Cross section of a trees’ roots. Photo by Aaron Escobar.

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¿Mi Tierra? (Home)land for North Carolina Latinos

I came to the United States from Guatemala in 1978, with every intention of “returning home” after college, either to my dad’s next international posting or to Perú, the land of my birth. As happens to the best of us, I fell in love, married, and stayed. Nine years later, while attending seminary and contemplating the future I would help build for my first child, I became a U.S. citizen. Mike and I, both educators, built a very traditional family, first in Kentucky and then in Virginia.

Accustomed to being the only resident “foreigner,” in our small college town in Virginia, I was surprised by the number of brown-skinned people I saw when we moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1994. During college and seminary, I had ministered to migrant farmworkers in Arizona, and in the tomato and cucumber fields and apple orchards of Virginia, so I knew about migrant farm laborers. But what were these young men and even whole families doing in Chapel Hill? I asked fellow students. They had no idea. Neither did my professors. I asked one of my advisors if working with the new immigrants might not be a good area of study. “They are not on my radar screen,” she said. Boy, did she miss a wonderful opportunity! Today, most of the enrollment growth in our public schools comes from immigrant families, and we are struggling to meet their needs, with little research to guide us.

In the 1990s two forces were most responsible for the increase in immigration to the state: the economic boom in North Carolina that created a huge need for blue-collar skilled and unskilled labor and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). As cheap American corn flooded Mexican markets, many young men in Mexican communities found it impossible to scrape a living from their land. The dozens of young men arriving daily in the Triad and the Triangle—Greensboro, Raleigh, Siler City, and even Chapel Hill—were here because in desperation they had decided to look for work in “el Norte,” and North Carolina is where their “Coyotes” told them they could find jobs.

Shortly after my arrival, I started volunteering at the IFC (Interfaith Council of Social Services) as a translator. I made phone calls to waiting cousins and friends of friends. I translated for employers who dropped by to hire workers on the spot. I saw the look of incredulity and joy when a young man was offered $6 an hour and guaranteed sixty hours a week by a landscaper, who also wanted to hire me to help him get all his new Mexican workers “legal papers.” It was a time when explaining that “there is no mechanism for getting these workers visas,” was met with a shrug. “No problem. We’ll work something out.”

In the next few years, it would become commonplace to hear Spanish around town and see Hispanic food sections at Walmart and Food Lion stores and to see immigrant crews cleaning office buildings, staffing fast-food restaurants, landscaping our parks, and holding the caution flags around road construction.

I remember that fall running into a young man who had been dropped off in downtown Chapel Hill and found his way to the IFC offices on Wilson Street, next to the church I was attending and where I would later establish a Spanish-language congregation, Iglesia Unida de Cristo de Chapel Hill. He had not eaten since the van stopped in Texas the day before. He had a blank Social Security card and was ready to go to work, he said, he only needed help finding out where to get the Social Security number to write on the card. He had come from a small communal farm—an éjidoan hour from the nearest small town in the state of San Luis to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. From shared lands and dirt floors and mud walls and animals that roam the dirt streets, and one central phone booth for the whole village to Tar Heel basketball traffic and thousands of people on Franklin Street. From eggs from your backyard hens and homemade tortillas and beans to shelves of frozen and canned food and restaurants where a single meal costs more than a week’s wages back home.

In smaller numbers than the Mexicans and Central Americans who came in the late nineties, the Colombians followed. While they did not have harrowing tales of walking across the border or hiding in suffocating trucks, many Colombians had their own traumatic experiences, uncovered gradually, painfully, as they settled in and began dealing with the nightmares and traumas born of kidnappings, extortion, and murders by guerrillas or drug traffickers. Among the Colombians who found their way to Iglesia, many were women and some were young widows. I remember an intact young family with two boys that visited our church in 2000 or 2001. They must have been spared by the war, I thought. I was wrong. The father stood by the open door throughout the service. “Maybe a reluctant Catholic, weary of a woman preacher?” I wondered, as I observed him nervously scanning the congregation and the parking lot. He was Catholic, but curious and open-minded about women ministers. What concerned him, I found out later, was the open door, and the access it provided to possible armed intruders. He asked if I would consider locking the doors to keep the families safe. A former surveyor who had loved exploring uncharted territories, he had been kidnapped by the guerrillas and then rescued in a government raid where two other hostages, his co-workers, were killed. To feel safe, he needed to be inside, behind locked doors.

I recently visited his family, now living in a neighboring county. Fourteen years later, he is a U.S. citizen and the father of three handsome boys, two naturalized and one native-born. This is now home, he tells me, but only because of the deep friendships he’s made, and because of his children. They consider themselves “Tar Heels,” he jokes. The oldest is applying to UNC and is sure to get in. He owns his home now, and a family business, and his connection with the land is through his sons. And while he still works inside, he does enjoy playing outside with the kids in his fenced-in backyard.

Another Colombian who came to Iglesia was the traumatized mother of eleven grown children, grandmother of “about forty,” and great-grandmother of four. She had been a landowner in the llanos (the cattle area between the jungle and the mountains) and by all accounts was a true force of nature. All her children had been born at home, because she climbed out the window of the hospital and returned to her home by boat after her husband left her in the city to give birth to their firstborn. “If all the natives can have their children and go back to work the next day,” she told me, “I figured I could too.” She had learned many cures from the Indian women, as well as many ways to facilitate labor.

When I met this amazing woman, she could not sleep and found herself crying for no reason. She had flashbacks where she saw the mutilated bodies of the sixteen farm workers the guerrillas killed when they invaded her land. She would relive the weeks she hid in the jungle, tending to those in the group suffering from dengue fever or malaria. It took weeks of prayer and what she called her “gardening therapy” for the healing to begin. She would get up at 5:30 in the morning and weed the yard. She planted everything she could buy or “borrow” from friends that she deemed useful: herbs and “infusions” (lemon grass, mint), tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and even fruit trees.

