Hispanics reshape culture of the South

They bring diversity, tension to area defined in black and white.

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.

Second, since the South has been biracial for centuries, Dr. Peacock worries blacks and whites will form political alliances to thwart the newcomers.

The Latinization of the region will test how much the South has learned from its racial past.

"I hope the racial issues are past us," says Robert Trevino, Arkansas's director of the League of United Latin American Cities, the oldest and largest Hispanic group in the nation. "Some Hispanics worry, though, as more come, we'll meet more prejudice."

Others agree it will be a difficult transition for a region that can be insular. "In terms of the world view of white Southerners, I don't think they are aware of how multicultural the South is," says Susan Glisson, director of the University of Mississippi's Center for Southern Studies in Oxford. "People better wake up now or face problems in the very near future."

In Little Rock, Hispanics live primarily in two neighborhoods, creating segregated communities with stores, taco stands, and restaurants in enclaves once dominated by African-Americans.

For the few Hispanics who don't live in these areas, Southern hospitality and the region's plenty often elude them. Maria Villarreal and her three children live in a central Little Rock neighborhood notorious for gang activity.

She arrived in the city seven years ago from Los Angeles after her husband suffered a head injury. Her children attend a school where few teachers and students speak Spanish. "We learn only English here, and it is English with a Southern accent, making it hard," says teen Esmeralda Villarreal. "There's no bilingual here and teachers don't seem to care if you are understanding or not."

Muddy welcome mat

The Villarreals live in fear of gangs and gunshots, a contrast to their quiet existence in Los Angeles. They say blacks often single them out. A bullet hole pockmarks the side of their house. "I call the cops," says Mrs. Villarreal, watching her children play. "They don't come for hours. The blacks look at us as if we are now them - a new minority. We are."

City officials say they're trying to help the newcomers. Schools are hiring bilingual teachers. Hospitals employ translators. Police are quickly learning Spanish.

Despite its segregated past, many Hispanics agree the urban South offers more opportunities than California or Texas. For the Ramirezes, Little Rock has been nearly utopian. "It's a small place," says Ramirez as he watches Spanish programming beamed in from a satellite dish. "You feel like you have a voice, even if it's not that loud."

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