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Q&A with Hannah Gill: North Carolina’s History of Latin American Migration

September 16, 2019

Head shot of Hannah Gill outside in front of houses Hannah Gill, director of the Latino Migration Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off Sept. 15, celebrating Hispanic and Latinx heritage and culture in the United States. Associate director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas Hannah Gill spoke to UNC News about the past and future of Latin American migration to North Carolina.

Gill directs the Latino Migration Project, a collaborative project with the Center for Global Initiatives. Her research and teaching focuses on Latin American migration and integration in North Carolina. She is the author of “The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State.”

Question: Is Hispanic migration to North Carolina new?

Answer: The contemporary presence of Spanish speakers in North Carolina has historical precedent. The first Europeans to arrive in the state in the 1500s were from Spain. While these explorers did not stay in the region like the English, who later colonized the state, their Latin American descendants are returning to the state half a millennium later, this time to settle permanently.

The contemporary period of migration to North Carolina from Latin America started in the 1970s, after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act opened immigration to regions of the world that had been previously excluded. Starting in the 1970s, Mexicans and other immigrants who had previously migrated to California and other Sun Belt states as braceros and laborers started to explore other destinations such as the southeastern states, where urban areas like Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami were growing and creating new jobs in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Agribusinesses, textile mills, furniture companies, universities and the service industry in the Southeast recruited migrants.

Q: How is migration to North Carolina changing?

A: North Carolina has close to 900,000 residents with Latin American ancestry. Of those, two-thirds trace their roots to Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. These numbers include immigrants and naturalized and native-born citizens, categories that include people born in Latin America and people born in the United States with Latin American ancestry. Despite the strong presence of Mexico in the state, North Carolinians with Latin American ancestry reflect a diversity of national, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds from 33 different countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. In the past decade, more immigrants are arriving from Central American countries and Asia than Mexico.

Q: What migration challenges and opportunities will North Carolina face in the future?

A: A growing number of North Carolina communities have initiated programs and policies to improve communications, services and civic engagement and leadership opportunities for immigrant and refugee residents. These efforts acknowledge the reality of demographic change and affirm that North Carolinians with immigrant ancestry form an important part of the state’s heritage. They also address the critical need for more educational opportunities for youth from immigrant families, who face the highest rates of poverty statewide. The Building Integrated Communities initiative here at UNC-Chapel Hill, which connects Hispanic and Latinx residents with their local governments to learn about services, is one example of a program that facilitates inclusive local government planning.

Q: How does globalization – social, economic, technological and otherwise – affect the dynamics of migration?

A: As we create policies and programs to deal with the challenges and opportunities of migration, we must seek out a global understanding of the forces behind migration that compel people to risk their lives for the opportunity to work in the United States. We can find this knowledge in many places at UNC-Chapel Hill, such as a history seminar, a Spanish language class, a study abroad program, or in a conversation with a student from an immigrant family.

UNC-Chapel Hill provides an important resource for the state of North Carolina. Through student training, research and public engagement, University staff and faculty are building knowledge about Latin America and communities with Latin American ancestry. This knowledge is critical to the formation of an educated populace that can address the challenges and opportunities of demographic change.

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