Study Finds Hispanics, Like Early Immigrants, Moving To Heartland

April 05, 1997

April 2, 1997 -- No. 222


(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL -- Hispanics increasingly are settling in North Carolina's urban crescent, the string of cities bordering Interstate 85 from the Research Triangle west to the Triad and southwest to Charlotte, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.

No longer are people of Spanish and Indian ancestry concentrating exclusively near state military bases in the coastal plain and in rural regions as migrant agricultural workers.

The study, titled "North Carolina Communities in Transition," showed most Hispanics are of Mexican descent, and about 60 percent already are U.S. citizens. Most Puerto Ricans, who are all U.S. citizens and the state's second largest Hispanic group, live in Onslow and Cumberland counties near the military bases.

UNC-CH geography graduate student Karen Johnson-Webb, who led the research for her doctoral dissertation in geography, presented the results Saturday (April 5) in Ft. Worth at the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting. Dr. James A. Johnson Jr., professor of geography at UNC-CH, was co-author of the report.

"We did this study because we saw increasing numbers of Hispanics on construction sites, in fast food restaurants and in grocery stores and thought it would be a good idea to systematically analyze the changing faces of our community and state," said Johnson-Webb.

Using 1990 U.S. census data -- the most recent and reliable available for North Carolina -- the researchers found that most Hispanics came to North Carolina from such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Galveston.

"They are now moving from the larger cities and more populous states to smaller cities and somewhat less populous states," Johnson-Webb said. "This is a trend called moving down the urban hierarchy.

Hispanics still are over-represented in agriculture, but about 20 percent of them now work construction and manufacturing jobs, she said. About 15 percent work in such social service fields as health care, education and government. While about 5 percent of the total N.C. work force serves in the active military, 20 percent of the Hispanic work force does. Most of the construction and social service jobs occur along the I-85 corridor.

"We know a lot has changed in the past six years and that there are many more Hispanics living in North Carolina than there were during the last census," Johnson-Webb said. "Towns such as Siler City in Chatham County and Carrboro in Orange County have changed dramatically since the last census. The trends we document will be shown to be much more pronounced at the next census in 2000."

Not everyone is happy about the movement of Hispanics into North Carolina, Johnson-Webb said. Last spring, the Carolina Poll, conducted by UNC-CH's Institute for Research in Social Science and School of Journalism and Mass Communication, included several related questions about the migration.

"In general, North Carolinians held strong negative feelings about the influx of Hispanics," she said. "Nearly half said they were uncomfortable with the increasing presence of Hispanics, and two-thirds thought their neighbors would not approve of Hispanics moving into their neighborhood. More than half said they were not comfortable around people who did not speak English."

State residents with less education, people who consider themselves Southerners, rural residents and those who had lived in North Carolina at least since age 16 were significantly more negative than people with more education, who considered themselves non-Southerners, who lived in urban areas or who were more recent arrivals. Whites expressed more negative attitudes about Hispanics than blacks did.

"These attitudes are worrisome because they could lead to ethnic conflicts if they are not dealt with constructively by state and local leaders," Johnson-Webb said. "Employers speak very highly of the Hispanic work ethic, and anecdotal evidence exists that some have even sent vans to Texas to bring workers up here. People who are out of work already in North Carolina often resent this, as the Carolina Poll shows."

Note: Johnson-Webb can be reached at the Ramada Inn in Ft. Worth at (817) 335-7000 where she is staying or through the AAG press room at the Tarrant County Convention Center at (817) 820-0360. She can be reached at (919) 967-1256 Sunday evening and at 966-6529 thereafter.

Contact: David Williamson

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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