She lives in a rented room in somebody else’s home; her family and even her landlord chide her for spending so much time and money planting trees and vegetables and tending somebody else’s garden. “The land belongs to everyone,” she says, “and it is our job to improve it. Somebody else planted the fruit trees that feed us today.” About four years after her arrival in Orange County, North Carolina Mrs. E became a “Health Promoter” with our health department and is now also a respected doula among the Hispanic immigrant community.

In 1995 I started a small Bible study to create a little oasis of understanding and hope for the newcomers. By 1996, it had become a new church, known around town as Iglesia Unida, and a 24/7 immigrant clearinghouse and helpline. We started a bilingual preschool and support groups; we furnished apartments and did healing services, memorials for relatives being buried far away. We provided a surrogate family to the grieving grandson who couldn’t attend the funeral of the woman who had raised him; we called dishonest bosses and demanded payment for desperately needed wages. We mediated in sometimes amusing, sometimes heart-breaking misunderstandings. We kept prayer vigils when wives and children were known to be making their way across dangerous borders. We celebrated when the first Iglesia Unida family bought its own home. We blessed the opening of the first business. We organized every kind of ceremony, from home dedications, to hybrid Christmas Posadas/Novenas, to First Communions (never seen in a Protestant church in North Carolina, I am sure), to our own Community “biblical” Halloween festival (some of my congregants were convinced their children would be poisoned if allowed to trick-or-treat).

A UNC anthropology student who visited my church for a semester project called it “an experiment in creating an immigrant theology.” If I was experimenting in doing immigrant theology, my flock was experimenting in becoming North Carolinians.

As an immigrant, I realize that if I ever feel like I don’t belong, it has less to do with the land or the people of North Carolina than with the difficulty of trying to grow new roots in new soil. It is easy for a little seedling, but painful and nigh near impossible for a grown tree. I am lucky I was somewhere in-between a seedling and a grown-up. At times, “transplanted trees” feel as if a strong wind would easily topple us, the roots are so weak and shallow. We might look strong and even provide shade for our families, but it takes so much work to stay upright!

For some, the roots that connect us to the language of our community are missing. Our mother tongue is part of the soil that nurtures us. To be healthy and create human connections, we have to be able to tell others how we feel. Without language skills there is little learning, little growth, and little understanding. I have seen parents suffer when their children learn English and they cannot understand what they are saying (“because it sometimes sounds like gibberish”) but also because they feel useless, unable to parent.

The roots that connect us with family and neighbors are hard to grow back and require reciprocity. The deep web of relationships that can be tapped for support is missing for many immigrants. “Well, I am lonely and bored,” a young dishwasher says when I tell him I am writing an article about immigrants and wondering how recently relocated Mexican country folks are doing in the Town of Chapel Hill in 2015. When you don’t know people, he explains, you only have home and work, work and home. “Extraño los jardines” (I miss the gardens), he adds. “You know, public parks where you can go with your family or friends, where there are clowns and vendors, and rides for the kids, and flowers and benches.” A sad smile and a distant look tell me he is remembering those good times. “No hay ningún lugar como su tierra” (There is no place like your own land, your homeland).

I asked my mother to give me her definition of “su tierra,” which literally means “your land.” “It is your small city or community, but it is not a geographically defined place,” she explains. “It is more what you feel, the place you feel you belong to.” However, she has to add this caveat: it depends on where you are and who asks. When we lived in Guatemala, she reminds me, “nuestra tierra” was Perú. But if another Peruvian were to ask, we’d have to say Lima, or even just our district, Miraflores.

As a pastor, as an educator, as a mother, I have sought to give immigrants a community where they could grow new roots: a community where they can establish new traditions, a network of homes where they feel welcomed and expected, where their language is understood, and perhaps most important, where they can contribute their wisdom and love. Inviting immigrant parents to teach a class, do a demonstration, create a bulletin board, serve on a committee, is all part of growing new roots.

Of course growing new roots requires a willingness to see the new community as a permanent, or at least long-term, place. For some immigrants, this feels like forsaking their ties to their families and their homeland. I will never forget the reaction of a young woman when we read the parable of the prodigal son in a home Bible study. Following the reading, she burst into tears. “That’s me!” she cried. “I left my father and my mother. I used money that they could have used to fix up their house to pay for the visa and the airfare. I came to build my own future and now as they get old and need me more I will be far away, struggling.” It was the heart-wrenching realization that every immigrant comes to when the excitement of the new adventure wears off: the enormous cost of separation, of leaving behind our homeland.

There are too many sad songs about immigration. Mexican corridos, Cuban ballads, Argentinian tangos, Peruvian “valses,” and even church praise songs. But immigrants, while longing for the tastes and smells and sounds—and even the soil itself—of our homelands, are a future-looking bunch. While we cry for aging parents and intimate friends, we are also learning and writing new songs, planting gardens, inventing a hybrid culture, and growing new roots. It is possible to thrive in new soil. It may even be possible, I think, to one day be able to honestly call two places “mi tierra.”


Author’s Note

The 2015 UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School report on “Demographic and Economic Impacts of International Migration to North Carolina” contains thirty-four pages of detailed facts about the people who are making North Carolina part of the “Global South.” Among the fascinating facts included in that report are:

  • Today, there are roughly 750,000 foreign-born residents living in North Carolina, up from 22,000 in 1960, an increase of 3,303.7 percent.
  • Foreign-born residents account for an estimated 7.7 percent of North Carolina’s population.
  • Our immigrant newcomers are more likely to be people of color—Mexican (37%), El Salvadorian, Honduran, Guatemalan, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino—than to be non-Hispanic white.