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Latino population expands footprint and economic clout across the county

Efren Hernandez owns a “El Charrito,” a convenience store in Dana popular with Latinos.  Efren Hernandez owns a “El Charrito,” a convenience store in Dana popular with Latinos.


The greater Latino community is growing, evolving and poised to be a key population sector in Henderson County’s future. Guest Editor Matt Matteson — better known to Lightning readers as Ask Matt — spent months researching, reporting, interviewing Latino residents, Latino advocates and others for this in-depth a look at the cultural, economic and labor-market influence of a growing community.

Up a gravel road just off Chimney Rock Road sits a stone chapel named for St. Mary. Built in 1952 from locally quarried granite, the gothic revival building has historical significance that goes beyond its architecture. The chapel, in 1993, hosted its first Spanish language service and became an educational venue for those who worked the nearby apple orchards. A year later, through vision and outreach of parishioners from St. James Episcopal Church, the little chapel called a pastor and ushered in a bright future. The 70-year evolution of the chapel is chronicled in La Capilla de Santa Maria: A Spiritual Tapestry by Joy Franklin. Published in 2018, Franklin’s book provides a comprehensive history of the broader Latino community in Henderson County.

In the mid-1940s, migrant laborers began arriving in Henderson County to pick apples. Most had been working crops along the East Coast and moved on after the fall picking season. After Congress and President Reagan liberalized national amnesty laws in 1986, many workers found year-round jobs and over time brought their families here. By the 1990s, the Spanish-speaking resident population became much more prevalent. Thirty years ago, most Latino workers were Mexican born, poorly educated, living in crowded conditions, and had documentation issues. A lot has changed.

The numbers grow

Forty years ago, the U.S. census recorded the Hispanic population in Henderson County at a mere 344 people – a number that did not include migrant laborers. Ten years later, in 1990, the figure had doubled. Then in the 2000 census, the count grew to 4,880, making up more than 5 percent of the county’s population. In 2010, the last official U.S. census count, the Hispanic population rose again, to 10,424, almost 10 percent of the population – well exceeding the 3.4 percent African American population. The coronavirus has delayed the release of the official 2020 census count for Henderson County until September but by some indications suggest figures for Hispanics will be at least 15 percent.

It has long been established that census figures for Spanish-speaking communities are seldom accurate because many Latinos don’t fill out forms. Locally there is an unofficial count of Hispanic persons that some say approaches 17 percent, or about 20,000 Henderson County residents. Advocates for the Latino community insist that population is undercounted in every census.
“In the 2010 census, the real number of Latinos was 4,000 higher than the count,” said Sergio Fernandez, executive director of the Latino Advocacy Council. “Today, there are 4,000 more Latinos just during the harvest months.”


Numerous ways to be ‘documented’

Being “documented” is a confusing term because of the many types of acceptable documents, including visas, work permits, and green cards that allow temporary residency in the United States. A family of four could possibly have four different types of documents. According to the American Immigration Council there are 824,177 immigrants in North Carolina – 39% of which are undocumented. Applying this formula broadly, Henderson County may have some 3,600 undocumented residents.

Census reports say that of the 8,423 foreign-born residents in Henderson County, 40 percent are naturalized U.S. citizens. They can vote, hold a U.S. passport, get government benefits – all the rights of a U.S. citizen. Of those not fully documented, 77% are from Latin America.

Maria Socorro Vaca Trejo left Mexico 32 years ago. She has worked mostly in greenhouses and was recently hired at BrightFarms in Etowah where they grow lettuce. “At first I wasn’t interested in getting naturalized but my brothers became citizens and so I decided to try,” said Trejo proudly holding up the certificate she received last February. “I went to Charlotte and took the test in Spanish,” she said. “I feed very content now.”
3 Maria Socorro Vaca Trejo

In Henderson County, most Hispanics born abroad are from Mexico (72 percent), followed by Central America (9 percent), Caribbean (9 percent), South America (6 percent) and Spain or other Hispanic countries (4 percent).That breakdown does not represent thousands of residents who elected not to complete a census form, however.

Chasing the green card

Possessing a green card (officially a Permanent Resident Card) allows a non-citizen to live and work permanently in the United States. It’s estimated that there are 190,000 green card holders in North Carolina, roughly half of those relatives of U.S. citizens. In the Ashville Statistical Area in FY 2019, only 411 green cards were issued. Of those, 91 were issued to Mexican recipients and 73 were issued to residents of South American, Central American or Caribbean countries. The top non-Hispanic green card recipients were from Ukraine, Canada, and China. The Department of Homeland Security, the issuing agency, does not track residency by county.
4 sample green card

Green card wait times vary because of the caps placed on different immigrants groups. There is a 22-year backlog for Mexican applicants but a Chinese resident might get their card in ten years. The wait is shorter if you are in a “preference group” — those who arrive with an extraordinary skill, proficiency in a sport, an advanced degree or can invest a half million dollars in a U.S. business. Or one might be lucky enough to win a place in line via the U.S. visa lottery.

