02/05/13 — Professor tells migration story to kick off Wayne County Reads

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Professor tells migration story to kick off Wayne County Reads

By John Joyce
Published in News on February 5, 2013 1:46 PM

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Hannah Gill, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, speaks on Latino immigration as part of the kickoff for the 2013 Wayne County Reads event.

Wayne County Reads, celebrating its 10th anniversary, kicked off its 2013 season Monday at Wayne Community College with a discussion of Latino migration as its members prepare readers to tackle the group's newest selection.

Dr. Hannah Gill of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke to the crowd as part of the introduction of the 2013 novel -- "Bless Me, Ultima" by Rudolfo Anaya, a novel depicting Chicano culture of the 1940s in rural New Mexico.

Originally from Alamance County, Dr. Gill was educated at Oxford University in England where she earned a doctoral degree in anthropology. She is the author of two books, "Going to Carolina Del Norte" and "The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina."

"It's good for us to talk to our new Latin American neighbors, and to give them a chance to share their own experiences and tell their own stories," Dr. Gill said.

Since 1970, she said, North Carolina has witnessed the fastest growth in the nation in population of transplants from Mexico and Central America. The number of Latin American immigrants in Wayne County grew from just 5 percent, or about 6,000 people, in 2000 to more than 10 percent, or about 10,000 people, in 2010.

Dr. Gill said that two-thirds of the immigrants coming into N.C. originate either from central and southern Mexico or from nearby El Salvador and Guatemala. Most of the families making the trek come because of war and conflict and a negatively impacted agricultural economy in their home regions.

"Many of these families have kids who, if they are entering kindergarten now, are third-generation North Carolinians. I consider myself a North Carolinian, but my parents weren't even born in the state," Dr. Gill said.

That contrast drew audible surprise from the audience. Dr. Gill traced the migration of Latin Americans back to the end of the Spanish American War, which redrew the boundary line between Mexico and the U.S., shifting the border south. The "War of the American Invasion," as Dr. Gill said it is referred to in Mexico, came under the tenure of President James Polk, another North Carolina native.

The goal of her discussion, the first of 10 Wayne County Reads events scheduled through the end of March, was that having the facts about Latin American migration makes it easier to "keep an open mind," Dr. Gill said.

What might appear to be a new phenomenon has been going on for more than a century, she said.

American industry executives put their heads together and thought up ways to recruit Latino workers to the textile mills, meat packing plants and agriculture fields, she added.

And even with their agriculture history, Latino immigrants are contributing to their adopted country and building lives beyond the field, Dr. Gill said.

The professor closed with the story of "Irene," who turned the burden of growing up a translator and tour guide, a liaison between her "two communities" in Durham, into a college education. She eventually turned down a Congressional fellowship to become an advocate for the rights of immigrants.