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‘Latinos are having their own dreams’ as opportunities grow

Vero, Yareli, Anthony and Angelica Rauda run the Don Taco stand in 'Little Mexico' at Smiley's Flea Market. [MATT MATTESON/Hendersonville Lightning] Vero, Yareli, Anthony and Angelica Rauda run the Don Taco stand in 'Little Mexico' at Smiley's Flea Market. [MATT MATTESON/Hendersonville Lightning]

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. Part 2 of the series covers the rich culture of the Latino community, law enforcement and the 287(g) program and current issues with the guest worker program and immigration laws that have bedeviled Latino families for many years.


Adriana Chevela is all about culture — Latino culture. Chevela is the executive director of HOLA Community Arts (HCA), a nonprofit group that, courtesy of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, now occupies the old brick Ewbank home in Jackson Park. HCA organized its first downtown event in 2016. Called Fiesta Hendersonville, the celebration featured Latino culture, music, food and vendors.

The HCA offices at Jackson Park are decorated with colorful paintings that bespeak Latino culture. Four years ago HCA sponsored Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Hendersonville. Often held the day after Halloween, the event originated in Mexico where families could once a year welcome back the souls of deceased relatives. Here kids walk down Main Street showing off brightly colored costumes. “We Latinos celebrate everything,” Chevela said. “Birthdays, weddings, baptisms, graduation – any excuse for a party.”


The Don Taco eatery has been a favorite at Smiley’s for 20 years. Owned by the Rauda family, it serves a basic menu with tacos and quesadillas the best sellers. Don Taco offers menudo, a Mexican stew made with tripe and hot peppers, a dish seldom found in Mexican restaurants here. On Sundays, Don Taco founder Angelica Rauda makes her specialty – birria de chivo (goat soup). It sells out quickly. “Our customers are of many ethnicities,” said daughter Yareli, who helps out on weekends. “We were open during Covid and it was the best year we had.”

‘We’re not all the same’

“Don’t try to put us non-Mexicans together. We are not all the same,” says Elaisa Perez who was born in Venezuela of European ancestry. “What we have in common is the Spanish language and our love of soccer. Besides, Venezuelans don’t like spicy foods. We just like ours well-seasoned.” Perez is a co-owner of Brightwaters Vacation Rentals, where Latino business is picking up, particularly with Miami vacationers.

Perez said that Venezuela attracted many Europeans during the 1940s and 1950s who worked in the oil and mining industries.
“Today Venezuela is in bad shape under President Maduro,” she said. “They have no food and medical facilities are lacking. Anybody can leave Venezuela but getting a visa to the U.S. is hard.”
Perez has compassion for the migrants trying to cross the border.
“They don’t have the chances we had when our family came in 1977,” said Perez, a U.S. citizen and Army veteran. “I’m not one to say to get in line like we did because it’s not the same today.”

“I don’t identify as Latino,” said Carlos Ruiz de Quevedo. “I was not born in Latin America, I was born in the Caribbean (Cuba) and I identify as Hispanic because my heritage is from Spain.” Ruiz de Quevedo arrived in Miami in 1961 at age 11, two years after Castro rose to power. “We came because my father would have been executed,” he said. “He spoke out against nationalizing his business. He was an enemy of Castro’s government. They would have put the rest of us in reeducation camps.”

Ruiz de Quevedo remembers his early years in Miami.
“I was a refugee. I was thrown into the schools not knowing any English,” he said. “I earned money delivering newspapers to pay for our groceries. I was once told by a school teacher ‘get back in your banana boat and go home.’ We took some abuse.” Ruiz de Quevedo said refugees are not the same as immigrants because refugees have no real choice. His father dreamed of returning to a post-Castro Cuba but over time the dream faded. Ruiz de Quevedo married his Brazilian bride, Cathy, became an architect and in 1975 a U.S. citizen. He found his way to Hendersonville in 2016.

“We’ve gone through the same things every immigrant has. In our case we saw bloodshed as a kid,” he said. “We had to struggle at first but we also chose not to isolate ourselves.”

