Globalization Hits Home
Hard-Working Mexican-Americans Flock to the Old Dominion
Mexican-Americans are flocking to Virginia's smaller towns.
Related links:
• How Global Trade and NAFTA Hit a Vital Virginia Business
• South of the Border, an Eager Work Force Waits for Jobs
• Don't Blame NAFTA: Virginia Must Retrain
By Holly M. Rodriguez

  Sitting at a table in his father's Mexican restaurant in Providence Forge, Juan Carillo pontificates about why so many Mexican-Americans are flocking to Virginia these days. Short and slight he pauses a moment as he gets his restaurant, Cancun, ready for the dinner rush. "The difference between living in Mexico and living in America is that life in Mexico is day-to-day," he says. "It's hard to move up beyond what you are born into. You can't plan on how much money you'll make next month, or next year or whatever, because you can go to work and your job may not exist anymore. In America, this is truly the land of opportunity. You take a job until a better one comes along. When it does, you move to the next level, and the sky is the limit."
  When asked why his family moved to Virginia, Carillo's short answer is "better opportunity." It's the reason thousands of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and others of Hispanic descent have flooded Virginia in just the past few years in one of the largest, if relatively unnoticed, migrations in the Old Dominion's history. Drawn by the chance to make money and excel, along with the more tolerant attitudes of the Old Dominion's small towns, Hispanic newcomers are seeping into locales such as Chatham, Danville and Providence Forge.
  They are the flip side to the six-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that has depleted long-time Virginia industries, such as apparel. Overall, the number of Hispanics in the state has grown more than one and a half times in the past decade, from 138,486 in 1990 to 219,652 in 1998, according to U.S. Census figures. They will keep coming, too, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University study. In 1998, Hispanics accounted for 3.7 percent of the state's population, but that will grow to 5.4 percent in 2015 and 6.3 per cent in 2025.
  Generally, the newcomers are highly regarded by native Virginians because of their hard work ethic and because labor is scarce. "Good labor is always in demand, especially now because the overall market is so tight," says Ed Millner, chair of the department of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Millner feels there is an upward mobility in the economy overall. The new Hispanics are having a big effect on the social and labor strata. They are rearranging pecking orders, sometimes generating tensions while they do it. "Twenty years ago, brick masons were mostly African Americans, and the carpenters and electricians were white," says Millner. "Now, the Mexicans are the brick masons, the carpenters are African-American and the electricians are white. "
  Employers are happy with their new recruits. Dan Niccolucci, vice president of D. Whiting-Turner Contracting in Richmond, says he works with many subcontractors who have Hispanic employees and is pleased with them. "In dealing with our subcontractors, we have observed that their workers are diligent and hardworking. They get the job done."
  Carillo is a case in point. Born 18 years ago in California, Carillo moved with his family to this town between Richmond and Williamsburg nine years ago because his father had a chance to own a restaurant. "One of my dad's friends started a restaurant in Raleigh, N.C. and this was nearby. It was something my father had always wanted to do," says Juan over the buzz of a television. Since then, his father has expanded to owning 6 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Despite his age, Juan is the manager of Cancun. While his parents, brother and sisters vacation in Mexico, he is also responsible for managing the family's restaurant in Williamsburg. That's a tall order for someone so young. But Carillo apparently has what it takes to make it in America and Virginia Ñ the willingness to work hard.
  A more recent arrival who also fits that description is Angeles Atkinson. She is a 25-year-old Mexican-American married to an American who is a quadriplegic. They live in Chatham, a small town 30 minutes from Danville. Angeles works as a bank teller at First Citizen's Bank in Danville. She came to America in 1996 after leaving Escuela de Siensias Administrativas, a community college in her hometown of Torraon Coahuila, a city of a northern state in Mexico where she studied business administration. Why Chatham? "Mexicans go where other Mexicans go," she says, with a thick accent. "We hear about where to go through word of mouth." She came here primarily to become fluent in English to further her career.
  Asked about working life in Mexico, she admits there are certain advantages. There are perks to jobs in Torraon. A percentage of workers' checks go to the Mexican version of Social Security, for example. The Mexican social security system, however, differs from the one in the United States. Mexican social security covers accident compensation on and off the job; a retirement check at age 65; free medicine and healthcare. Also, you get one week vacation after a year and federal holidays off. This is a far cry from what American companies offer small-town Mexicans in textile and factory jobs.
  While she enjoyed Mexican city life, there is a downside. "The cities need more clinics, " she says. "The doctors there see about 150 patients a day. They don't even make eye contact with you most of the time, because they see so many patients in a day." Also, if you lose your job, there is no unemployment supplement for your income until you can get back on your feet. "If you lose your job, that's it."
  Angeles agrees with Carillo that most Mexicans leave their small hometowns because there are no opportunities. "Poor education, along with lack of technology" feed the lower paying job market in Mexico. "Many students drop out of high school at 15 or 16 years old to get jobs and help support the family. The majority of kids don't go to college or just drop out after their first year," Carrillo says.
  Some Mexican immigrants are not just from Mexico but from parts of the United States usually associated with large Hispanic communities, such as Texas and Southern California. They leave those parts because of high rents, low pay or just the strain of big city living. Noe and Yolanda Perez, for example, were residents of Los Angeles, where they moved to get away from the economic and political problems plaguing Mexico. Noe decided to move his family again to Danville. Why? For the same reasons that many Americans bring their families to the Commonwealth. "There is less crime, less gang activity and less violence." He started out doing landscaping work, and has worked as a cook for the last two years in an Italian restaurant. His wife helps out by cleaning houses a few days a week. "My father makes $180 a month in Mexico, working in a factory," he says. "I made $150 a month - enough money to get by, but not enough to save. My wife and I together make $1,000 a month here. That's enough for a good life and to send money home."
  One institution central to the wave of Hispanic emigration to Virginia is the Catholic Church. Not only does the church help meet needs, such as providing meals for migrant workers, it also is working with the state AFL-CIO in protecting workers rights.
  Terri Stone, migrant ministry coordinator of the Sacred Heart parish in Danville, works through her Hispanic community providing for their needs. Catholic missionaries journey to Mexican work camps in the Danville area and invite them to attend Sunday Mass. A Spanish Mass is held the first Sunday of every month. "We want to do more for the Mexican-American communiuty," she says.
  Stone worries that the Hispanics she helps may be victims of discimination. While they may not be blatantly mistreated, they are not embraced by the community. "The general population here doesn't know the Hispanics well," she says. Hearing Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics talking in Spanish frightens residents. She also feels that the segregation of Mexicans from the rest of the community is self-imposed. Yet, some recent arrivals in Virginia say they have detected little discrimination from Virginians, at least in small towns. "I've faced more racial conflicts and situations in the bigger cities like Richmond and Williamsburg," Carrillo says.
  Meanwhile, the fact that Hispanics are willing or forced to take lower-paying jobs has caught the eye of the state AFL-CIO. Jim Leaman, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Richmond, says that most organizing is going on in Northern Virginia where the concentration of Hispanics is highest. The unions are now trying to reach smaller towns through a program called Labor in the Pulpit that sends AFL-CIO staff to churches to provide information on how to get organized. "The Catholic church is instrumental in informing Hispanics; they are supportive of worker's rights."
  As time goes on, the Mexican-American presence in America will get stronger, and Virginia is no exception. They are filling jobs that others will not take in a tight labor market; they are growing their families here, and making lives for themselves. In 2025, Hispanics will be the largest minority group in the United States, NAFTA or not.