Twenty-two years after arriving in the U.S. from Mexico, a green card has eluded Jorge Lopez. His mistake was being 19 at the time – an adult under our immigration law. Lopez can work and pay taxes and even return to Mexico to visit family — on a one-way pass. Without a green card he could not legally return. “I have to renew my workers permit every year,” said Lopez. “It costs about $700 with fees and attorneys.” Lopez owns Cocula Restaurant in Laurel Park and his latest venture is a 7th Avenue club called Cantina Phoenix where he will book Mexican and country bands on weekends.

Sgt. Kyle Donnelly at the Hendersonville U.S. Army Recruiting Station said he has signed up green card holders. To be eligible for military service a candidate must be at least 17, a high school graduate and meet moral and physical requirements.

Serving the Latino community

Of the dozens of local organizations that cater to underserved populations, two have a singular Latino or Spanish-speaking focus – True Ridge and the Latino Advocacy Coalition.

Started by a group of dedicated service providers in 1998, the Latino Advocacy Coalition three years later opened El Centro, a staffed location in Hendersonville where Latinos could go for advice in dealing with their unique challenges.
“Our policy is that we don’t ask questions,” said Argentine-born executive director Sergio Fernandez. “If you need us we’ll try to help you regardless of status.” The Advocacy Coalition also helps with Spanish language translation, voter registration and more recently Covid vaccinations. In 2018, at a campaign debate, the coalition assembled 400 people to oppose the use of sheriff’s deputies doing the work of federal immigration officers via the 287(g) program.

One indicator of the growing Latino community is the emergence of True Ridge. Formed in 2017, the nonprofit serves the Spanish-speaking population by making referrals, providing bilingual services, helping victims report crime and providing interpretation and translations. From its office on Edney Street in Hendersonville, True Ridge publishes a newsletter and relies on volunteers to serve its clients.

“Many Latinos don’t know they have the right to speak up but are still afraid to do so,” said Executive Director Lori Garcia-McCammon. “At True Ridge we work with people to give them confidence. If we can just get them to drive themselves to court without our holding their hand, it’s a big leap.”
True Ridge assists the undocumented. “If the breadwinner is deported, we help the family left behind with food and sometimes grants,” said Garcia-McCammon. “We serve those who cannot help themselves and we refer clients to partner agencies. “We connect.” True Ridge recently helped the families of all the five individuals that were affected by the collapse of the masonry wall at the supply company on Spartanburg Highway last winter.

Born in Venezuela, Garcia-McCammon is now a U.S. citizen. “We are privileged,” she said. “We were educated in the U.S. We have passports. We can speak up while others can’t. They won’t put us in jail.”
10 Lisa Garcia-McCammon headshot

 Drive-thru a big success

During the Covid-19 restrictions, every Tuesday around 3 p.m., a line of cars snakes from beyond the Interfaith Assistance Ministry’s entrance on Freeman Street to its covered portico, where volunteers loaded boxes of food into cars, SUVs and minivans. Two out of every three cars carried Latino families.
“Covid was a hard time because the Latino community was suffering,” said Belem Solano, one of IAM’s Latin outreach coordinators. “Many were not qualified to get unemployment or stimulus checks because they were not citizens yet. We had a peak of 88 percent Latino clients last June.”

“We provide a week’s supply of food and if necessary, clothing, utility assistance, and personal hygiene items,” said Elizabeth Moss, IAM’s executive director. “To meet the need, we started drive-thru Tuesdays. Our hope here is that they will get back on their feet.”
“My uncles who came in the 1980s were migrant workers,” said Salano, a native of Mexico who is pursuing her green card. “They stayed and brought kids and wives over.” Salano works with underserved Latinos every day. “They come because we are a small, loving, accepting community where jobs are available.”
7 Belem Salano

Immigration and DACA

A boy born in Mexico in 1992 who arrived in the U.S. with his parents at age 7, finished high school here, and is now employed, might fit the description of one of North Carolina’s 23,970 DACA recipients.
By law someone born outside this country faces deportation to a place they have not lived since they were a child. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program came about through an executive order by President Obama in 2012. DACA is protection from deportation for minor children but it is not documentation. Status must be renewed every two years. Hispanics are by far the largest group of DACA recipients, with Mexico making up 80 percent of the total.The freeze on DACA is now over and the Biden Administration has allowed processing applications for green cards.
“It’s a blessing for the community,” True Ridge’s Garcia-McCammon said. “We have immigration attorneys here two days a week to do pro bono work.” A DACA application costs $495 plus another $600 in attorney fees.