Guest worker programs


In modern times the United States has always needed non-citizens to do farm work. The H-2 Visa Program was launched in the 1950s and years later split into two parts — H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for non-agricultural workers. To qualify for H2-A laborers, an employer such as an apple grower must offer seasonal work (usually six months); have a need for the guest workers; and pay wages that do not adversely affect those of U.S. workers. After the third year in the U.S., H-2A workers must return to their home country and remain for at least three months before reapplying. H-2A is prevalent in Henderson County.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan opened the doors for guest workers by signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a historic piece of legislation that legalized certain migrant workers who came to the U.S. before 1982. The law did not offer blanket amnesty because applicants needed to prove certain qualifications.
One of the shortcomings of H-2A is that the law considers greenhouse workers “permanent” employees, thus not eligible for guest worker status. Henderson County has more than 80 acres of greenhouses, most of which operate 12 months a year. One possible fix would be the passage of H.R. 1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021. H.R. 1603 would also allow agricultural workers, including their spouses and minor children in the U.S., to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment. The bill is widely supported by the agricultural industry.

But there is resistance. U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn has already voted no. He cited loopholes in the bill that would, he said, “grant mass amnesty and a path to citizenship to over one million currently illegal alien farm workers and their spouses and children, by opening a loophole for any illegal immigrant to falsely claim agricultural employment.” Cawthorn asserted that the law would “flood the labor market with job competition for Americans.”

Evolution of migrant farmworkers

Kirby Johnson, a third-generation Henderson County farmer who grows tomatoes, beans and other produce from Mills River to Georgia to Florida, depends heavily on migrant labor. Owner of Mountain Bean Growers, Johnson farms 250 acres of land in Mills River.


“We employ 60 people during the growing season which starts July 15th and ends October 15th, said Johnson, who has used the same farm labor contractor for 36 years. “We pay by the box picked. It’s piecemeal work but it’s competitive and they make good money.” Johnson said that his pickers are young but after age 40 they become less productive. “They sometimes fight over whose row it is. A worker who sets the bed, stakes it and strings it has a big interest in picking that same row.” Johnson is opposed to the proposed H.R. 1605. “If they want farmers to pay $15 an hour and overtime, our workers will quit. They’ll go somewhere else to work,” he said.

Johnson also operates Flavor 1st, a large packing house on Banner Farm Road near his Mills River farm. A 100,000-square-foot facility that handles grading, packing and shipping of 31 varieties of produce, Flavor 1stqualifies as an H-2A seasonal operation. “Some workers start at $10 an hour but experienced workers can make as much as $16 packing produce,” Johnson said.

At nearby Tri-Hishtil, a six month-a-year greenhouse operation, 90 percent of the employees are foreign born. Operating in a super-sanitary environment, workers slice the tops off squash plants and graft on watermelon seedlings. Manager Bert Lemkes, a Dutchman by birth, has long been a naturalized citizen of the U.S. He knows the labor market. “We use a contractor for our workforce,” said Lemkes. “And we follow the law one hundred percent.” Tri-Hishtil is technically a farm, so workers must conform to H2-A guest labor federal regulations.

Lemkes chairs the Mills River Agricultural Advisory Committee, which has called for laws that help the farmer.
“We’ve kicked the can down the road long enough. We need reform for agricultural workers,” he said. Lemkes, has seen some of the poorest areas of the world in his travels for the Van Wingerden Co., the large greenhouse grower. “This is the best country to live in as an immigrant,” he said. “People that cross the border come with a purpose. Many have sold everything for the opportunity. The Hispanic community is close to agriculture. Your fruits and vegetables will be picked by foreigners – either here or there.”


Looking beyond this year’s crop, which he predicts will yield only 30 percent due to the spring freeze, Barnwell is uncertain about the future of the apple industry. “Without Latinos we will lose green space because if we can’t find farm labor farmers will sell out to developers.”


