Up Front: November 2010

Coming to work

In the pieces that have appeared on this page for nearly a quarter-century now, I’ve often referenced, as I did last month, Burlington and Alamance County. That’s because, as Neil Young wrote of a town in north Ontario, “all my changes were there.” It’s where I grew up, came of age, first plied my craft. It’s where I wed, where my children were born. But in many ways, despite the societal changes that the 27 years in between brought, the place from which we moved in 1976 was not all that different from what it was when I was born there.

It wasn’t that way for Hannah Gill, who grew up in the western part of the county (and now lives near Saxapahaw, in the southern part). “I went off to college in 1995,” says the assistant director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas and research associate at the Center for Global Initiatives at UNC Chapel Hill. “By the time I came back, the community had been transformed in many ways.” She traces the roots — and results — of that transformation in her new book, The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State, which UNC Press will publish this month. An excerpt from the first chapter, set in Alamance, starts on page 37.

The work of an applied anthropologist, her book ranges across the state and back to countries, towns and villages from which the new immigrants journeyed, raising key points pertaining to their social assimilation and — in her view, even more critical — economic assimilation. Reading it, I was struck by a thought: These people are no different than mine. Though I was born in Alamance County, the red clay of that blue-collar section of Burlington where I was reared staining my heels darker than four years of schooling at Chapel Hill ever could, neither of my parents were. Both had grown up there, but my daddy was born in High Point and my momma, in Shelby. Their families had moved to Burlington during or just before the Depression, drawn by the jobs its multitude of mills created. They came for the same reasons the Latinos arrived later: work and opportunity.

When I was 4 years old, we moved into a small kit house my parents had built on Belmont Street, midway between downtown Burlington and downtown Graham, only a few blocks off East Webb Avenue, the business section that’s described in the book excerpt. Many of my memories reside there. Not all of them are fond. It’s where we were living when my dad died in a VA hospital in 1968. Two years later, a car hit and killed my 9-year-old brother while he was crossing the street out front. In 1995, about six months after my mother passed away, we sold the house to a family named Jara. The Realtor said they were from Honduras or Ecuador, I can’t recall which. Tax records list a Paredes and an Espinoza as the owners now. I hope whoever lives there has found — no, the right word is made — themselves a happy home.