio Soto, a student at Lee County High, is the one brought her friends together for their chat with The Herald because she wanted to share her experiences and have a frank discussion about Latinos and their future in Sanford, in North Carolina and in the U.S.
“I’ve had teachers who’ve pointed out that I have friends who’ve dropped out or gotten pregnant in school, and they wonder why I haven’t done that,” she said. “We’re not all like that. I think some of the attitudes have been a result of Congress’ immigration stance. They’re treating it like it’s the biggest problem in the country, when we’ve got bigger problems, like a war. Focus on that.”
Opinionated and outspoken, Soto is also optimistic. She’s getting more respect from teachers, she said, because she’s being honest with them.
“I just want people to see who we really are,” she said, adding there’s a lot of fear in the Latino community because so many people assume everybody’s illegal.
All five know illegal people in the community. They know how hard they work for so little money. They know of the doctors and lawyers who’re working in the fields or in fast food restaurants in the U.S., because their Mexican education is no good here.
And they understand why they want to be in the U.S.
“You have to pay for your education in Mexico,” Villegas said. “And it’s expensive.”
Zapata said the reasons to come to the U.S. are the same today as they were 100 years ago when Europeans were flocking westward.
“Most Americans today can trace themselves back to immigrants,” he said. “They’re here to be free and equal. The country is fading from what it was founded on.”
They all agree a civil rights movement reminiscent of the 1960s may come in the near future.
“I’m sure it will take place,” said Zapata. “In the meantime, we’ll take small steps. People need to stop focusing on the bad things. And Hispanics need to stop complaining and become active in the community. Be active in your church and city, and this area will benefit. It’s their dream to be here; they need to understand they need to help to make it a better place.”

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