Victor Garcia never figured that where he'd start to feel like a real American would be inside a gritty police station somewhere in North Carolina.
Mr. Garcia, a barrel-chested construction worker from Mexico who is dressed today more like a lawyer, is one of the thousands of recent immigrants to the South who have struggled with an unfamiliar culture and intimidating authorities speaking in molasses-drenched tones.
Although he's as legal here as a dollar bill, Garcia's hands would still tighten on the wheel at the sight of a police cruiser - until now.
Last week, he and 43 other recent immigrants became the first graduating class of a new experiment in the South's increasingly kaleidoscopic society: the Spanish police academy in Durham, N.C.
The students are training not to become men in blue, but simply to understand the local rules of the road - both in terms of driving cars and dealing with the police.
Officials here say the positive response to their primer suggests an untapped and unexpected camaraderie between Southerners and Latinos, based on common values like hard work, family life, and churchgoing. The next step, experts say, is to capitalize on such small familiarities to bridge an enduring - and often frustrating - cultural chasm between Dixie and Latino roots.
"I think [the academy] exemplifies a real opportunity to cut short this period of mutual suspicion and estrangement," says Lou Ternatzky, a research director at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif. "In fact, because of a lot of shared values, I think it's going to work faster and better in the South than a lot of other places."
Meeting in the squad room, the six-week course ran the gamut from traffic rules to police procedures, including the intricacies of licensing and questions about how to legally carry a concealed weapon. Many students lingered after each two-hour class to chat with the instructors and Spanish-language interpreters. "There are so many things that you wouldn't just know and you wouldn't just ask any cop about," says Garcia.
Bringing Hispanic immigrants up to speed in their new society has become a daunting task, as school teachers and cops are learning at breakneck speed. In the past decade, North Carolina saw the greatest percentage surge of Latino immigrants of any US state.
And here, minus the longstanding cultural roots Latinos have developed in America's Southwest, the dramatic demographic shift has created tension points, especially growing political debate over the status - including driving privileges - of illegal Hispanic immigrants.
Southerners say they're alternatively thankful for and mystified by their new neighbors. Most of all, many are confounded by Latino penchants like backyard butchering and a seeming disregard of local traffic laws.
In fact, sometimes the culture clash looks a lot like a demolition derby. Hispanics are gumming up courts and plowing into the back ends of trucks, uninsured and often unlicensed. What's more, the dangers of drinking and driving haven't necessarily filtered into the depths of the often insulated Spanish-language neighborhoods in Wake, Durham, and Chatham Counties. The North Carolina Highway Patrol reports that Hispanics are eight times more likely to be involved in a driving-while-intoxicated accident than other groups.
But while some problems are directly attributable to sheer disregard of US laws, most of it is simply ignorance: Segregated by language and culture - and often fearful of contact with any kind of US officials - many immigrants simply do as well as they can.
Moreover, many of them come having learned to mistrust authority. "Where they come from, the notion of a license is a 10-peso bill you hand to the policeman," says Nestor Gonzales, a translator at the police academy with a politician's knack for pegging the air to make a point. "But the fact is, our people are hungry for information."
A little outreach does go a long way, experts have found: California's Blue Protector traffic education program, an outreach program aimed at Hispanics, cut DWI incidents in half in just a year in 1996.
Facing their own burgeoning populations of Latinos, other states including Georgia, Arkansas, and Iowa are also looking for answers. (Hispanics are now the largest minority in 23 states.) "People on both sides are trying to understand the cultural differences, which are all over the map: it's food, it's mannerisms, it's conversational intimacy," says Mr. Ternatzky.
Graduates here say such barriers fell surprisingly quickly at the Spanish Police Academy.
Students - many of whom managed to attend despite working multiple jobs - expressed a new respect for the American lawmen. Police, for their part, were impressed by the curiosity - and gregariousness - of their Latino charges. While an English-speaking academy drew only eight takers, nearly 50 Latinos packed most of the classes in this session.
"We've really been overwhelmed by the response, on many levels," says Durham Police Captain F.L. LaBarge, one of the instructors.
Language barriers will continue to challenge efforts "to make our communities one," as Durham cop Hector Borges puts it. But the region's residents also have a large capacity for reserving judgment, many say.
"There's a lot of good people in the South who are very welcoming and tolerant [toward Latinos], but there's also some animosity and some hostility and resentment," says Andrew Wainer, a researcher studying Hispanic communities in the South for the Tomas Rivera Institute. "But, so far, police are at the forefront of reaching out."