In his book, Kermit Edney Remembers: Where Fitz Left Off, Edney writes about the first migrant workers that arrived in 1943 from parts unknown to pick beans in the fields where East Henderson High School now stands. Mexicans arrived the next year to pick apples. Years later, when the school was built, the migrant labor buildings on the property were moved to Clear Creek Road for future use.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that migrant housing was regulated. Before then, most migrants were housed in cramped quarters called “camps” usually close to the farms and orchards where they worked. In 1988 volunteers from Trinity Presbyterian Church, which had been making repairs to homes of needy families, launched the Henderson County Housing Assistance Corporation. In 1992 the nonprofit acquired land on Sugarloaf Road for a 43-unit migrant housing complex. Public hearings were held and the reaction from the community was hostile. Many thought migrants were not destined to become permanent. Eventually Sugarloaf Apartments were built but not without leaving bad feelings. HAC has since completed over 400 affordable housing units.

Education for migrant families

Until recently, migrant workers and their families were never offered a formal education. Today the state funds the Migrant Education Program, a unique system of teaching. Qualifying families must be seasonal, agricultural and temporary. “Many live in rundown mobile home parks,” said Simone Wertenberger, who supervises the program in Henderson County. “Our teams go to their neighborhoods often setting up card tables for a makeshift classroom.” This year there were 450 students in the program which has “partner schools” in Florida where most migrant workers find work during the winter. The progress of each student is tracked in a federal database so that credits can be transferred between schools. “Our goal is to graduate high school students so they can get jobs or go to college,” Wertenberger said. “Surprisingly, migrant kids are highly motivated and world wise.”

‘Fear has died down’

The 287(g) program is one of the most misunderstood law enforcement tools in the country and for some it’s a political lightning rod. The term “287(g)” refers to the section in federal law that allows local law enforcement to voluntarily partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (ICE) to enforce federal immigration law. The contract between ICE and the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office states that it may be terminated at any time by either party.

The 287(g) program does not give license for sheriff’s deputies to roundup undocumented individuals. Henderson County, one of only four such partnerships in the state, has had an agreement with ICE for almost 14 years although over time the level of enforcement has lessened. These are the key features of 287(g):

• Only a limited number of “deputized” officers may enforce federal law. In Henderson County it’s just one deputy now.
• All costs are born by the sheriff’s office except four weeks of specialized training for officers.
• The contract is between ICE and the county sheriff. No other local police departments are parties and have no say in the disposition of a prisoner.
• The 287(g) program is only triggered once a person is brought to a detention center and booked for a crime.
• ICE agents may place a 24-hour “detainer” (written notice) on an individual in jail while ICE decides whether to take the person into federal custody for removal purposes. When booked, inmates may be asked about their nationality; verification is via a federal database. After consultation with ICE, the sheriff’s office can release the person or turn the inmate over to ICE to start the deportation process.

“The magistrate is a judge and the magistrate decides,” Sheriff Lowell Griffin said. “Only after a person is inside the jail does 287(g) apply.” Griffin said 287(g) allows him to hold an individual with a criminal record in another state. “Without 287(g) the individual could easily post bond and be back on the street,” he said. When asked why not drop 287(g) the Sheriff was straightforward. “I believe it will keep our community safer,” he said, adding that some individuals in Latino neighborhoods come to the Sheriff’s Office to report known offenders.
“There are always some bad apples,” Griffin said. “And we refer them to the proper agencies.” Although Griffin said he is bound by contract not to divulge detainer statistics, he did share that the number was less than 100 in the past year.

One of the biggest local critics of the 287(g) program is the Latino Advocacy Coalition. Director Sergio Fernandez has repeatedly cited the fear factor which he says is still present even if the program is not strongly enforced. “Just having the law on the books is abusive to many of our clients,” said Fernandez. “Those without documentation tend not to report crimes such as drug dealing and domestic violence in their neighborhoods for fear of being deported,” he said. “This is a real problem.”

Griffin hired Mexican-born Stephanie Barbosa to work with local groups to communicate departmental policies, although much of her outreach work was delayed due to Covid.

“The fear has died down,” she said regarding misinformation and what some have called “scare tactics.” A product of the Henderson County school system, Barbosa tries to clear up misinformation and help individuals who seek her help navigate more minor problems such as driver’s license citations.

* * * * *

The Latino population of Henderson County is trending. It is now more likely that a young server at a favorite Mexican restaurant is American born and educated in our public schools. Latinos today have more business opportunity than before and are finding their voice. There are some signs that new immigration laws may make it easier for guest workers to find a pathway to citizenship. But until then the fear of deportation for many has not been erased.