By Bernie Petit
Latinos have helped transform the South.
Over the past 25 years, the South has emerged as the nation’s most vibrant area of Latino growth. North Carolina’s Latino population ranks eighth nationally. Charlotte is the second-highest Latino hyper-growth city in the country.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as you learn in the Levine Museum of the New South’s new exhibition, “¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South.” So, to ensure the exhibit tells the deeper story of how Latinos are shaping the South, the museum posed a question to Latinos and non-Latinos alike:
How are you experiencing this change?
Levine Museum staff went beyond inviting folks to the museum to share their answers, said museum New South Latino Coordinator Oliver Merino.
“We went outside the museum walls and met people where they were,” Merino said. “We went to nonprofits, we went to churches and really just asked people, ‘What is the story you want us to tell? What is this new South?’”
The stories residents shared – from how a nearby church transformed itself and its congregation to welcome Latino worshippers to how Day of the Dead traditions are being celebrated in new environments – help build community by increasing dialogue, understanding and tolerance. It’s what the cultural sector was tasked with doing through the community’s Cultural Vision Plan.
The extensive community conversations Levine Museum conducted in order to create “¡NUEVOlution!” (Spanglish for “new growth or development”) resulted in seven insights about the South’s demographic transformation that directly informed the exhibit, Merino said. Those insights are below.
The conversations revealed several more local stories that color the exhibit, including: dance instructors Wendy and Rodrigo Jimenez bringing people together through music and dance; artist Rosalia Torres Weiner using art to help children whose parents are in deportation proceedings; and Latino leaders like Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, entrepreneur Felix Sabates and chef Juliana Luna finding success outside the Latino community.
“One of the things we say here at the museum is our mission is how do we use history to build community,” Merino said. “I believe this exhibit is going to do just that.
“It’s important history and it’s also getting people to understand that whether you’re Latino or non-Latino, you’re part of Nuevolution. You’re a part of this change.”
Want to Go?
“¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South” will be on display through Oct. 30, 2016, at Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St., Charlotte. Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors, students, educators and active military, $5 children ages 6-18 and free ages 5 and younger. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit museumofthenewsouth.org.
The Seven Insights*
Levine Museum worked with Atlanta History Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the multi-year Latino New South Project to study, document and understand the dramatic and rapid demographic shift occurring across the South, and to develop strong partnerships with Latino communities. Through its work, which began in 2012 and included a series of listening sessions with Latinos and non-Latinos in each city, seven insights emerged.
- Latinos are here to stay. Latinos have gone from 1- or 2-percent of the population to nearly 10-percent or more in many localities. Roughly half of Latinos counted by the U.S. Census are already citizens.
- Latinos are from many cultures. The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are U.S. creations. Latinos often self-identify as Cuban-American, Colombian or their original Mexican state.
- Bi-culturalism is growing. Young people raised in the U.S. are English proficient and bi-cultural (embracing U.S. food, entertainment, etc., without abandoning Latino heritage). Adults are not able to change as quickly or as completely.
- Extended families are important. Latinos usually experience cultural offerings as an extended family unit (to use a sociological term) – mother, father, several kids, grandparents, cousins, maybe even a friend or relative. When choosing activities, they look for those that will bring both pleasure and renewal or self-improvement and engage all family members
- Bridging is essential. Participants of the listening sessions spoke of the need for multiple introductions: Latinos to other Latino groups; Latinos to receiving communities; Latinos to Southern history (especially African-American history); and receiving communities to Latinos.
- Language is a powerful symbol. Spanish – words on the wall, personal greetings from a Visitor Services person – powerfully signals that Latinos are welcome. For young people who are usually comfortable in English, the welcome is symbolic. For older people, it is functional – Spanish is needed in order to guide their group, teach their children, etc.
- Becoming “documented” is difficult, often impossible. At best, quotas and regulations often make legal immigration an extremely lengthy process requiring expert assistance. Legal problems can split families. Children born here can suddenly find their parents sent back to their country of origin. Children born elsewhere yet raised here can suddenly be deported “back” to a place they don’t remember. In listening sessions, Latinos and non-Latinos both asked that museums help receiving communities understand their realities.
*These insights have been edited; click here for the unedited version.