‘No questions asked education’


The most visible sign of Latino growth is in the Henderson County Public Schools. In 2020, Hispanic students made up 26.6 percent of the student population. In the elementary schools, the top five ranked by percent of Hispanic pupils are Dana, Sugarloaf, Upward, Hillandale, and Edneyville elementary schools. All children, including undocumented residents, are entitled to attend K-12 public schools under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Despite the growth of Latinos in the schools, only 3.1 percent of the teachers in the Henderson County schools are Hispanic. Ethnic representation is a national issue. Studies have shown that not only are Hispanic teachers hard to recruit but turnover is high. Reasons include job dissatisfaction and getting better employment elsewhere.

Although “no questions asked education” ends after high school, plenty of young Latino people are pursuing post-secondary education. Blue Ridge Community College reports that Hispanic student enrollment has increased every year for the past five years, reaching 14 percent in 2020. Still, admission to BRCC for non-residents must be approved in Raleigh. Even if a student holds a green card, there is a one year wait to qualify for in-state tuition. Marriage to a state resident can accelerate the process. Non-credit classes at BRCC such as nurse aide and automotive mechanics are fully available for non-residents.

Latino businesses

There are more than two dozen Mexican or Latin eateries in Henderson County, not counting taco trucks, and Latino-owned businesses are growing beyond restaurants. Latinos are starting small businesses such as lawncare, roofing and home repair because they have the experience and the capital investment is low.
“I didn’t need to borrow,” said Carlos Vega, a lawn service owner who has lived in the U.S. for 33 years. “I worked two jobs for a long time and saved my money.” Fourteen years ago he started Vega Lawn Service, a family business that includes his son Eddie and cousin Dive.

When asked why he left Mexico, Vega laughed, “For the same reason everyone else left” — greater opportunity in the U.S. Vega took advantage of the 1986 amnesty law. “I’m legal,” he said proudly.
12 Carlos Vega owns a landscape business

One of the largest Latino tiendas (convenience stores) in the county sits directly across from the Dana Fire Department. Its busy façade typifies what one would find in Mexico. Efren Hernandez, a former apple picker, started El Charrito 15 years ago. “Ninety-nine percent of my customers are Latino,” said Hernandez, adding that his biggest sellers are tortillas and cerveza. The secret to his success? “We treat our customers like family,” he said.
13 Efren Hernandez owns a Latino convenience store

Known to his friends as “Chino,” Jose Luis Garcia knows boots. His Botas El Chino store at the Henderson Crossing Shopping Center specializes in Latino style western wear. “We’ve been at this spot for three years but we also have a shop at Smiley’s Flea Market that we open on weekends,” said Garcia, who hails from the Mexican city of León, which is renowned for its leather goods. “I came to Hendersonville from California in 1995 to visit my brother. I liked the area and stayed.”
Garcia’s youngest son attends Apple Valley Middle School. When asked about what they spoke at home Garcia grinned and said, “Spanglish! Some English, some Spanish.”
14 Jose Luis Garcia, known as “Chino” owns two western wear stores

If you walk into Jose Gomez’s office at Wells Fargo downtown you quickly notice the “Yo Hablo Español” sign on his credenza.
“We help our clients build credit,” said Gomez. “Using other identification, it is possible for non-residents to open bank accounts without a Social Security number.” Gomez helps Spanish-speaking clients navigate Wells Fargo’s online banking system. “Another service we offer is wiring money,” he said. “A customer can wire funds to a bank in Colombia for only $4 per $1,500 transaction and they can do it from their home computer.”

The Latino job market

When Mills River medical equipment maker Raumedic, Inc. needed production workers last month, it took out a large ad in La Noticia, a local Spanish language newspaper. The ad pitched wages of “$15 por hora” plus excellent “beneficios.” Coats North America recently posted “Estamos Contratano” (we are hiring) road signs in front of their Laurel Park factory.
15 Roadside “now hiring” sign in Spanish

“Half of our clients are Latino,” said Carrie Kimbrell, who manages the local office of Asheville Staffing. “And about 65 or 70 percent of our applicants get full-time positions.” Kimbrell has two large employers who rely on her for their workforce needs and don’t hesitate to hire Latinos who speak little English. “The employment market is strange right now,” she said. “Whoever wants to work is already working.”
16 Carrie Kimbrell headshot

Employers are reaching out to Latinos as never before and work permits for non-residents are obtainable. In the absence of a green card, a worker can be issued Employment Authorization Document issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. One needs only to fill out a short form and attach the fees, photos and documents proving eligibility. Unlike a green card, an EAD must be renewed frequently.

