The State of Latinos in the Deep South: Trying to Pierce the Stigma Veil

By Miriam Y Vega @miriamyvega

Our news cycle is short, and consequently our attention spans are shorter, thus stories about Latinos in America come and go with the political winds, primarily focusing on immigration or sensationalized crimes that make the dubious discovery that are “White-Hispanics” or debating the relative merits of Hispanic-Americans singing the National Anthem at sporting events.  Occasionally, usually in the month of October (the tail-end of Hispanic Heritage Month), all three story lines intersect.

In 2015, we started January off with a news item that may not get much traction in the press about the House Republicans taking on the dismantling of hard-won “protections” for undocumented immigrants.  Many argue that “illegals” are taking jobs or are here to live off the public system.  Still others, capitalizing on fears of terrorism, actually propose that Latinos pose a security hazard.

I would like to present a more current, accurate picture of Latinos at the start of the year instead of waiting until Hispanic Heritage month.  Latinos are fueling local economies throughout the United States and in particular the Deep South where many have settled in to raise families.

Right after 2008, the U.S. and the world were in a recession.  Economies were stagnant.  Jobs were lost and people were moving around, looking for a better life.  The southern region, in particular, saw huge population increases. The 2010 U.S. census data highlighted the fact that Latinos were the largest minority group in the country.  At the time, they were 16% of the population.  Today in 2015 they are near 18%.  That’s fast growth.  And let me clearly note: It has little do with undocumented immigration.  And what’s even faster is the Hispanic growth in the Deep South. Consider, Georgia.  They saw a 108% increase in Latinos, which now represent 9% of the Georgia population.

The Deep South has seen a large increase in the number of Latinos that have moved in and settled down, helping the local economies rebound from disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the economic recession, as well as increasing the number of congressional seats from the South. This growth is due in large part to in-country migration and increased births. And contrary to convenient political myth trotted out to further stigmatize Latinos, they are not all “anchor babies”.

While all the Deep South states saw substantial increases in Latino population, states like Alabama and South Carolina also passed some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, many modelled after Arizona’s 2010 law SB 1070.  Across the country, 164 anti-immigration laws were passed by state legislatures between 2010 and 2011 leading to a marked Latino identity. So much so that there is now the phenomena of driving while brown.   What’s clear is that as we recover from the recession, the South is growing, and Latinos are a part of that, but in a complex socio-political climate of economic fears, huge changes in healthcare with the roll-out of healthcare reform that has left many Latinos in the Deep South still uninsured due to the lack of Medicaid expansion, and immigration reform.

It needs to be stated that Latinos are not a threat.  Latinos are not just a labor pool.  Latinos are not singularly any particular appellation you wish to apply.   Latinos are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, your fellow citizens or those who aspire to be.

Taking into consideration this layered cauldron of national changes, there are three main points to consider. First, Latinos are no longer invisible in the Deep South.  Second, even though they have essentially “emerged”, Latinos continue to be stigmatized in day to day life and through institutional policies, and third, there is a hidden “Latino Tax”. What is the “Latino Tax” you may be asking.   Imagine you’re a medical accountant in Alabama.  You also happen to be Latino.  Your job may not involve patient interaction.  Yet routinely you may be called upon to assist healthcare staff with Spanish translation.  Community organizations often don’t include budget lines for translation services, and simply figure they will rely on the few Spanish-speakers employed.  Community workers in the Deep South report being called in for anything from missing person and rape cases, to births in parking lots, to translating brochures, simply because they are Latino.  The idea of a “Latino Tax” is that there is a high demand on your time and social capital, particularly if you are bilingual.  While it’s a burden, it is a burden that many willingly carry because they want to do good for their community.  There’s a high sense of altruism that runs through the veins of Latino’s in the Deep South.

Going forward, there is a need for Latino leadership to be cultivated.  They’re in the Deep South, and civil rights is an undercurrent.  Concerted efforts need to be made to partner with the African-American community, who have paved the way.  We need to honor their expertise and experience, and help them recognize that Latinos are in the midst of their own civil rights struggle.  Most importantly, Latinos need to vote.  People are waiting for them to awaken and show up at the polls, and they just haven’t. Maybe 2016 will be the year.

For more information, the full report on The State of Latinos in the Deep South can be accessed through the Latino Commission on AIDS website at www.latinoaids.org.

Dr. Miriam Y. Vega is the Vice President of the Latino Commission on AIDS. She attained her PhD in social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She attended Vassar College for her undergraduate degree.

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