KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — In Decatur, Ala., population 56,000, the Food World grocery stocks dried fish and seaweed. In Atlanta, a directory contains 116 pages of groups that cater to Asian-Americans.
And here in Kernersville, N.C., a sleepy Southern town whose homes have wraparound porches and gingerbread trim, the Burger King menu offers diners papas fritas and hamburguesas to go.
Such outward signs of immigrant life are today as much a part of America's urban landscape as cab stands and mirrored skyscrapers. But in the staid and largely rural South they represent a jolting new reality.
In a part of the country that has seen itself strictly in terms of black and white for the past 130 years, Hispanic and Asian immigrants are quietly but dramatically altering the equation.
With their population soaring, Hispanics are beginning to influence the politics, culture, and economy from the Mexican border to the Carolinas and Virginia. In smaller pockets from Miami to Washington, Asians, too, are making their presence felt.
"I walked out of my house last week and heard all the construction workers speaking Spanish," says David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who also notes that factories in the area are teaching English to their Mexican counterparts. "Five years ago, you would have never heard that."
As their numbers swell, these newcomers are having a profound impact on the tradition-laden South. The immigrants are:
*Redefining whole industries whose work forces have been dominated by the black community.
*Forcing small towns to broaden their perception of who they are beyond black and white.
*Creating informal cultural exchanges that have never before existed for Southerners.
The new wave of immigration is affecting the South differently than it has in large American cities. "In California and Texas, there are more urban areas," says Carol Brooke, director of the Helping Hand Center in Siler City, N.C., an agency that works with immigrant textile and poultry workers. "Here, a few thousand people come in and that's a third of the population. And here, you have fewer newcomers in the first place; a lot of small town residents are not used to change."
Settling in the suburbs
Even in the South's few urban areas, immigration patterns are different from those in the rest of the country. Immigrants are bucking the historic practice of living in ethnic inner-city neighborhoods and instead are settling into the suburbs, where most of the jobs are. In Atlanta, for instance, first-generation immigrants live in such suburban areas as Chamblee, known to some as Chambodia for its large Asian population.
The result, says Professor Goldfield, is that the newcomers are scattered. While their vote and their voices are weaker as a minority group, they are more likely to be absorbed into a community than keep their own ethnic identities.
According to the US Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in the South grew from 4.3 million to 6.5 million between 1980 and 1990. During that decade, the South's Asian population grew 146 percent. There were 3.5 million Southerners of races other than white and black in 1990, an increase of 1.5 million over 1980.
While some of these newcomers arrive as immigrants from their homelands, most are relocating from other states, attracted by the South's booming economy.
The result has been multifold. On one level, the immigrants, who often do not speak English, have become an unexpected strain on educational and health-care providers. School systems across the region are desperate for bilingual teachers. Police departments look to volunteers and telephone services for translations. This has become a source of conflict for many, especially in rural areas that already struggle with wide-reaching poverty.
"The more people who are here, the more problems you're going to have," says Victor Sanchez, a Mexican who emigrated to Florida in 1977 and began picking fruit as a migrant worker. In 1985, he became a US citizen through a farm workers amnesty program. He now is joint-owner of a small roofing company in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Many ethnic newcomers are seen as a cultural threat in a region where work, church, and family customs have remained largely unchanged for generations. "It's a real challenge here for a community that is so conservative to get used to a group of people that doesn't speak English," says Ms. Brooke of the Helping Hand Center.
The South's racial mix has also raised the tension level for Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Blacks are reluctant to cede their hard-won jobs to immigrants. But that's what's happening in factory towns across the region, where Hispanics are often recruited and hired over blacks.
Fight over jobs
"Many of the opportunities that blacks fought for in the streets of Selma and Birmingham have set the stage ... for people who've only been here a short time," says Lewis Suggs, a professor of African-American history at Clemson University in South Carolina. "Blacks see themselves as a deprived group." They resent seeing resources and jobs shifted to others.
At the same time, some immigrants complain that their concerns are overlooked because of a political culture that focuses mainly on black and white issues. "I go to meetings that are supposed to be multiracial but in them, I'm insignificant," says Young-Jin Lee, of the Korea Community Service Center of Atlanta. "Everything's pretty much bipolarized between black and white here."
Still, the rise in Hispanic and Asian populations is seen by many as a positive development. It's providing new business and cultural opportunities that have never before existed for Southerners.
In Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina, a host of joint-ventures between Japanese and American firms has created cultural exchanges and opened up a niche for retailers to serve both Japanese managers who are in town for the short-term and then those who stay on with their families.
Hispanic dance clubs
In North Carolina, businesses from banks to dance clubs are reaching out to Spanish speakers. Ethnic restaurants are opening in small towns across the state.
Some even say that introducing additional minority groups to the region could help heal the historic rifts between blacks and whites.
The battle against racism, say Goldfield and Suggs, might benefit from the injection of new ethnic groups. Suggs says that if blacks and Hispanics could join forces, they could make strides together.
"Blacks and Hispanics have a common ground. They could learn how to work together and expand democracy," he says.