But you need a Social Security number to use NCWorks, the official state employment office. Despite the need for bilingual employees, getting a governmental job is a high hurdle for those without required documentation. In Henderson County’s labor force, 4.7 percent identify as Hispanic compared to 2.1 percent Black and 1.0 percent Asian.


Many denominations

In Henderson County there are easily a dozen Spanish language church services on Sunday spread among at least six denominations. “I was the second Spanish-speaking pastor here when I arrived in 1992,” said Mexican-born Alfredo Oviedo. “There were only 480 Hispanics per the census but that did not include migrant workers.”

“Half of the Hispanics in Henderson County now have green cards with many more in process. Most come with a tourist visa and overstay their six months limit. I help them with the paperwork. It’s hard but not impossible but if they have a criminal record I refer them to a lawyer.” Oviedo has been with Grace Lutheran Church for half of his time in the U.S. “I’ve seen more growth and change in just the last 16 years than I could ever imagine.”

“Most Latinos have a dream that they will get back to their country of origin but as time goes on, that dream becomes less than a reality,” said Oviedo. “Many that do are often disappointed with conditions at home and after a few years return to the United States.”

Oviedo is not opposed to change. “I’m open to going beyond just offering special church services in Spanish,” he said. “My vision is to have a more diverse congregation, a truer representative profile of the community.” Oviedo supports a better a balance in the schools. “Twenty-six percent of the students are Hispanic but only 3 percent of the teaching staff is,” he said. “That needs to change.”

Soccer runs in Oviedo’s blood and his family is heavily involved with the sport. He took pride in working a deal back in the 1990s with then-BRCC President David Sink so that Latinos could use the BRCC soccer field.
17 Pastor Alfredo Oviedo

Iglesia Bautista Getsemani was started in 2002 but for the past 13 years, Pastor Carlos Fuentes has held services in Spanish at the former Brightwater Baptist Church on U.S. 64 West. His congregation is expanding and a group will eventually split off to Dana.
“The more growth the more opportunity for me to spread the gospel,” said the Mexican-born Fuentes, who began his time in Henderson County picking apples at the Justus apple orchards in Fruitland. “In 1987 I took advantage of Reagan’s amnesty program. I became legal,” he said. “Eight years later I became a naturalized citizen.” Farm work led to construction jobs and eventually Fuentes found his way into the church pews and then the pulpit. Fuentes met his American wife, Angela, at a downtown laundromat when neither could then speak the other’s language. “We had some difficult years early on,” he said. “In my culture the husband is dominant, but my wife said you can’t tell me what to do.”

Legal Issues for non-residents

Pisgah Legal Services provides legal service to non-residents free of charge, but only if one qualifies. Clients must fall below a set income level. Shoshana Fried, a Spanish-speaking immigration attorney with the agency, is one of three attorneys that serve Western North Carolina. Henderson County has the most clients per capita. PLS does civil work only such as green card or DACA applications. If a client needs a criminal attorney he or she must find another lawyer or use the public defender’s office. “After we consult with a client, in many cases we find that there is no pathway for lawful immigration status and the individual remains undocumented until the laws change,” Fried said.

Pisgah Legal handles some “removal defense” cases where a client seeks asylum in the U.S. due to a dangerous situation in the home country. “They may cross the border and end up in WNC because they know someone or have work here,” said Fried. “We might be able to help argue the case, but for asylum seekers the pathway to lawful status can take years.”

George Pappas, a Hendersonville-based immigration attorney, works across the country but the closest immigration court is in Charlotte. Pappas chairs the True Ridge board and logs eight hours a week of pro bono work. He said to get a green card, applicants must clear four hurdles: no criminal record, have a U.S. relative sponsor, have ten years of residency in the U.S. and possess good moral character.
“They pay taxes,” said Pappas. “Non-citizens don’t need a Social Security number to pay taxes. An ITN (tax number) is all that is required.”

* * * * *

Our Latino community is no longer monolithic. It is divided by one’s country of origin, economic status, English proficiency, and the level of documentation. The vast majority of Latinos like living here and want to succeed. Organizations are in place to service their unique needs. Latinos have a reputation for being hard workers which adds to their portfolio in today’s employee-friendly market. When the final 2020 Census numbers are revealed in September it should come as no surprise that the Hispanic population has rocketed.