News Column

Calamities Driving Population Changes as Hispanics Become Key Minority

Feb. 6, 2012

Bertrand M. Gutierrez

By the time a baby born today graduates from high school, whites will no longer be the majority demographic group in Forsyth County, N.C., and Hispanics will replace blacks as the largest minority, according to a demographic report from Winston-Salem State University.

By 2030, Forsyth is projected to have about 469,000 people, up from nearly 351,000 in 2010, according to the report.

Hispanics will make up about 27 percent of the county's population by that year, blacks will make up 23 percent and whites will make up 45 percent, according to the report, which uses a prediction method based on U.S. Census figures and a demographic software program known as Regional Economic Modeling Inc., or REMI.

"The largest difference is that 20 years from now, there will be 3 percent more whites, 19 percent more blacks (and) a tripling of Hispanics," Craig Richardson, the director of the university's Center for Economic Analysis, said in the report.

Among the other key findings are predictions on how soon some of the changes will take place. Whites will no longer be the majority demographic group in 10 years, a wide shift from their proportionately dominant 73 percent in 1990. In 15 years, he said, Hispanics will replace blacks as the largest minority.

Mayor Allen Joines said he is open to the changes.

"The city is becoming more diverse, more interesting, perhaps," Joines said. "I think we have to continue to articulate the fact that we are a diverse community and that we all need to learn more about each other's culture and learn to respect each other's culture and go from there."

Fleeing war

Dayenin Arellano, 35, a married mother of three, is part of the Hispanic population boom.

Her journey from a war-torn Central American country to New York to Winston-Salem sheds light on why the number of Hispanics in Forsyth has increased at such a sharper rate than that of blacks or whites. Calamity, family ties and the pursuit of a better life are frequently the main drivers.

Arellano was born in Nicaragua in 1976.

When she was almost 3, a civil war started -- and later made its way into U.S. consciousness during President Ronald Reagan's administration. One of the war's well-known episodes is Lt. Col. Oliver North's role in the sale of arms to Iran to help fund the "contra" rebels' attempt to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Ocotal, the town of about 30,000 people where Arellano was raised, was the center of frequent skirmishes during the war.

In 1983, when Arellano was 7, Ocotal was the scene of fierce fighting for months between troops loyal to the government and the U.S.-backed rebels. In 1985, when she was 9, an unidentified attacker threw a hand grenade onto a crowded dance floor during a student party. Seven people were killed and 35 wounded, according to The New York Times.

To this day, the effects of the war stay with Arellano. She can't sleep in a room by herself. A siren from a passing ambulance can fill her with anxiety, she said.

"I remember, while we were in school, all of sudden the sirens would ring out. But they weren't drills. They were for real. We were little. The first instinct you have is to run to your family. But we had underground shelters in the school backyard, and we were supposed to go there or we were supposed to run to the nearest church," Arellano said.

In 1989, when Arellano was 13, her parents fled Nicaragua, taking Arellano and her brother to the U.S. They eventually became U.S. citizens under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. Among its provisions, NACARA gives a path to legal residency and citizenship to certain applicants who fled the war.

Arellano landed in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a teenager, graduated from high school and got an undergraduate degree in psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. In 2001, she made the move from New York to be with her parents, she said. Her father was working in construction in Forsyth.

For the past seven years, Arellano has been working at the county's Department of Social Services.

"I like stability. I like knowing what I'm going to be doing today," Arellano said.

"I practically have my life set here. I don't feel like I belong in Nicaragua anymore. Besides, there, it would be hard to find a job. I'd have to start over. Here, I live a very family-oriented life. I have kids in high school and elementary. On the weekends, I go to church and spend time with them," she said.

Influence of disasters

The civil war in Nicaragua is just one example of a difficult situation that drove migration to the U.S.

Hurricane Mitch in 1998 is another example. The hurricane displaced thousands of families in Honduras and other Central American countries and led to a mass migration of Hispanics to the U.S.

From Cuba, people have crossed the Straits of Florida for decades on homemade rafts to get away from a government that has been ruled by Fidel Castro or his brother, Raul, since 1959. People of Cuban descent now make up about one-third of the Hispanic population in Florida.

Just as the Great Famine pushed a large wave of Irish immigrants to the U.S., natural and man-made disasters in Latin America have been one of the drivers of Hispanic migration, according to Peter Siavelis, a professor of political science and the director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University.

"It's a compounding of calamities," Siavelis said. "There may be a civil war and then a hurricane. Meanwhile, people are working hard to amass their resources but are continually stymied, so they're going to look elsewhere for opportunities."

A significant majority of the estimated 48,000 Hispanics in Forsyth have cultural ties to Mexico. In fact, the number of people of Mexican descent doubled from about 14,000 to more than 28,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest Census Bureau statistics.

If calamities indeed drive migration, then the influx of people from Mexico will not likely whither anytime soon. The Attorney General's Office in Mexico said recently that nearly 48,000 people have died in Mexico's drug war since December 2006.

"These (demographic) trends have been going on for years," Richardson said. "Maybe it's time for us to step back and ask, 'What does it mean for Forsyth? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?' "

Adding another twist to Forsyth's projected demographic path is the expected emergence of second- and third-generation Hispanics. The coming wave will be pushed just as much by births here as it will be by migration, according to the Winston-Salem State study.

Since 2002, migration and local births were nearly neck-in-neck in fueling Hispanic population growth in Forsyth County. In 2010, for example, there were 2,894 new Hispanic residents. Of those, 1,444 moved to the county and 1,453 were born here, the study says.

Those statistics are supported by numbers provided by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, where younger Hispanics make up nearly the same share of the student population as black students.

This school year, 43.6 percent of the students are white, 29.2 percent are black, 20.6 percent are Hispanic, 4.0 percent are multiracial, 2.3 percent are Asian, and less than 1 percent are American Indian or Native Hawaiians/Pacific. Whites dropped below 50 percent of enrollment several years ago.

"We're already seeing the population changes, as our school population is more diverse than the county population," said Theo Helm, a school spokesman.

Again, the numbers reflect Arellano's family. Two of Arellano's children, ages 14 and 7, attend public school in Forsyth. They're bilingual. And Arellano's 7-month-old daughter will be, too.

"It's important that they learn both. It'll open more opportunities for them," she said.

Source: (c) 2012 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)

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